Canadian Rental Service

Features Profiles
Taking flight

Darren Kershaw is a bubbling pot of ideas. One wonders how he ever sat still long enough to pilot an aircraft in his days as a pilot for the former Canadian Airlines. Then again, maybe all that time looking out into the bright blue sky gave him an opportunity for deep thinking.


March 31, 2014
By Patrick Flannery


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Darren Kershaw is a bubbling pot of ideas. One wonders how he ever sat still long enough to pilot an aircraft in his days as a pilot for the former Canadian Airlines. Then again, maybe all that time looking out into the bright blue sky gave him an opportunity for deep thinking.

Special Event Rentals  
Kershaw says Special Event Rentals was one of the first to introduce clearspan tents to the Alberta market. Clearspan allows event planners to create dramatic indoor environments because they do not require internal roof supports. 


 

In any event, one gets the sense speaking to Kershaw that he has thought hard about every aspect of Special Event Rentals, the four-location Alberta party rental chain he co-owns with Neil Goodkey. The company has an amazing track record of trying new things and going in creative directions. Lately, all that energy has paid off with impressive growth, and national recognition with Canadian Rental Service’s ROOTY award.

Kershaw joined the company in 2003 and the influx of energy was like a wire touching a battery. Goodkey provided the established brand and rental industry know-how; Kershaw brought the adventurous spirit and creativity. In the 12 years since he became involved, Special Event Rentals has gone from 60 employees with in a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Edmonton to four locations across Alberta (Calgary, Banff and Red Deer in addition to Edmonton) with 220 employees and 100,000 square feet of warehouse space. Kershaw estimates the company has averaged 20-30 per cent revenue growth per year since then, and now buys $1 million of new inventory each year to rent or sell. Kershaw acknowledges that a strong synergy of talents on the executive team has driven their success. Min Wang, vice-president of administration, is structured and detail-oriented and watches every nickel. Thomas Pollard, the vice-president of operations, delights in finding solutions in shipping, logistics, purchasing and IT that others miss. Goodkey is methodical and careful, bringing his years of experience to bear before deciding on any course of action.

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Goodkey started Special Event Rentals in his garage in Edmonton 27 years ago with a single popcorn machine. He followed demand into the pipe-and-drape business, providing display services to area trade shows and festivals. Marketing consisted of a Yellow Pages ad. After five years he was able to move into his own location on 99th Street, where the Edmonton headquarters is still. In 1991, Goodkey showed his willingness to try new things by opening a retail division to the business called Edmonton Wedding and Party Centre. Here, brides could buy a wide selection of needed items for weddings, then go next door to rent larger ticket items. Kershaw says the retail operation has been more important as a driver for the rental business than as a source of revenue for the company, but does run in the black and has now stood as an Edmonton institution for 23 years. Event retail is a tough business, Kershaw says. “The retail sector has got a huge squeeze from online companies that have the 80,000-square-foot warehouse and you order from them and they ship it,” he explains. “Why get out of your bed?”

Operator Of The Year  
Kershaw accepted the national Rental Operator Of The Year (ROOTY) award on behalf of the Special Event Rentals at the Canadian Rental Mart. Sponsor Doosan chipped in with a $1,000  gift certificate to go toward a team celebration. 


 

An experiment with event planning was also launched in 1997, and a planner remains on staff at the Edmonton office, but Kershaw says Special Event Rentals has stayed away from that business in its other locations. This might seem like a strange choice given the surge in interest in creative weddings and other events, but Kershaw says staying away from planning makes good business sense for Special Event Rentals. Combining planning and event supplies is “a dying model,” he says. “We have slowly gotten rid of all our in-house wedding planners because you want the wedding planners that are out there to bring their customers to you. You want to service the wedding planner market because that is a big return client while the wedding couple themselves are a one-time source of revenue. If you service the wedding planners and event planners themselves, they will come to you every month, every week.” This kind of careful thinking about opportunity and direction seems to characterize everything Kershaw does.

Kershaw’s involvement with Special Event Rentals started after his previous career as an airline pilot came to an end. Kershaw flew for the now-defunct Canadian Airlines, and saw his seniority vanish when that carrier went out of business and he was forced to take a job with Air Canada. He had always had an entrepreneurial streak and started to look around for opportunities to go out on his own. He had read about the high rate of business failures, but also read that that rate falls dramatically when the new business is formed as part of a partnership or alliance with an established partner. So when his opening came in the form of the bankruptcy of Calgary’s Fiesta Party Rentals, Kershaw didn’t act on his own but approached Goodkey. “When I look back now, we always laugh,” Kershaw says. “He just thought he saw something and thought he believed in me. So we started.”

Darren Kershaw  
Darren Kershaw bought into Special Event Rentals in 2003 by opening a Calgary location. Kershaw is a former Canadian Airlines pilot who went looking for other opportunities when that carrier went out of business.


 

Innovating and looking for new opportunities is the strategy that fuels Special Event Rentals. The company was one of the first to build and rent luxury washroom trailers in Alberta. The simple idea of putting portable toilets on flatbed trailers so they can be easily hauled to remote jobsites then returned has proved so popular that equipment and event rental companies across the country are adding them to their fleets in droves. Many companies put their own spin on the product, adding generators, light towers or other kinds of equipment, and Special Event Rentals is no different. It now carries luxury washroom trailers with granite counters, air conditioning, a sound system, TV, woodgrain floor, touchless faucets and well sinks. Kershaw and Goodkey have gone a step farther and are developing a “Green Room” trailer for movie sets with all the amenities of the luxury trailer, with office space, a lounge and showers added.

Special Event Rentals also broke new ground in being the first to offer clearspan tents in Alberta. Manufactured by Special Event Sales (the company’s resale division), the clearspan truss system is capable of supporting very large structures with no internal support beams. As demand for larger and larger temporary shelters grows, and corporate events in Alberta get bigger and bigger, Special Event Rentals has been able to keep up with customer demands with this high-end product.

Innovation doesn’t stop with Special Event Rentals’ rental products. Kershaw thinks hard about how the business is run, and embraces new technology to improve logistics wherever he finds it. Led by Pollard, the company has integrated its functions to a high degree using Point-Of-Rental software for fleet tracking and inventory management. It is a matter of small savings in time and money adding up to big advantages. Kershaw uses the example of order changes. Many event customers place orders well in advance, say a month, then come in with last minute changes right before the order ships. Before integrating the shipping and order systems electronically, those changes might have been missed because the order came in after the back room had already prepared it for shipping. Now, an automated alert prevents anything from leaving when a change has been made to the order.

This past March, at the Canadian Rental Mart, Special Event Rentals got some payback for its years of growth and hard work with a national award. Beating out other nominees from across the country in a judged competition, Kershaw was presented with the ROOTY award on the show floor along with a $1,000 gift certificate from the sponsor, Doosan, to help celebrate the win.