The Absolute end
By Rob BlackstienFeatures Party and event Profiles
If fate were kind, it would have written a more fitting ending for The Absolute Group of Companies. After nearly two decades in business, the Toronto-based rental giant voluntarily ceased operations in April after co-owners Paul Kenyon and Henry Mahdi were unable to reach an amicable agreement to buy one another out.
A potential sale to a third party fell through, so Absolute opted to auction off all its assets in August, and even that turned into a SNAFU as the auction company’s software kept forcing delays.
All in all, it was a very inauspicious way to cap an 18-year run that included many high profile clients and an impressive record of successful events, platitudes and awards.
However, there were valuable industry lessons to be gleaned in both the way Absolute ascended into an empire and in its ultimate demise.
But first, a trip into the wayback machine to where it all began.
Sudbury native Kenyon studied “the unlikely subject of biology and psychology” at McMaster University in the mid-eighties – not exactly the expected background given his career path.
He endured a couple of false starts in careers that weren’t suited for him or ill-fated, but in 1989 – at the age of 26 – he was out of a job again and “I was living probably beyond my means,” he admits.
That’s when he was introduced to a TV commercial producer and got his start in that industry “at the bottom of the totem pole” as a production assistant – a position in which “you’re made to feel like pond scum quite a bit.”
Kenyon flashed potential and was elevated to progressively more responsible positions, from production coordinator to video post supervisor to producers assistant and then ultimately becoming a location manager.
It was this time that Kenyon had his light bulb moment. Commercial location managers tended to shoot the same locations over and over again; wouldn’t it be a great idea to put the ones used most often into a database to allow online scouting?
Kenyon approached Partners Film Company – Canada’s largest and oldest commercial production house.
“I pitched the idea of my sweat equity and their deep pockets and brand to put these locations online into a digital location archive,” he says.
In November 1997, Absolute Location Support Services was launched with a singular purpose: to build a database (the Digital Location Archive) to help producers, directors and location managers find locations online. By February, they’d blown through $250,000 of seed money they’d been given, so it was time to figure out a revenue stream.
There was a lot of service production work in Canada at the time, so they took the location-related assets that Partners owned, put them behind a locked door, and each individual TV commercial would have to rent it. Previously, had the production crew of, say, Fruit Loops, lost $5,000 worth of equipment, the Partners wound end up eating that cost.
“The business model that I proposed to them was such that if Fruit Loops lost $5,000 worth of gear, then Fruit Loops would pay for it and that would end up getting charged back to the American company that was in fact responsible for the loss,” Kenyon explains.
“It just sort of took off from there.”
That is, until the film industry in Toronto dried up in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak.
In the meantime, Absolute still had 35 full-time employees that it needed to find work for, “so therein the special event component of Absolute (Absolute Tent and Event Services) was born,” he says.
The other components of the Absolute Group of Companies included:
It’s My Potty: VIP portable restrooms;
Absolute Self Storage Solutions: large scale public storage; and
Absolute Furnished Suites: A short-lived venture that involved furnishing condos that were being sold to offshore interests.
Over the years, Absolute landed several high-profile projects such as Pride Toronto, the Toronto Independent Film Festival (TIFF) and the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. (TOAE) the largest and longest running juried art show in the country. . Kenyon’s status in the industry grew along with the business.
He chaired the Canadian Rental Association and was extremely active for the American Rental Association as well, earning plenty of hardware for his efforts (see sidebar, Absolute Timeline, for a list of his awards).
The secret to Absolute’s success was a very customer-centric approach based on the following philosophies:
Accept responsibility: “My employees all had a blank cheque to make the situation right,” Kenyon says. Unlike many companies that rebut fault, if Absolute made a mistake, they would own up to it. “If they said something was wrong, we did whatever we could to make it right.” That could mean sending out different equipment, or discounting fees or even swallowing the project cost. “That is what I think separated us from a lot of other companies – our willingness to do the right thing.”
The three-metre rule: Absolute employees were trained so that if they ever came within three metres of someone they didn’t know or recognize, whether in the office or on location, they were to introduce themselves and ask if there was something they can do for them.
No requests denied: “A film employee could call here at 3 o’clock in the morning and order a roast beef sandwich on rye and we won’t ask why or how or anything else,” Kenyon explains. “You go and you find him the roast beef sandwich on rye and you give it to him. The only thing that has to change is the price.”
In January 2012, Madhi – Kenyon’s long-time account – bought in as a minority shareholder to Absolute, bringing financial expertise that Kenyon did not have.
Later, Madhi believed Absolute had other opportunities to pursue but needed more capital to do so, so he told Kenyon he was prepared to invest that money in exchange for a 50-50 ownership split in which Kenyon would have veto power over all matters.
“I didn’t take that contract to a lawyer,” Kenyon laments. He says he found out the hard way that verbal commitments regarding control over a company are not worth the paper they are not printed on. Shortly thereafter, he realized how different his and Mahdi’s approaches to customers and employees were.
“He would always talk about commoditizing things, like that a hamburger in McDonald’s is the same in Toronto as it is in Tokyo as it is in Tel Aviv.” Kenyon says. “But we’re not serving hamburgers here. No two orders are the same, no two customers are the same, no two solutions are going to fit for the same customer requests. So you can’t commoditize it. Others, far bigger and better financed than us, have tried and failed.”
Kenyon acknowledges that every rental organization struggles in the ongoing balancing act that is the sales department’s promises to the customer and operations’ obligation to deliver. “In a perfect world, you’ve got a singular owner who can look at it from the perspective of what’s in the best interest of the customer and the company, and remove the personalities from it. In this case, all we did was escalate the problem. I was advocating on behalf of sales and Henry was advocating on behalf of operations. And we simply couldn’t agree.”
Kenyon’s advice based on what transpired: “Good contracts make for good friends and you don’t really know somebody until you’ve either travelled with them, eaten with them, slept with them or worked with them as a partner.”
Kenyon is going to wait until the auction has completed before contemplating his next move. He’s already had job offers from some international organizations, but having just turned 52, he says he’s “basically having my own mid-life crisis” so a move out of the industry altogether is not entirely out of the question.
It would be surprising, however.
After all, Kenyon is a man that lives and breathes the rental industry. At the auction preview, a young couple just starting out in the industry were seen vociferously thanking him for all the advice he had dispensed. As he turned and walked away, he wistfully talked about the next generation of rental industry people. There was pride in his voice as he happily seizes his role as a mentor giving back to an industry that’s always been more of a community to him.
If this is Kenyon’s final chapter in the rental industry, it’s clear he will be missed.
Highlights of Absolute’s nearly two decade history:
- November 1997: Absolute Location Support Services forms as an affiliate of Partner’s Film Company.
- January 1998: It’s My Potty opens for business.
- February 1998: Absolute opens its online Digital Location Archive (DLA) to serve the needs of film producers and location scouts searching for the perfect location in which to film.
- 1998: Moves out of Partners Film Company’s back room at 102 Berkeley Street into its own offices at 207 Eastern Ave.
- September 2002: First month with sales in excess of $500,000.
- April 2003: SARS outbreak hurts foreign commercial and film production industry in Canada.
- February 2004: Kai and Ariss – Kenyon’s ubiquitous Irish Setters – are born.
- Spring 2004: In response to the film industry downturn, Absolute expedites the launch of its special events division.
- 2004: Absolute lands its biggest client to date, Toronto Pride, providing beer gardens, theatrical spaces, stages, portable restrooms and pop-up tenting for the immense festival.
- 2005: Acquired IN-Tents Inc. and the replacement ‘event’ assets of a Western Canadian Acklands Granger rental store destroyed by fire; Kenyon wins his first CRA Person of the Year award. Absolute becomes a founding member of the Toronto film industry’s Green Screen initiative, an environmental cause.
- December 2005: Absolute Support Services Inc. is born.
- 2006: Kenyon again takes home CRA Person of the Year honours. He also wins the ARA Region 10 award.
- 2007: Kenyon wins his second straight ARA Region 10 award. He also is recognized by the Commercial Production Association of Toronto (CPAT) in the Honourary Member, Lifetime Achievement category, for having co-chaired the resurrection of the Association after several years of dormancy.
- Absolute moves to 185 Eastern Ave. and oversees its first of eight Woofstock Festivals, featuring more than 350 10’ x 10’ tents.
- October 2009: Absolute’s on-line Digital Location Archive (DLA) is rebranded as Absolute’s Film Location Finder after the Ontario chapter of the Directors Guild of Canada breathes new life into the database used by most every location manager in the GTA.
- May 2011: Finished buyout of Partners Film Company interest, making Absolute a completely independent entity.
- September 2011: The company moves to its final location on New Toronto Street and Absolute Self Storage Solutions begins operations.
- January 2012: Henry Madhi buys in as minority shareholder of Absolute.
- 2015: Kenyon earns third CRA Person of the Year award. ARA recognizes Kenyon with the prestigious Outstanding Leadership Award for his work to further improve CRA/ARA coordination.
- April 17, 2015: Absolute voluntarily ceased operations.
- April 30, 2015: It’s My Potty sold to Ampot Portable Toilets.
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