The Ant Goes Marching – Ant Equipment Rentals, Burnaby, B.C.
By Treena HeinFeatures Profiles
Ant Equipment Rentals is a fresh face in Lower Mainland B.C.
If you’ve ever had the privilege of personally observing a colony of leaf-cutter ants in the tropics, you have witnessed the very definition of coordinated, unending effort.
Ants, honeybees and a few other insects work tirelessly together to ensure the entire colony thrives. This is the philosophy behind Ant Equipment Rentals in Burnaby, B.C., a brand new rental business opened by Bo Zhou in July 2023. Zhou, a 30-year veteran of the mining sector in Canada and beyond, chose the name because it’s catchy – and because “ants all work together and they work hard.”
The area around Burnaby and Vancouver is one of the two most competitive regions in Canada for rental businesses (the other one being around Toronto). There are about two dozen outlets in the vicinity and it might seem at first glance that opening another one might not be the best idea. But of course, that’s not the view of Zhou and Ant general manager, Mike Langston. “Infrastructure is booming and equipment shortages are common,” says Langston. “Bo knows the area well as he’s lived in west Vancouver for many years and he also has a vast contact network from his career. Still, he hired a market research company and they confirmed the market is not crowded. As of October, 80 per cent of our equipment was already deployed. We had 25 telehandlers when we first opened and they were all out for rental within two weeks. There is a lot of building and road construction happening in the lower mainland.”
Langston adds that the market research company found that the lower B.C. mainland rental market size is $785 million in annual revenue, and he notes that even if a company can capture one per cent of that, it will be successful. But how to ensure that success out of the gate?
Lots of items, all new
One of the ways Ant is different than other rental houses is its equipment. In its three-acre yard, Ant offers a lot of it – about 275 lifts, 45 telehandlers, various types of earth-moving equipment, forklifts and more. The smallest item is a 500-pound plate tamper.
With that selection, Langston and Zhou think they have B.C.’s largest independent rental outlet. But inventory size is not Ant’s only equipment differentiator. “Everything is brand new,” says Langston. “We had some discussions about this but Bo felt it was the best course of action. Most of the firms in the Vancouver area have a mixture of newly purchased, older and pre-owned equipment and he wanted to go all-new. We will only be adding brand new equipment in future. We have equipment already on order and we’re in the process of ordering more.”
“Our customers, mostly civil contractors, like having new equipment,” says Langston. “But it also means that I can send it far away and not worry about it breaking down. I’ve already sent some to Dawson Creek, the Kootenays, all over the lower mainland. No issues so far.”
You may have guessed that initial equipment orders started long ago, about two years ago in fact, and have arrived slowly due to the pandemic. Ant’s launch occurred this past summer when the bulk of it had finally arrived. (Ant also boasts one of the largest parts inventories in western Canada.)
Zhou had also noted in running his other businesses that although XCMG is the third-largest manufacturing equipment company in the world, it had no aerial penetration in B.C. He contacted them about this, and Langston says, “We basically partnered with them to launch their aerial division here in the lower mainland. XCMG makes up 40 to 50 per cent of our lift equipment. It’s very high quality and has a phenomenal warranty, three years in some cases.”
To market his new rental business with its all-new equipment, Zhou hired a branding company long before Ant opened. “Bo prides himself on marketing,” says Langston. “A lot of guys in rental don’t do a lot of marketing, they go for a door-to-door and boots-on-the-ground approach, but Bo places an importance on it. He’s been meticulous in looking at various logo options and we have the logo on all our equipment and trucks. We have a full-time person doing website updates constantly and social media. It seems like marketing is a little thing but it’s not little. The name, the logo, it’s catchy and establishes you as a serious company. You can easily see our gear on site, which is marketing in itself.”
Ant also works very, very closely with the other large rental companies on reciprocal rentals when the situation calls for it. “I already worked with them for years in previous positions and I’ve made many contacts over the years,” says Langston. “I let them know that I will send customers to them that we can’t provide for and, with the shortage of equipment on the market, it’s appreciated. Hopefully I’ll get calls from everyone in return. We can all work together and be profitable and achieve our goals and meet customer needs.”
Speaking of Langston’s career, he’s been in rentals for about 25 years and radio before that. He ran two stations and was also a broadcaster, but he wanted a better future financially for his young family (he married his high school sweetheart and had two young children) than radio could provide. One of his colleagues was a sales manager for a company that advertised on Langston’s station, and suggested he try doing sales in rentals. He liked it very much and found his previous experience was a good fit.
“As corny as it sounds, I was known as Magic and then Magic Mike on the afternoon radio show, not because I was good at exotic dancing but I would provide magic as a radio announcer,” Langston says. “I could interact with all kinds of listeners, so it was easy to then interact with all kinds of people in the rental business. I’ve never looked back. Rentals have been a very good match for my skill set. I always tried to provide magical customer service. One of the rental businesses I used to work for actually put ‘Magic Mike’ on my card and people never forgot my name. But now, people call me the Ant Man!”
Langston has also enjoyed being at several start-up rental businesses in the area, so he had that experience to apply in starting up Ant. “It’s full of challenge to set the foundation for a company to grow and succeed,” he says. “The foundation is culture. We spend more time at work than anywhere else, and you need to create a workplace where people are happy and satisfied. We also pay very, very well. At any start-up, it’s chaos for a while, even with good systems in place, but you and your team will get there. The door is always open for my staff to come to me and everyone is approachable, and everyone has a voice.”
Over his 25 years of being in the rental industry, Langston pinpoints a few other lessons. Don’t sell on price, sell value and service, he says. That pays off in the long run. Also, be patient. The revenue will come, but it takes a bit of time. Know your goals and you’ll get there.
He’s also learned some personal lessons. “Don’t work too much,” he says. “You don’t need to work seven days a week to get ahead, to grow a start up. Just work hard at work and always be learning. Your business will be a success.”
Speaking of success, Ant already has plans to expand to second province in the spring. “I can’t say which one,” says Langston, “but stay tuned.”
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