By Elinor Humphries and Patrick Flannery
“We welcome all inquiries whether they have anything to do with us directly, or not,” explains Ken Malott, vice president of Kensal Rental Service Ltd. “If you help someone out, they remember you and that’s good for future business.”
By Elinor Humphries and Patrick Flannery
When Kensal Rental opened for business, Kensal Park was a village with three gas stations, a church and a couple hot dog stands. Forty years later Kensal Park is part of the city of London and Kendal Rental is on a busy throughfare. With its humble beginnings in Mel Malott’s (Ken’s father) garage it moved to a 40ftx40ft building at the present location in 1963. The building was expanded to 40ft x 80ft in 1965, doubled again with the addition of a full second storey in 1967 and, in 1970, a 40ft x 35ft, two storey extension was added.
Ken says he was “born” into the business working summers while he was in school. “A lot of things have changed through the years,” says Ken. “Years ago people used to purchase the equipment where they could get it serviced. In the early ‘80s people started shopping for the lowest price – but they still bring it here to get repaired.” About 30 percent of the business is in lawn and garden parts
Kensal Rental serves the construction trade and homeowners. “We have many regular customers,” says Ken. “I know a lot by their first names and I used to go to school with some of them.”
“It’s getting harder and harder to get good people. There is a particular shortage of small engine mechanics,” explains Ken. But when asked what makes employees stay at Kensal Rental some as long as twenty years, he said. “We offer a fair wage, good benefits and I guess I’m a flexible employer. If someone needs an afternoon off that’s fine as long as they make up the time. And no two days are ever the same,” he adds.
New employees get hands-on experience from day one. “They have to like helping customers solve problems because that’s a big part of the job, but they don’t fly alone. Senior employees and I are there to guide them through it,” explains Ken. After a period of time, Ken can see what aspect of the business best suits the new person. “For example, if they are really good with customers, I’d probably put them
“We have two schools of thought when it comes to repair,” says Ken Malott. “On the rental side we do preventative maintenance. We want the equipment to be in the best condition when it goes out on rental, so we don’t wait for something to break down.
For the lawn and garden repair – it’s the customer’s money, so we don’t do unnecessary repairs. We believe in preventative maintenance and promote a winter service program.
For Kensal Rental, the last 26 years since the original story was published has been characterized by extraordinary stability. Owner Ken Mallott is still in the store every day, working behind the counter to rent mostly small equipment to homeowners and small contractors.
He still carries the Stihl line, which Kensal picked up in 1990, and Toro lawn care equipment. Employees have come and gone, some on to greater things (one ex-Kensal employee is now vice-president of a major machinery manufacturer), but the store clips along in a fashion mostly unchanged since its inception in the 1950s. “It’s funny,” Mallott comments, “but if you read the article from 1990, not much has changed. Our principles and the way we do business is mostly the same.”
Scag power equipment was one addition to Kensal’s fleet in the past 20 years. Mallott says the quality of their commercial lawn care machinery made it an obvious choice. Mallott does try to add one or two new things every year and to replace worn-out items.
Kensal does now go farther afield geographically than it used to, picking up rentals as far away as St. Thomas, Woodstock and Strathroy.
The names of the customers have changed, but not the challenges. Some of them still don’t want to pay for keeping the equipment through Sunday even though they didn’t pay the weekend rate. One change has been from the internet. Mallott says customers today tend arrive with a very strong idea of what they want to rent, having researched what they need online. “We are finding the customers know exactly what they want when they walk in,” he says. “The problem is, they don’t know what they want.” Reading a web page is no substitution for experience in using different kinds of equipment, Mallott says. Often, he and his staff know that something the customer is asking for will not work well for the job they have, but they have difficulty persuading them otherwise when their minds are made up. “We tell them we have been renting this equipment for 40 or 50 years and we know what it can do and it won’t do what you want, but they insist so we rent it to them anyway and when the bring it back we say ‘We told you so.’ Experience is the best teacher out there.”
After 50 years in business, Kensal is one of the few independent rental stores left in the London, Ont., area. Mallott attributes their longevity to carrying smaller equipment that larger chains are not interested in renting as well as niche products. An example is carpet dryers. Mallott has 42 of them. He doubts anyone else in the area carries them at all, much less a fleet of 42. He got a call recently from a customer looking to reserve a rental of an 18-inch power sod cutter because he assumes Kensal would only have one of them. Mallott has eight. Another secret to his success is his willingness to go the extra mile to fulfill special requests. Kensal has eight heavy-duty garden hoses out on rent because a customer had a unique project. Mallot only had five in stock when the customer came in, but he went out and bought more rather than turn the person away.
Daily rentals remain Kensal’s bread and butter. They charge more for them than the big stores, Mallott says, but by making it easy and convenient for customers to get the equipment right away and for the time frame they want, they can still compete. “The big guys come in here and they just walk out,” Mallot says without regret. “I’m not going to rent to the Ellis Don’s and the big contractors of the world. But I will rent to the homeowner.”
One change from decades ago is in the technology and engineering that goes into the equipment. “The equipment is far superior to what it ever was,” Mallott says. “Really it is. We finally found electric hammers that can stay together. In the past, it didn’t matter what you bought, they’d shake apart. For years you’d send them out and they’d bring them back and you’d have to tighten all the nuts and bolts. Chainsaws. Now they have electronic smart computers on board that set the gas and oil mix. We rarely, rarely ever anymore have to adjust a carburetor.” The “idiot-proofing” has been a huge benefit, saving hours of time getting equipment ready to rent again.
Mallott thinks about retirement when the weather gets too hot to work comfortably, but doesn’t know where the next generation of owners at Kensal Rental might come from. He sees no willingness in the younger generation to put in the six- and seven-day weeks required to own a business. So for now, Kensal Rentals will keep going strong, much as it has done for as long as most of us can remember.