Canadian Rental Service

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Top of the line

Married for 34 years, rental operators George and Diane Crawshaw celebrate their wedding anniversary this month. But as they toast to this milestone, they will also be thinking about their next significant anniversary. Six months from now, the couple will also celebrate 23 years as business partners and owners of Top Line Rentals Inc. in Amherst, Nova Scotia.


October 29, 2008
By Chris Skalkos

Topics

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George and Diane Crawshaw are the owners and operators of Top Line Rentals in Amherst, Nova Scotia.
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Top Line Rentals is located in Amherst, Nova Scotia, approximately 200 kilometers northwest of Halifax and three kilometers from the New Brunswick border, with a population of 9500 people.
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After working out of their home garage for 16 years, the Crawshaws
moved into a 2500 square foot building that sits on one acre of land
with a 40 by 60 foot warehouse to run their rental operation.
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Diane Crawshaw utilizes her previous experience working with financial institutions to look after the company’s books and other administrative functions.
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George Crawshaw worked as a structural steel draftsman for 18 years before spotting a niche market for rentals in his local community.
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 Top Line Rentals is a full line Milwaukee Electric Tool distributor, retail sales and service centre, stocking a wide variety of tools and parts.

Top of the line

Married for 34 years, rental operators George and Diane Crawshaw celebrate their wedding anniversary
this month. But as they toast to this milestone, they will also be
thinking about their next significant anniversary. Six months from now,
the couple will also celebrate 23 years as business partners and owners
of Top Line Rentals Inc. in Amherst, Nova Scotia.

George and Diane have much to be proud of. They place their marriage
and raising two sons, who are now pursuing professional careers, as
their greatest accomplishments. They are just as proud of their
business, nurturing it from a home grown operation to a successful
stand alone equipment sales and rental store guided by the philosophy
of offering nothing but top of the line products.

It takes a leap of faith to leave established careers to start a new business in a relatively unknown
industry, but that is what the couple decided to do in January 1986
when George, who had been working as a structural steel draftsman for
18 years, wanted a change. He was supported by Diane who worked for
various financial institutions and thought they could combine their expertise in an entrepreneurial venture.

The idea of getting into the rental industry first came up when George
needed to source some equipment for his previous employer and realized
Amherst did not have a rental store. “When I asked about renting,
somebody mentioned that to get good equipment you had to drive a long
way because the nearest rental store was in Sackville, New Brunswick.”
And when George and Diane asked the people around their own community, they both heard the same thing. “People
kept saying they can’t find good tools in Amherst.”

George went to a Canadian Rental Association (CRA) meeting in Truro, Nova Scotia, where he met some seasoned rental operators willing to share their knowledge about the
rental industry. “I spoke to other rental people who suggested that I
go to regular association meetings to learn more. I heard the rental industry was a
good business although it could be a tough business,” he says.

They were both up for the challenge. “We formed the idea at the kitchen
table, cleaned out our two car garage and started a rental company,”
says Diane. “There were so many things that were lined up. We didn’t
have a lot of money, but we didn’t owe any money either,” she says. “We
started with a company pension plan and cashed in our savings, so we
started at ground zero.”

George recalls they first sought professional advice stipulating that they did not want to take out a
business loan. “We saw too many companies in this area start out with a
big loan and six months later they were out of business. We sat down
with a business advisor and told him we didn’t want to borrow any
money. After he stopped laughing, he said that was the way you started
a business in the 1960s. So we spoke to another financial advisor who
said we can make it work if we are confident of our capabilities.”

With only $20,000 in start up money, they knew they had to make every dollar count for their initial equipment purchases, so they decided to buy nothing but reputable brand names. “This is how we came up with the company name. We didn’t want to use anything but top of the line products so we named it Top Line Rentals Inc.

“We visited a distributor in New Brunswick to see what they had in good
quality tools that were durable enough for renting. I looked at the
Milwaukee tools on the shelf and they said they don’t sell a lot of
them because it’s a high end product line,” says George. He put his
faith behind the Milwaukee Electric Tool product line and says he has
never looked back.

“My first love was a Milwaukee,” he openly admits in front of his wife
with a chuckle. “I can remember the serial number from the first tool I
bought. I still have it, along with the other tools we originally
rented. I didn’t want to buy tools that break down,” he says. The company became a Milwaukee sub-dealer, a dealer, a direct dealer and finally, a full distributor and service centre in 2004.

“It’s unusual to do sales, service and rentals but because we are such
a long way from other service centres, we were allowed to do this. At
the time, we were the only ones doing all three under one roof for
Milwaukee. It has made our business grow,” says George.

However, convincing his market that renting was a viable concept was another matter. “In this area,
people like to buy everything. That’s just the way things have been
done,” says Diane, explaining how firmly entrenched the ownership
mentality was.

“I remember opening day. We put ads in the paper but we didn’t have any customers on that first day.
The first 12 months was scary,” she says, adding that they were working
part-time jobs during evenings to supplement their income. Their very
first customer turned out to be a bad debt for a $15 rental. Undaunted,
they kept going.

George started to make sales calls to individual companies in industrial parks, at construction sites and in factories. “As it turns out, each one of them are customers now. That
only took 21 years. It’s funny looking back at it now, but it wasn’t
back then,” he says.

“Originally, we said we were only planning to test the market for a
year to see if it would work in our area, but the thing is we were more
committed than we thought we were,” says Diane.

Slowly they built up a clientele and even got into party rental
products for a time. “We had the biggest mirror ball this side of
Halifax,” says Diane. “I was doing about 50 weddings per summer,” she
says, adding that it was time consuming and found that she was doing a lot of consulting at no charge.

When the company moved to its present location six years ago they decided to discontinue the party
rentals although they still do a few select events for corporate
customers. This has allowed them to focus on the rental operation and
the growing retail sales associated with their Milwaukee line.

“Equipment rentals took off since we moved here and business has
tripled over the last five years,” says George. “Our customers like
this location because it is in town.” The 2500 square foot building
sits on one acre of land with a 30 by 60 foot warehouse. The showroom,
which takes up a majority of the first floor around the rental counter,
is what George and Diane cherish the most.

“I have always wanted to have a real store. I believe if you want to
sell or rent shiny new equipment, you need a nice place to show it. It
was hard seeing good equipment sitting in a dark and dingy room,” says
George, while Diane points out the practical benefit of the much needed
space. “Some people who come in don’t care. They just want to know if
we have the tools they need. The showroom is mostly for us. It makes everything easier. Most of our
customers don’t know what they want but now they can step back and
look,” she says. The basement in the building is stocked wall to wall
with shelves of fasteners, machine screws, stainless products, threaded
rods and general consumables related to specialty hardware.

Two years after they opened in their new building, however, another
company west of Halifax started a competitive equipment sales and
rental store with discounted rates. “So after everything we went
through to get this far, now we are faced with a price war,” says
George.

“We refused to cut our rates,” says Diane. “People would come in and
say the other rental store is offering it for less so George would tell
them ‘then that’s the place to go’. Our main advantage was that our
equipment was already paid for,” she says, although the competition was
short lived when this competitor was purchased by a larger company.
“Another rental company moved into the area to take advantage of the
pipeline work nearby. We weren’t interested in chasing that kind of
business. We were focused on local customers.”

“The big rental companies are looking for products that move quickly,
but the market is not big enough for that,” adds George. “We don’t have
a scissorlift because the tires would rot before we could pay it off.”

In keeping with the company’s strategy of adhering to quality products, it has chosen its suppliers
based on the same values, as well as their ability to provide product
support. They include: Husqvarna, Jet Equipment & Tools, Multiquip,
Flexovit, Uniquip, Subaru-Robin, Rentquip, Wolseley Industrial Products
Group, Phoenix Fasteners and Stellar Industrial Sales.

In addition to offering quality products, the Crawshaws say that it is the personal customer service
that helps build customer loyalties. “We are hands on, we work here
every day so we know our customers, we recognize their faces and
remember their names,” says Diane. “It’s a personal approach we take
with customers,” she adds. “We don’t have to take requests to a
manager; we can make decisions on the spot because we are the owners.
We are the first people they see and we are also at the end of the
line. The buck stops with us.”

George says the service he provides does not stop once customers walk
out the door. “If customers buy a Milwaukee tool, we can also fix it
and we will always have the part for it. The warranty and service
back-up helps convince them that picking a quality tool has benefits,”
says George. “They are buying more than a product, they are buying the
support that goes with it.”

He adds that the company does not charge labour to repair a tool that is past warranty. “We offer an in-house extended labour warranty to assure customers that if they buy good
equipment they won’t be left in a lurch. That helps to build confidence
in the equipment and it also helps us to sell high end tools.”

Today, the customer base of Top Line Rentals is made up of contractors,
50 percent, 30 percent industrial clients while 20 percent are
homeowners. Although the company is a dedicated rental house by name,
it has carved out a lucrative niche as a retail store with sales
revenue exceeding rental revenue by a ratio of 75:25. “Renting has
almost become a sideline,” says George.

After 22 years in the industry, the couple is taking the first steps towards retirement. “We are at the age
where we are starting to think about it. You can’t sell a business in
just one day. You have to plan for it,” says Diane. “It’s easy to get
into this business but it’s not so easy getting out. You need to find a real estate evaluator, a lawyer
and an accountant before you look for a buyer. You just can’t put a
‘for sale’ sign out front,” she says.

“We hope to have a buyer within the next few years. I would love to see somebody take this business over and carry it on,” says George, who is quick to credit his wife for the success of their business.

“She did the bookkeeping and chased the money which left me free to
focus on the customers,” he says. “And he is good at that,” adds Diane.
“Talking with them on the showroom floor, he plays the good cop and I
play the bad cop because I do collection.”

“We couldn’t afford to leave each other,” jokes George.

So as the Crawshaws lift their wine glasses during their anniversary dinner on a warm June evening, they will be toasting to their marriage, to their children and most certainly, to their business.


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