Canadian Rental Service

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TWO DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

There are bound to be certain similarities among rental stores. However, it’s often the differences that are most illuminating. Even when two stores are part of the same organization, they are bound to be different in some vital ways. These differences are often informed by location, customer base and other factors.


January 11, 2011
By Mike Davey

Topics

There are bound to be certain similarities among rental stores. However, it’s often the differences that are most illuminating. Even when two stores are part of the same organization, they are bound to be different in some vital ways. These differences are often informed by location, customer base and other factors.

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 Paul Tomblin is the manager of the rental division at the Home Hardware store in Wellesely, Ont. He started his career in the rental business with Stephenson’s.


 

Long-time readers of Canadian Rental Service will no doubt notice a difference in this issue’s cover story. Typically, we focus on one rental operation. In this case, we’re showcasing two different stores. Although both are participants in the Home Hardware Rentals program, and therefore have many things in common, there are a number of areas where they differ.

Todd Cressman is Home Hardware’s product manager for farm, rentals and construction. He has been involved with the Home Hardware Rentals program since 1999.

“The history goes right back to the Handy Rental Program, which was more or less self-run. It was much smaller than the full program we have now,” says Cressman. “That’s the way it was until about 1999, when Beaver Lumber was bought out by Home Hardware. At that time, Murray Cutler was put in charge of the rental program, and we started to formalize it.”

The formalization of the rental program also meant a formalization of rental training for Home Hardware. Canadian Rental Service spoke to two different graduates of that training program to get their perspectives on running a rental operation through the company’s auspices. Paul Tomblin is the manager of the rental division at the Home Hardware Building Centre in Wellesley, Ont. Mike Keizer is the owner/operator of a Home Hardware store in Smithville, Ont.

Paul Tomblin has been a rental professional for most of his adult life. After spending a number of years working in the construction industry, he enrolled at the University of Guelph, eventually obtaining a degree in history. Soon after graduation, he attended a job fair in Kitchener, Ont., where he met Tom Newell of Stephenson’s Rentals. Although Tomblin hadn’t worked in the rental business previously, he was aware of it through his work in construction.

To cut a long story short, he applied for a job with Stephenson’s Rentals, and started working for the company in February of 1998. It was a working relationship that lasted roughly 11 years, at which point Tomblin took his current position with Home Hardware.

It was definitely a shift in perspective for Tomblin. Stephenson’s Rentals is, naturally, very focused on the rental business. The Wellesley Home Hardware Building Centre, on the other hand, had never had a rental division of any kind before Tomblin started working there.

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 Jesse Brubacher works with Paul Tomblin. A machinist by trade, Jesse has a passion for both tools and design.


 

“It was my responsibility to get it started,” says Tomblin. “There were challenges in trying to fit the rental division within the larger aspect of the home improvement building centre, as it was never and very different from the other departments. The approach to sales and the customer is different, and I had to think about how the business reflects that. With rentals, you’re getting the tool back, and that means you need to have the support services to keep it up to standard. In one sense, I really needed to bridge that gap, and bring everything together under one roof.”

There are many points of similarity between an independent rental store and a Home Hardware Rental department. One obvious example is that both stores rent tools and equipment. However, there are differences as well.

“Since the larger Home Hardware structure is focused on retail sales, our information technology needs to be grafted into the regular system,” says Tomblin. “We can use rental-specific software for a lot of our day-to-day functions, but for taking payment, we still need to interface with Home Hardware software. That’s a step that standalone operators wouldn’t have to take.”

Although the Home Hardware Rentals program does recommend certain brands of equipment, individual operators do have the freedom to make their own choices. However, any equipment carried has to measure up to certain standards set by the program.

“The dealer has the freedom to choose a brand, but we do have recommended lines. The equipment has to meet certain standards, but within those guidelines there is freedom to choose. Part of the program training at Home Hardware involves expectations of product selection, and the awareness that anything you choose has to meet those expectations.”

Product selection is one area that Paul Tomblin definitely knows something about.

“When we started, I was responsible for purchasing, getting the right mix of tools together, and fitting them into the space I was allotted to work in,” says Tomblin. “Over time, we were able to expand that space by about 400 square feet. In our first few months, it was really all about understanding the opportunities that came with being in an existing home improvement centre. I put in a lot of time and effort in educating customers on the benefits of rental.”

Before establishing the Home Hardware Rental program in Wellesley, most of Tomblin’s career had been spent working in urban markets, such as Burlington and Mississauga. The move to a rural setting required a different approach to determine what customers wanted.

“One of the biggest differences is that contractors in more urban environments are used to using rental stores as tool sheds,” says Tomblin. “Most of the time, they’re close to a rental shop, so they just pick up stuff on their way to the jobsite. [Having a business dedicated to rentals] gives rental companies a chance to demonstrate reliability and convenience.”

However, contractors operating in more rural locales are not always used to the convenience of a local rental operation.

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 Mike Keizer is the owner/operator of a Home Hardware in Smithville, Ont. He got involved with rental a few years ago, after moving to a new location.


 

“Many of our local contractors have ‘tool shed trailers’ that they tow behind their truck. Highlighting the benefits of renting is sometimes an entirely new conversation for them, as they’ve never had to have it before. The renting option was never in front of them,” says Tomblin. “Because of our customer base, we’ve expanded what we do to include contractor tool sales. It’s really an extension of what rental stores everywhere do, in the sales of tool accessories like blades and drill bits. We also sell the tools themselves. Our sales are specialized in the high-end, contractor grade equipment. There’s also a place in Home Hardware for opening level and mid-grade tools, but that’s in the main store. We showcase the contractor grade.”

One challenge Tomblin faced when opening the new department was in making sure it could integrate across the larger organization. Although most (about 70 per cent) rental customers at Wellesley’s Home Hardware Building Centre are contractors, the rental centre has something to offer almost any customer.

“Early on, I held a seminar during a meeting we were having on cross-selling,” says Tomblin. “When a customer approaches any department, they should be pointed to a further department. If a customer says they’re renovating a bathroom, the first question should be, ‘To which departments does that apply?’ The existing staff have been very supportive in asking themselves, ‘What would this customer need from rental?”

Tomblin says that, within the store environment itself, there’s enthusiasm and a growing acceptance of the new department.

“People are often skeptical when anything is added or changed,” he says. “But we’re definitely part of the team, and we’re now part of the community. Since we opened, business has increased and traffic has increased. We see repeat customers and new customers every day.”

Mike Keizer brings a different perspective to a discussion of the Home Hardware Rentals program. Rather than a rental professional who joined Home Hardware, Keizer was involved with the company first, and became involved in rentals second. Keizer is the owner/operator a Home Hardware store in Smithville, Ont.

“In our old store, we did the occasional rental, when customers asked to rent a cut-off saw or a concrete breaker,” says Keizer. “When we moved into our new location in 2001, people were still asking for those. We also had a dead area in the store that wasn’t generating any income, and I thought the rental program might fit the bill.”

It was an idea that found success. Over the years the rental operation at Keizer’s store has grown significantly.

“It’s something that was an easy add-on,” says Keizer. “It’s grown steadily since we started. We’re up by 20 per cent this year compared to last year, so I would say it’s definitely going well.”

Keizer makes it clear that having a rental division can benefit a Home Hardware location, but also that certain concerns may prevent more dealers from becoming involved with the program.

“A lot of guys are concerned about things coming back broken or at least needing service, and not having the guys on hand for maintenance or repair,” says Keizer. “There are also challenges in determining how to grow that part of the business. What do I invest in next? Do I invest in aerial equipment, or larger excavators?”

Both Keizer and Tomblin are members of the Canadian Rental Association (CRA) through Home Hardware.

“We get all the benefits of that through Home Hardware,” says Keizer. “I’m heading out to The Rental Show in Vegas, and I go to the Canadian Rental Mart. I try to make it out to as many local events as I can.”

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 Dan Young is the main point of contact for many of the customers at Smithville Home Hardware’s rental counter.


 

CRA membership isn’t the only benefit available to participants in the Home Hardware Rentals program. For one thing, there’s the obvious advantage of being part of a large organization with a lot of buying power. For another, there’s a formal training program that tries to teach managers and dealers what they need to know to find success with rental.
There’s a lot that goes into that formalized training program. The instructors are Todd Cressman and Jeff Campbell of St. Thomas Rent-All. Campbell works as a consultant for the program, and is well known in the industry for his work with the CRA at both provincial and federal levels.

Numerous topics are covered during the training. The list of topics reads like a quick primer on what any rental operator should know. Standards, insurance, risk management, merchandising, procedures, fall arrest training and propane training are just some of the topics covered during the training. Numerous suppliers also attend to educate students on their particular product range.

Although comparatively few of the Home Hardware stores in Canada have a rental division, there is still some common ground between rental operators and Home Hardware dealers. Both groups are primarily composed of entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to take risks. As Todd Cressman puts it, “We have much in common with the independent rental companies because Home Hardware is 100 per cent dealer owned.”


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