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At the relatively young age of 36, James Morden has taken over Rentshop, his father, Paul’s, thriving rental operation in Alliston, Ont. Rentshop is going strong thanks to its established position in the community and the steady leadership of Morden and longtime employees Janet Pacini and Ken Laver. But Morden has his sights set on an even loftier goal.


July 17, 2012
By Patrick Flannery


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At the relatively young age of 36, James Morden has taken over Rentshop, his father, Paul’s, thriving rental operation in Alliston, Ont. Rentshop is going strong thanks to its established position in the community and the steady leadership of Morden and longtime employees Janet Pacini and Ken Laver. But Morden has his sights set on an even loftier goal.

james 
Through hard work and dedication to the association, Morden has landed some of the industry’s most prestigious awards, including the 2010 CRA Rental Person of the Year award seen here.


 

Rentshop occupies about an acre of land right off Highway 89 on the way into Alliston from the 400, the main route south to Toronto. It is an Echo dealership as well as an Air Liquide distributor. Morden services such brands as Ariens, Husqvarna, MTD and Bobcat, renting landscaping and light construction equipment to local homeowners and small contractors. He is a repair depot for MTD, as well. Rentshop is also a fully accredited industrial gas and welding supply shop, James’ father, Paul Morden, started the company 27 years ago, hitting the timing right on the head as Honda opened its Alliston car assembly plant the very next year. Today, the $2.6 billion plant produces seven Honda models, including the Civic, and Alliston has more than doubled in size. Renting equipment to the Honda construction effort was a major source of growth in the company’s early years, and providing gas and welding supplies has been a steady source of revenue ever since.

Rentshop employs five full-time staff and three part timers in the summer. It serves an area of about 30 kilometres around Alliston, which is a community of 11,000 about an hour’s drive north of Toronto. Counting the surrounding area, Morden figures Rentshop serves about 50,000 people. Morden is alone in the rental business in Alliston itself, which has allowed him and his father to establish a great position in the market. But threats still exist. “Fifteen years ago, Alliston was much smaller and everything was word-of-mouth,” Morden says, explaining his approach to the local market.

“Now the town is twice the size and there is less awareness of who we are and what we do. Plus, there are seven big shops in Barrie, including the national chains, so we aren’t immune to competition any more.” In response, Morden has worked hard to maintain Rentshop’s profile in the community. He has a large billboard on the outskirts of town. He is something of a social media guru, and uses Facebook, Twitter and other social media to keep the store top of mind.

Working in the community
Sponsorships and community involvement are also a big part of Morden’s promotional strategy. One thing he is particularly proud of is the company’s 20-year history of sponsoring an award for the student at the local high school who graduates with the highest marks in welding. The Gas Shop Welding award gives the winning student a welding starter kit Morden calls Top Of The Class that includes a jacket, a welding helmet, respiratory protection and other safety gear, all in a convenient package.

Rentshop also helped out the Canadian Rental Association’s promotional efforts by donating equipment to Bryan Baeumler’s House of Bryan II shoot in the cottage country nearby. Morden’s aerial lifts had to be driven in on a flatbed on roads you could barely get the truck down, then loaded from a sandy beach onto a barge and rafted out to the build site. The cost, and risk to the equipment, was considerable, but Morden was willing to go there in order to get the benefit to his shop and the association.

There is a good reason why community participation and active involvement in associations are part of Morden’s strategy. Morden took over Rentshop in 2006 after graduating with a political science degree from Wilfrid Laurier University. Asked how he decided to get into the family business, he says, “I fought it for quite a while. I went to university and when I came out in 2001, it didn’t seem as bad as it did before. Plus, I am interested in politics and what better way to get involved in the business community is there than to run this shop?”

Association ambitions
Morden’s interest in politics is evident from his track record at the CRA. It seems as if he is everywhere, and not just because of the infamous cardboard cutouts known as Flat James. Morden has already risen through the chairs of the Ontario local and is now chairman of the provincial association. He is also the national director for Ontario and sits on a number of national commitees. He oversees the CRA’s social media and online strategies. His work and friendships in the association have already won him the Ontario Rental Professional of the Year award in 2005, the CRA’s Rental Person of the Year award for 2010, and Rentshop the Region 10 Award from the American Rental Association. Morden makes no secret of his goal to one day be elected the national CRA president.

powerwash 
Rentshop carries a full line of light construction and landscaping equipment for small contractors and homeowners. But it has also claimed a niche in supplying welding gas and supplies to local industry.


 

About the association, Morden says there is developmental work to be done, but things are going in the right direction. He says the reformed committee structure is allowing the executive group to “divide and conquer,” and gives members more long-term interest in the association’s activities. “The association is on a good track right now,” he says. “Each committee chair is in charge of something he really likes and is interested in.” Morden is proud of his work in the associations to encourage more young rental operators to get involved and to increase the CRA’s digital profile.

Thinking about issues facing the rental industry today, Morden worries that 2012 may not turn out to be the bullish year of growth that many Canadian rental operators were hoping for. “We all thought the rental industry was going to go great guns this year, but it has been slower. We expected better,” he says. “The year started out strong with the warm March, and May was actually really good, but June has been slower.” Morden has quite a bit of iron in the yard right now, and hopes things will get moving again soon.

He would like to see the CRA work closely with other associations to help rental operators with complicated regulatory requirements, such as those facing propane distributors. He says there was a tough time of playing catch-up when the Technical Standards and Safety Authority tightened regulations in the wake of the Sunrise Propane explosion in Toronto in 2008, and even now that the adjustments have been made, his propane operation faces increased costs. The licensing costs for larger tanks are so high that most operators try to stay below a certain size, but that choice means more visits from the gas truck and more trips to jobsites to meet customer demand. He does not think the CRA should get involved in training directly, but could collaborate to have third-party training available to rental operators.

Linked up online
Morden has made a reputation for himself around the industry as something of a social media guru. He is active on the CRA Facebook and Twitter accounts, and frequently posts updates about Rentshop, as well. He is excited about the possibilities of mobile technology for marketing and selling at the store level, talking enthusiastically about “augmented reality” in the form of print ads and store displays that come to life as video when scanned with a phone or tablet. When it comes to communication and interaction, there is no such thing as too much as far as Morden is concerned.

Rentshop’s ambitious president can think big because he has such experienced hands guiding the day-to-day activities of the shop. Pacini joined Morden’s father two weeks after he first opened in 1985 and handles all the internal paperwork and office management. Laver, the store’s mechanic, has been there almost as long. Together, they give customers a comfortable experience. “We want to be professional, but at the same time guys should have that feeling that they are standing in a friend’s garage,” Morden explains. “I like to stand here and talk to customers about the equipment rather than try really hard to sell them something. That is how I like to be sold.”

For the future, Morden is eying a run for provincial or even federal office. But for now, both Rentshop and the Canadian rental industry get to benefit from the talents of this natural leader and communicator.


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