Rental store reports
What We Did in the Pandemic
By Andrew Snook
Canadian rental stores share their stories.
By Andrew Snook
There has been no global event in two generations that has frozen much of the world the way the COVID-19 pandemic is right now.
The world’s leading health care professionals, politicians and economists are in a constant battle to learn any new useful information about the virus in an effort to keep people safe and to stop economies from grinding to a complete stop. As much as this pandemic affects everyone around the world, frontline workers providing essential services are at increased risk of infection. This includes many rental stores across the country. And the safety of a rental house’s employees is only one of the major challenges owners and operators face. They also need to find ways to generate revenue in markets that have shrunk at lightning speed, or in some cases disappeared altogether.
In an effort to put a finger on the pulse of the rental industry, Canadian Rental Service reached out to rental houses across Canada to learn more about the impact of COVID-19 in their markets and the struggles they’ve had to overcome. These are their stories:
You touch it, you bought it
Bill Robinson, Xtend Rentals & Safety, Ladysmith, B.C.
Having to reduce your workforce doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any less busy than usual. At Xtend Rentals & Safety on Vancouver Island, owner Bill Robinson and his staff have their hands full.
As part of his steps in trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at his locations in Ladysmith and Nanaimo, Robinson reduced staffing by about 50 per cent during the pandemic. However, his business is currently down by about 25 per cent, so the staff are still extremely busy. Due to additional precautions put in place for the protection of the customers and employees, things aren’t getting done as quickly as usual. Robinson says that the majority of his clients have been very understanding about any additional delays they’ve experienced in their service during this time.
“We’ve had a couple of people be a little snippy because we’re not as fast as we usually are, but deal with it,” he says.
Robinson says one of the biggest challenges his company needed to overcome when putting the new safety rules in place was making sure all employees and customers took those additional precautions seriously.
“The rules are in place for a reason and they’re heavily enforced,” he says. “For the first week, it was difficult.”
But thanks to some solid planning on Robinson’s part – he put his new safety rules into effect in late February – his customers and employees got adjusted to the new safety precautions before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“I’d say we were one the first businesses to adapt. Nobody was taking it that seriously,” he says. “We’ve got a whole new operational policy related to COVID-19. We’ve got sanitization stations outside each building with free alcohol wipes and free nitrile gloves, if you choose to take them. You’re only allowed to come into the store about 10 feet to a yellow ribbon, and you can’t cross the yellow ribbon without a staff member’s permission. The staff member will allow you to step forward one person at a time. You’re not allowed to touch anything at either store unless you’re going to buy it. So far people are taking it quite seriously and it’s working quite well.”
On the operations side, employees are no longer allowed to share loaders or delivery trucks.
“We’re only allowing one person in each delivery truck,” Robinson says.
To help frontline workers in their battle against COVID-19, Xtend Rentals has been donating respiratory-related personal protective equipment (PPE) to local nurses and members of the B.C. Ambulance Service.
“I’ve got like eight big boxes of stuff in the store and I’m letting the ambulance workers come in and get it as they need it,” Robinson says. “We’re just going to let the ambulance workers keep taking it. They said, ‘When this is over, we’re going to bring all the ambulances to your store, park them in front of your store, and take some good pictures and let people know what you did.’ I told them that it’s not necessary, but they said, ‘We insist.’”
Colin White, A World of Rentals, Kingston, Ont.
Amidst the pandemic, some employers have had to lay off their entire staff temporarily and attempt to keep things running on their own.
At A World of Rentals in Kingston, Ont., co-owners and brothers Colin and Chris Wilson have been running their tool rental business in shifts for a few weeks while getting their business ready for re-hiring staff in mid-April with new safety precautions put into place for curbside service.
“I’m looking into purchasing some type of e-signature-type service, but worst-case scenario, any existing customers are just going to phone in credit cards. We’ll do paperwork in advance and have equipment ready at our back door,” Colin says.
For any new customers, the vestibule has been closed off so people can’t come into the store. Colin bought a piece of plexiglass and converted it into a plexiglass window with a small counter where he and his staff can pass things like credit cards and drivers licenses back and forth to customers when they need to see them. The window is set up on a desk out in the yard.
“All equipment goes in and out the back door, so our employees aren’t interacting with each other,” Colin says. “In the back we’ve got a couple of wide lanes, so people don’t need to be near each other. We have several branch doors at our shop so we can separate people that way.”
All customers need to phone in their orders in advance with all their information, so all the paperwork is done in advance to reduce the chance of lineups. “That way they can just present their I.D. to us so we can proceed and go from there,” Colin says.
To offer additional protection to their employees, the company is not letting employees interact with the customers. When unloading equipment coming back to the store, customers have the option of unloading it themselves and leaving it in the yard or having an employee unload it for them.
To sanitize the equipment being returned, employees have been using various cleaners including diluted bleach sprayers, Spray Nine and Lysol.
“If we go to pick up a piece of equipment, like an excavator or a lift, we’ve got Lysol wipes and the guys are wiping down all the controls before they even start to move it,” Colin says. “Like everyone, we’re adapting daily. Our policies are changing daily as we find a better way to do things.”
Colin adds that the biggest hurdle that the company has had to overcome – outside of the obvious financial challenges that have hit most companies – has been trying to keep everybody safe. He was travelling in the U.S. when the pandemic was declared, so Chris watched the store for two weeks on his own while his brother sat in isolation at home after returning from his trip.
“Trying to control policies and how things are done from home is not an easy thing to do,” Colin says. “But then I’ve also got a wife who is a frontline worker – she’s a nurse – so she cannot get it. She can’t bring it home and I can’t bring it home.”
As much as keeping himself, his family, employees and customers safe is a top priority, keeping up with the constantly changing policies and recommendations has been a struggle.
“We’re definitely overwhelmed with information,” Colin says. “We’re dealing with the government changing the way they’re doing things daily. We’re having almost daily conversations with my banker on what financial aids are in place; constant conversations through Facebook and other things with the rental association – just overwhelmed with information in general.”
Colin was relieved to see the federal government’s assistance come into effect relatively quickly for his employees that were laid off.
“It eased our minds that they could all get on unemployment right away,” he says. “As much as it’s important for us to save dollars, it’s also about how we keep food on the tables of the people who have been supporting us for all these years.”
Turning to telematics
Dave Carkner, Fluid Alert Inc., Sherwood Park, Alta.
Up until the end of March, Dave Carkner had been involved in the rental industry in Alberta for about 20 years He started his equipment rental journey with Finning out of Edmonton in 2001 before starting up his own rental company, Patcher Energy Management, in 2007, which was based in Leduc, Alta. In 2018, he sold his company to Sunbelt Rentals and continued working with the company until the end of March of this year, when he decided to go back to his entrepreneurial roots full-time and run his tank level-monitoring company.
“It’s pretty much all I’ve done for the past couple of decades,” Carkner says.
In addition to being immersed in Alberta’s rental industry for two decades, Carkner was active with the Canadian Rental Association for many years and is still active with the local provincial board. So, when he offered his input on how the rental industry has been fairing in Alberta during the pandemic, Canadian Rental Service was eager to listen.
“It depends on your sector, for sure. If you’re a general tool rental company, you’re seeing some of the smaller guys pack it in. Guys are getting a lot of stuff coming back,” Carkner says. “If you’re in the festival and events sector, most of those guys have shut down and laid off all their staff.”
In the events sector, Carkner doesn’t see the industry bringing back staff until they get a much better idea of when stay-at-home policies and social distancing rules and recommendations are expected to loosen.
“A couple of months ago, events were going full steam,” he says, adding that he has a lot of friends that are locally involved in the sector that have had to quickly go from being a staff of upwards of 20 people down to a single owner. “That’s not uncommon. Edmonton is known as festival city. So, for the party and events side, it’s been devastating.”
One way some of the local event rental companies have been trying to weather the current economic storm has been by renting their tents out as temporary shelters and as medical tents to service frontline workers.
Fortunately, not all companies in the rental industry in Alberta have been impacted the same way as the events sector. Carkner says that equipment rental companies that service general construction are still at least partially active.
“They’re doing better than most, since rental companies have been deemed an essential service. There’s some action going on,” he says, adding that due to the past few years of economic hardship in the province, it still isn’t as busy as it once was.
One area within the equipment rental industry that has found increased interest during the pandemic has been telematics. “I know from conversations with guys here that a lot of people are looking for telematics now. Not that it wasn’t emerging technology, the market was always going there, but now without having the face-to-face or the contact with the customers a lot of the rental companies are trying to push the telematics side sooner than later so they can at least get that automatic notification so they’ve got to respond. I think you’re going to see a lot of creativity come out of this.”
Within the oil and gas sector, where rentals have been the hardest hit for the past couple of years, Carkner says the impact from COVID-19 hasn’t been felt as hard as other sectors.
“If anything, they’re used to this level of activity,” he says. “There are a few pipelines that are scheduled, but for the most part it’s normal day-to-day for them.”
Gone in 72 hours
Mike Wood, Ottawa Special Events, Ottawa, Ont.
For Mike Wood, to say his event rental company has been hit hard due to the pandemic would be a serious understatement. With all events ranging from concerts and festivals to weddings and other celebrations being postponed or cancelled altogether, his event company has had its busy season decimated.
Unfortunately, the 75-per-cent wage subsidy created by the federal government to help businesses has not been helpful for companies like Wood’s, which basically have no opportunity to generate revenue.
“Some people send me a note and say, ‘Does this 75 per cent wage subsidy help?’ and I say ‘Absolutely not,’” Wood says. “The reason is because I’m coming out of my slow season from December to March – it’s deathly – and this is when we [normally] ramp up. I had to lay everybody off two weeks ago. People that worked for me for six years. I’m also a college professor in Ottawa, and 80 per cent of my staff are my former students. So, I have this unique relationship with them where they’re my students and I become their boss. It’s a hard time to lay off these people that I’ve had in my life in different capacities.”
As tough as it is to make these types of business decisions, event companies have had no other options.
“My revenue evaporated within 72 hours – and when I say ‘my revenue,’ I mean everybody’s revenue in this business,” Wood says. “Hotels, catering companies, festivals, concerts. It’s not just the event rental companies.”
Wood says that the government assistance offered to businesses simply doesn’t work for any companies that are looking at zero revenue and have large operating budgets they still need to manage. He says one of the most frustrating aspects of this scenario is how completely out of his hands it is.
“The challenge I face is that I did nothing to cause this. If I had done something that caused my business to do this, or I made bad decisions, bad investments, bad whatever, I could live with it. I could be like, ‘You know, that’s life,’” he says. “We did nothing to do this, the government shut us down… so how does anyone expect business owners to hold on to their companies? As event rental companies, we use our reserves over wintertime to keep the ball rolling, and for like 10 years of Ottawa Special Events this is how it has gone. Make all this money in six or eight months, pay our bills, and over the wintertime we use the reserves, work the little amount of shows that we have. Come March, St. Patty’s Day is like Christmas in March for everybody and it’s the sign of the season starting again for everybody.”
And even if the quarantines like the one imposed by the City of Toronto for no public gatherings until June 30 (as of press time) is lifted, Wood doesn’t see the season being saved for the industry.
“The next problem is going to be that nobody is going to be comfortable going to mass gatherings,” he says. “The season is over, that’s my opinion. The whole event season for Canada is over. The recovery time is more than just the government saying, ‘Yes, we can get back together.’”
“What the hell is going on?”
Andre and Valerie Moreau, Location Moreau, New Richmond, Que.
When André and Valerie Moreau first heard of the spread of COVID-19, they had a similar response to most people in this country. “Just like everybody, the first thing we asked ourselves is, ‘What the hell is going on?’” Andre says.
After getting over the initial shock, the co-owners of Location Moreau sat down and started reviewing their day-to-day operations.
“Once we realized this was real, we went into analytical mode. Where are the contamination possibilities around the shop for us and for our customers?” Andre says. “Our retail space has a middle aisle leading from the main door to the service desk. So, we blocked all the shopping aisles with yellow ‘’do not cross’’ tape. Our customers must remain distant in that centre space. We serve our customers and hand them the items they want, so they do not touch anything. It keeps the stock safe and contamination-free. The front store somewhat looks like a crime scene, but it keeps everybody safe.”
The company stopped general tool rentals for homeowners but kept those tools available for anyone considered an essential service, which included the construction sector (emergency repairs), infrastructure maintenance, sanitary services (portable toilet cleaning, drain cleaner rentals, sump pump rentals, etc.), and emergency repairs of private potable water systems (the company operates a potable water department and many people in their region have artesian wells).
“Once we made our new management rules effective, we published them on our Facebook page and website to warn the customers,” Valerie says. “Our doors are open from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. on weekdays, but we remain open by appointment only in the afternoon.”
So far, two employees have been laid off, but the company is currently constructing an online boutique to generate additional business. The boutique will sell the rental store’s most popular items in its retail departments: residential vacuum cleaners and potable water system parts.
“Prepaid orders will be prepared and ready to pick at the shop, so it will keep the customers in our facilities for a short time only,” Valerie says.
Being a company that prides itself on strong customer service, having to turn some customers away has been extremely difficult.
“The biggest challenge is saying ‘No’ to people,” Andre says. “As we understand that people want to take their spare time and complete projects they haven’t had time for for years, we questioned the safety, contamination and de-contamination protocols of our equipment. We did not feel safe to handle tools that could be potentially contaminated and we wish to minimize our risk, and the risk for the next customer with that same tool. On the other hand, we also do not let anyone down – emergency rental is still available for fixing a roof, managing seasonal flooding, drain cleaning, etc.”
Although Location Moreau is currently considered an essential service, navigating the pandemic is extremely challenging.
“We are classified as ‘essential’ and we’re just trying to hold it together the best we can,” Andre says, adding that it’s not like businesses can turn to any experts on running a company during a pandemic in Canada. “There’s not that many people that are experts on running a business during this specific kind of storm. It’s an adapt-yourself-or-die challenge.”
Despite the current environment, Andre and Valerie are confident they will be able to get through this challenging time.
“We describe ourselves as low-risk entrepreneurs with a strict management method, equipment optimization and a solid core of reliable and devoted employees,” Valerie says. “We are pretty sure we will get through this without too much damage. But, unfortunately, not everyone will have the same fate.”
Keeping everyone safe
Blake Menning, All Choice Rentals, Drayton Valley, Alta.
While operating during a pandemic, reducing exposure is key for keeping all employees safe, which allows businesses to continue to operate. At All Choice Rentals, which has three locations across Alberta (Drayton Valley, Rocky Mountain House and Hinton), no-contact rentals have been aggressively promoted.
“One of the things we’ve offered is contactless, free delivery within all areas that we serve,” says Blake Menning, vice-president of All-Choice Rentals. “We just leave the rental equipment at the doorstep to limit any unnecessary contact, which is a benefit for our drivers as well as the people renting the equipment. We just take the payment over the phone and all the equipment arrives on site clean and sanitized.”
All Choice Rentals has also created contactless options for customers’ rental contracts.
“We’ve given people the opportunity, if they want to come into our physical branch, to do a contactless rental contract, where we can either email them the rental contract and they can just respond to that email as an ‘I accept,’ so they don’t actually have to sign the rental contract itself,” Menning explains, adding that for people looking to come in and modify a rental contract, the company gives them a brand-new pen that they’re more than welcome to keep afterwards.
The company has also set up hand sanitizer stations at the entrances of all its locations and set up highly visible physical distancing lines on the floors, two meters from each service counter.
“We’ve removed any stools, literature or unnecessary items from all our counters, which we have been sanitizing and disinfecting every hour,” Menning says. “Doorknobs are sanitized every time they have been in contact with employees or customers. Debit and credit card machines are sanitized after every transaction.”
On the operational side of the business, employee hours have been staggered to limit the amount of people in the building at one time.
“Rather than having all my front counter staff start at a certain time, one comes in at seven, one comes in at eight, and another cones in at nine. And kind of the same thing with our mechanics, shipping and receiving, and drivers. So, we limit the amount of people in the building, which should help with limiting the spread of the virus,” Menning says.
As equipment is being returned, it is undergoing a thorough, three-step sanitization process. “My shipping and receiving personnel are required to wear face glasses, face shields, aprons and disposable rubber gloves. What they do is they bring all pieces of equipment that went out on a rental into our wash bay and then they are sprayed with a chemical disinfectant and are left to sit for 30 minutes to an hour,” Menning explains. “From there, each piece of equipment is washed with hot soapy water and left to dry in our wash bay. Then, the final step is the equipment is moved to its desired location and given a final coating of disinfectant once more.”
When drivers are delivering equipment to a jobsite, they are all required to wear additional PPE.
“We’re just trying to continue to offer high levels of customer service and really drive home that fact to our customers,” Menning says. “We’ve been doing a big social media campaign on Facebook, LinkedIn and on Instagram on what our sanitization practices are, what are we doing to keep our buildings safe, offering different things like free in-town delivery.”
The company is also doing various promotions to offer additional savings to their customers right now, since there is so much uncertainty with non-essential businesses being closed and most companies and people being especially cautious in regard to their spending.
“We’re offering a 25-per-cent discount on all our equipment rentals Monday to Friday, as well as for every piece of rental equipment that goes out each week, we’ve been donating one pound of food to the local food banks in the communities that we serve,” Menning says, adding that on weekends the company is offering two-day rentals at a one-day rental charge to counter its decision to close on Sundays to reduce its hours. Customers can currently come in and rent a piece of equipment on a Saturday and return it Monday morning for the one-day rental charge.
Every company has a different policy and procedure on the COVID-19 crisis, so touching base with customers to understand their expectations has been a major challenge. “For us, when arriving on site, some customers have no-contact rules, they want certain paperwork in place, they want hazard assessments, they want to have some sort of assurances that our employees have no signs or symptoms or anything like that. We’re just trying to understand every business’ health and safety policies around the COVID-19 crisis, because some are more extreme than others,” Menning says. “Another thing I would say is that there is so much misinformation about COVID-19. Are people actually getting their information from credible sources? Just to try and make sure you have all the facts to make an informed decision has been challenging because there are lots of things you see on social media where you say, ‘This doesn’t look credible,’ but then other people see this and say, ‘Can this virus survive on the equipment for 10 days and are we quarantining our equipment?’ There’s a lot of uncertainty and there’s a lot of people who don’t know what’s going on, and as a result, there’s been a little bit of panic that has set in.”
To try and counter employee stress, the company has been putting out information from all the various governmental health agencies in the lunchrooms to make sure they have the proper information in hand. “It is something that everyone needs to take seriously. But also, if you do take the steps and precautions you can still run a business during this pandemic,” Menning says.
“Just hold on”
Kim Rixon, Muskoka Party Rentals, Bracebridge, Ont.
Kim Rixon, owner of Muskoka Party Rentals, has felt the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto’s cottage country.
“Basically, my business has been shut down,” she says.
Even if the events sector is allowed to operate in time to salvage part of the busy season, Rixon believes that the industry is going to struggle for the rest of the year.
“I think the event industry is going to change,” she says. “I don’t think you’re going to see 200- to 300-person parties as much. I think they’ll be smaller, more contained. I don’t think it’s going to be a quick fix.”
For Rixon, the uncertainty around when her company will be able to move forward is the most frustrating part of the pandemic.
“We’ve got people right now that want to cancel August events and we’re saying ‘Just hold on,’ because hopefully we can pull something out of this summer,” she says. “If we don’t get on top of this and kind of squash it, we’re going to lose the entire season and I think that’s going to be the downfall of a lot of small businesses.”
In the meantime, Muskoka Party Rentals is scrambling for revenue. It has been able to set up some of its tents in one of the local community centres as a screening area for a few weeks. But otherwise, work is extremely hard to come by. That’s not say that Rixon isn’t keeping busy. As the association chairperson and director for the Ontario Chapter of the Canadian Rental Association (CRA), she has been active calling members to let them know about the various sources available to find updates on COVID-19 related information.
“We figured it was a good time with a lot of us sitting at home with nothing to do,” she says. “We’re touching base with members to make sure they’re doing okay. I’ve only been able to contact a handful of people so far. Everyone has the same fear, the same questions. Most of us are very positive that when we’re able to get back to business, it’s going to pick up and we’ll be able to help people like we normally do.”
Rixon says staying connected with other industry members and sharing information as much as possible is important for the health of the businesses as well as the people. “I think that part is going to be the most important part. Even though we’re physically distant we don’t need to be mentally and socially distant,” she says.
Tim Braswell, Western Global, Winnipeg, Man.
Suppliers to the rental industry have had to be just as agile as the store owners themselves during the pandemic. Western Global, a global manufacturer and supplier in the fuel tank industry, and a leading provider of tanks and dispensing equipment, has put all sorts of policies into place to protect its employees around the globe, including at its Winnipeg location.
“First off, we allowed 80 per cent of our staff to work from home,” says Tim Braswell, marketing manager for Western Global. “The additional 20 per cent is representative of our operations staff and assembly. Those are the guys that are building the tanks, assembling the tanks, the fuel pump systems and everything. They’re allowed to work at an operations centre. They’re also practicing safe distancing – social distancing – in terms of how they’re spaced and how they reconfigured our operations section. They’re ensuring that we have everything used at a proper safe distance and also every member of that floor is wearing the CDC-recommended PPE.”
Another way the company has needed to be agile is in its marketing strategies. Worried about the safety of its employees, Western Global decided to pull out of CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2020 – the largest construction trade show in North America – the week before it opened in March. Due to the last-minute cancellation they lost about $15,000 on their trade show booth (the week of the trade show, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO).
“Getting over that was very difficult. Then, we had two additional subsequent shows we had paid for that we’re trying to get a refund from,” Braswell says. “We had over 20 trade shows projected, but now we’re just doing a digital marketing front: pivoting the company from a full line of sales to directly to digital.”
In the U.S., which is now the new epicenter for the global pandemic, the company is assisting frontline workers in their battle against COVID-19. “We’re currently in contact with some of the FEMA and the [U.S.] Army core engineer personnel so we can donate one of our tanks to the TCF Center. The TCF Centre is Michigan’s largest convention centre and they refitted that to be a triage centre. I think that’s going to house anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 beds. So, we wanted to donate one of our fuel tanks to help keep the power running for any external operations or internal operations they need for generators and HVAC systems,” Braswell says.
The company is also partnering with its fuel distribution suppliers to hold webinars targeted for state and federal emergency relief efforts, informing them that they do have varying solutions for emergency mobile fuel.
As far as the rental industry goes, Western Global recommends that rental stores and equipment stores be available for any potential urgent needs from local governments.
“Feel free to reach out to those agencies and local governments and position yourself as available to support those local efforts,” Braswell says.
Keep plugging and stay safe
No matter what sector of the rental industry you’re involved in, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t going to disappear overnight. While it is ongoing, Canadian Rental Service will be right there with you delivering all the latest updates on the pandemic as well as tips for keeping employees and customers safe during this challenging time.
For ongoing COVID-19 updates, visit canadianrentalservice.com.
Take care and stay safe.