Portraying a professional image

Depending on who you might talk to, industry consolidation ruined the equipment and event rental industry or it was the tipping point that changed it into the nearly $60 billion a year business it has become in North America.

Many agree that the national companies have helped bring professionalism and more to what once was a simple hodge-podge of mom-and-pop operations throughout the 

United States and Canada.

The idea of improving the image of the industry probably dates back to as early as when the business began. However, it was in the early 1970s that the American Rental Association (ARA) also formally recognized the importance of image under the leadership of James Keenan, the founder of Keenan’s Rental Service, Omaha, Neb., when he served as ARA president in 1973-1974.

He helped launch the President’s Image Awards, which have become a prestigious designation, recognizing those businesses that have built new locations, remodeled or made other efforts that help showcase the positives of the profession.

In 2018, 15 stores were recognized for their efforts in improving the industry’s image and over the past 45 years, hundreds of companies have received a President’s Image Award, some multiple times, yet many in the industry say there still is more work to do.

“The continued consolidation by the major players as well as the entry of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) dealers into the rental industry has significantly changed the operating expectations of our industry,” says Steve Mau, president, Brainerd General Rental, Brainerd, Minn., who also serves as the chair of ARA’s Construction and Industrial Services Shared Interest Group (SIG).

“Significant investment in equipment, people and systems have created a much more sophisticated industry. Historically, the industry has enjoyed a very laid back, down home, face-to-face relationship. While it created a relaxed culture that was very inviting, the image of the industry was and, in some cases, continues to be one of slow adaptation to the changing times,” Mau says.

Mark Gilbertson, president, Fargo RentAll, Fargo, N.D., says consolidation was a key factor in expediting the transformation of the industry’s image.

“Larger rental companies have driven the industry toward professionalism, depth of available inventory, breath of inventory choice and ownership options,” Gilbertson says.

“The prior image was short-term-need options. The new image is cash flow options, utilization options and technology options. Rental has become a legitimate management tool versus a short-term need. Now, the industry needs to continue educating customers on the advantages and availability of rental products as well as why it is smart to rent and how to take advantage of renting,” he says.

Dan Hooks, CERP, president, Party Reflections, Charlotte, N.C., and chair of ARA’s Party and Event Services SIG, says more rental businesses are paying attention to image due to an overall maturing of the industry and an understanding that equipment and event rental businesses are competing for resources and talent with companies outside of the industry.

“We must portray an image that attracts this talent and resources. I believe consolidation also has played a role in the improvement of the image of many of the event stores. Some realize they need to make themselves more attractive to consolidators and others who want to remain independent realize they must enhance their images to compete against the national or regional players in their markets,” Hooks says.

Image, he says, is particularly important for those in the party and event segment.

“We must maintain an image of quality and cutting-edge fashion sense. With customers exposed to Pinterest and Instagram images on a daily basis, the event rental industry has to keep up with the trends in the market. As our industry matures, we also must focus on professionalism and making sure we maintain clean, accessible and well-run operations,” Hooks says.

To achieve this goal, he says the industry needs to challenge rental companies to continually invest in their images and professionalism.

“Profits usually get reinvested in new equipment, but we all need to look around our shops and see where some investment could improve the overall customer and employee experience. We are not just competing against other rental companies anymore. We are competing against other venues and alternative options for many of these events,” he says.

“From the event side of the rental industry, I think store and company images have continued to improve over the last decade. Marketing programs have become easier to implement, without the need for a full-time marketing team, and brand awareness has become one way to differentiate yourself in the marketplace. This brand awareness has taken the form of new uniforms for field personnel, graphic wraps for company trucks and building treatments to support the brand,” Hooks says.

John Bibbo, CERP, president, Event Source/Panache Events, Cleveland, and ARA president, has been among those in the equipment and event rental industry who have been at the forefront of paying attention to image as evidenced by his company’s expansions and improvements over the years. However, he also credits consolidation with changing how rental businesses operate.

“The big guys have brought a level of professionalism to our industry that was so desperately needed,” Bibbo says, adding that rental companies should be organized, inviting and clean with a fresh, updated look.

As for individual stores, he says upgrading your image can be simple. “You can update your logo for very little money online. Sweep your parking lots and paint your showrooms. Keep things fresh and up to date.”

Beth Hoff Blackmer, president, Aspen Rent-All, Basalt, Colo., and ARA president-elect, says the trend of contractors and customers not wanting to own equipment is helping rental companies grow, but that businesses need to be professional, knowledgeable and a resource for customers to keep the momentum going.

“As an industry, we need to engage in workforce development. Individual stores also need to be the leaders in knowledge for the customer,” she says. 

Let’s say you’ve expanded your facility, updated the look, remodeled the showroom and more to give customers a professional experience when they come into your rental store. You also need to remember to do the same for your digital space.

In today’s fast-paced world of technology-savvy customers with mobile devices, what you do online often makes the first impression because it is the first contact a customer will have with your company.

That means, in addition to refreshing and updating the look of your facility, you also need to do the same with your website, social media pages and more.

“Your digital image is critical because most people now look up items in the digital space, so we need to have a strong presence,” says Beth Hoff Blackmer, president, Aspen Rent-All, Basalt, Colo.

Mark Gilbertson, president, Fargo RentAll, Fargo, N.D., says it is important for rental companies to not only be online, but to know how to promote themselves within the technology.

“It is the Yellow Pages of the future,” he says.

To help companies improve their digital images, the American Rental Association (ARA) offers several resources through Marketing Minutes. These include a series of short, to-the-point videos that touch on all aspects of marketing, including online marketing basics, enhancing your website for search engines, and how social media can help build loyalty and business. For more information, visit ARArental.org and click on “Marketing Minutes” in the drop-down menu under “Business Resources.”

Dan Hooks, president, Party Reflections, Charlotte, N.C., also says rental companies need to pay attention to their digital images.

“However, it is rather easy to portray your business with an image that is larger than life. I think it is important to keep the customer’s expectations in mind and not portray an image digitally that you cannot back up in operational reality,” Hooks says.

“That being said, a well-thought-out digital strategy can help propel a company in our industry to new heights,” he says. 

The image maker

He passed away in 2004, but touched many in the rental industry through his volunteer work for the American Rental Association (ARA).

He served as ARA’s Region Six director in 1972, was ARA president in 1973-1974, ARA chairman in 1975, received the ARA’s distinguished service award in 1977 and served 10 years as president of the Rental Equipment Industry Foundation (REIF), which is now the ARA Foundation.

In the previous two years before his election as ARA president, he visited 45 states and several Canadian provinces, stopping in at an average of three stores in each. In the February/March 1973 issue of Rental Age, which is now Rental Management, Keenan said the focus of his presidency would be image: service image — having facilities and personnel so customers can get what they want and are willing to pay for; inventory image — having fully operational equipment that serves the customers’ purposes; and public image — operating a pleasant and inviting facility.

“We’re going to try to spread this image concept in 1973,” he said in Rental Age. “The know-how is already there, but we must see the need and devote the time. We sometimes fail to set a priority on image until we know a visitor or important person is dropping by … but my thinking is this: who is more important than the customer?”

As a result, ARA launched the ARA President’s Image Building Award, which Keenan said would recognize members who had either built a new store or remodeled an existing one. An ARA member also could qualify if he or she could show innovations, such as an improvement in the yard layout or display area.

“There is no better way I can think to say ‘thank you’ to those ARA members who have helped build a better business image for the rental industry,” Keenan said.

Keenan’s focus on image carried over into 1974 as the theme of ARA’s convention that year at the New Orleans Rivergate Exhibition Center and Marriott Hotel was “Your Image in Action.”

The first President’ Image Award in 1974 was presented to John and Horton Hillier of Active Rental Service, Toronto. An additional 10 President’s Image Awards were presented in 1975 with more each year since, including the 15 award winners for 2018 profiled on the following pages. 

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