Some might question the timing of opening a new business during a challenging economy, but for Steve Carter and Brad Chandler, launching Johnson County Equipment and Party Rental, Olathe, Kan., seemed the right thing to do in January 2012.
Carter was planning on owning a business after his retirement from a 30-year career in the telecom industry, most recently with Sprint, and Chandler was looking to do the same after a career in pharmaceutical and aviation sales.
“I wanted to have my own business,” Carter says. “We looked at lots of things, but I like equipment and I like the hands-on aspect and financial model of rental compared to other businesses. This turned out to be the most appealing. We knew that this would work in our area and that’s proven to be the case. We spent about a year and a half looking at it, doing our research and talking to other rental business owners,” he says.
“During the downturn we didn’t see too many equipment rental businesses go out of business like we did in other industries,” he says.
By doing their research, Carter and Chandler found a thriving neighborhood with many do-it-yourself homeowners who would be likely to host events at their homes and who also had well-manicured yards requiring lawn care equipment. As a result, the company carries a mix of party and event equipment, from linens to tables, chairs, 10-ft. pop-up tents and 20-ft.-by-20-ft. tents, to lawn equipment such as aerators, tillers, edgers and a 36-in. trencher.
“We used a lot of Reference USA data to look at household counts and special trade contractors in an area and narrowed it down to two possible locations. Another area, further north from our current location, would have been good, but we couldn’t find a suitable building to rent and there was a lot of interstate construction going on. We didn’t want to fight that in our first year of business,” Carter says.
Carter and Chandler were surprised at how quickly demand came for the party equipment during May’s graduation season, which pushed the company’s three full-time and three part-time employees to the limit.
“We put to work about everyone we know,” Chandler says. “On the third Saturday in May we rented nearly every piece of party equipment that we have, so we took advantage of everything being out in order to clean and reorganize our 1,300-sq.-ft. warehouse, which had become a bit disorganized.”
Some of that disorganization was due to the rate at which the company had acquired equipment. “We buy things as we get demand. If we get a request for something that we don’t have, we just tend to buy it,” Carter says. “We started the business with 100 chairs. Now we have 1,200 chairs and on weekends we almost always have all of them out. We had a request for a portable P.A. [public address] system for a corporate event that would be in a secluded area and they wanted one that would run on batteries. We went to a lot of different places and were told that no one really made a battery-powered P.A. I found one at an outlet store and bought it.”
Carter says it has paid for itself about four times over. “People are renting it all the time now. I accidently double-booked it one weekend, so I ended up buying a second one,” he says.
“We’re definitely picking up on the seasonal part of the business. The high school graduation season is a very big deal in our market and we just went through the verticutter/power rake part of the year,” he says.
About 60 percent of Johnson County’s business comes from party inventory. “We get a lot of corporate meetings and customer events,” Chandler says. “Now we are getting a lot of do-it-yourself weddings, renting everything from chairs in a meadow to tents, tables, linens and chairs and everything that goes with that. We also do quite a bit of business with different charities, church and school events.”
Carter and his wife, Martha, who also is an officer and co-owner of the company, went to The Rental Show 2012 in New Orleans. “We bought a few small things, such as a frozen drink machine, which was a deal. Brad and I will be going to the show in Las Vegas and we have a list of things we’ll be looking for,” Carter says.
The biggest surprises, Carter says, have been the seemingly off-beat requests for certain equipment that turn into frequently-rented items. “Besides our portable P.A., we had a request for a high-definition projector. We bought one and now it, along with a large screen and an inflatable outdoor screen, has become a very popular item. It is rented for everything from corporate events to people having a movie night for the neighborhood kids in their backyard. It is being rented two or three times a week, so we’ve bought a second one,” he says.
Carter says the neighborhood has been very inviting. “Our homeowner customers, who make up about 90 percent of our business, are very kind to our equipment,” he says. “All of our equipment is new this year and when they bring it back, it is often hosed off and so clean that it looks just like it did when it went out the door.”
Carter says with a 1,300-sq.-ft. showroom and a 1,300-sq.-ft. warehouse, his biggest immediate challenge is space. “We’re looking for some storage space to rent now so we can move some our seasonal equipment out,” he says. “We’re kind of ‘over the top’ right now.”