Competing in the Minneapolis suburbs
01/14/2013

A to Z Rental Center in Eden Prairie, Minn., has a fairly simple recipe for success as an independent rental store in the Minneapolis suburbs. The company has rented pretty much anything and everything — truly A to Z — and most family members are involved in the business.

The company was founded in 1983 by Jim Way. “I was an electrical engineer right across the street and there was an opportunity to get into the rental industry. We’ve watched this area grow from 16,000 people to 56,000 people,” he says.

Today, his son, Andy, handles many of the day-to-day responsibilities, and his daughter, Kim, who is an American Rental Association (ARA) Certified Event Rental Professional (CERP) graduate, concentrates on the party side of the business. Jim, his wife, Jean, Andy and Kim are all listed as company owners.

“If it weren’t for family, we couldn’t make it,” Andy says. “Dad is here. My mom comes in and my two boys are working here. Kim’s daughter works here during the summer. It’s a family business and it’s been fun.”

The company has between 12 and 14 full-time employees year-round, also supplemented by a few part-timers and seasonal workers.

A to Z Rental Center in Eden Prairie not only has about a 50-50 split in revenue between tools and party and event equipment, even the building is split with the upstairs devoted to party and event while the downstairs is for tools.

“In the next two years, we will probably be bigger in party. It has very much become a bigger part of the business over the last few years. We thought everything would have gone down with the downturn, but our party business kept going up,” Andy says.

In 2012, Andy says said business also improved on the tool side with lawn and garden equipment renting at a better pace, including aerators, tillers, power rakes and trailers.

The company also has an extensive inventory of open trailers, which are often rented for moving wood chips and taking brush or yard waste to the local dump.

“For whatever reason, people around here are more accustomed to getting an open trailer. It was raining the other day and a customer was moving furniture, so he just wrapped it all in plastic,” Andy says.

The rental yard is about 1.5 acres, which includes some parking as well as storage for trailers and a variety of equipment. Oddly enough, the rental store is next door to a local Menards, but the two have co-existed next to each other for years.

The company offers over-the-counter 10-ft.-by-10-ft. tents to rope and pole 20-ft.-by-30-ft. or 20-ft.-by-40-ft. tents at the rental store’s location. Larger tents and a variety of other equipment are stored at a nearby warehouse, including 40-ft.-wide and 30-ft.-wide tents.

Chairs are packaged in bags in quantities of 10, allowing customer pickup. One truck on the premises is filled with tables, so that it isn’t running back and forth between the store and warehouse to fulfill a customer pickup order. They also have children’s chairs and 6-ft. children’s tables with adjustable legs.

One niche in particular has been games, many of which are stored in cases and line the walls of one of the upstairs rooms. “The games really took off, so we keep buying new games and look for ideas. We’re really busy toward the end of the school season with carnivals for schools and for churches. The dunk tanks are really popular with elementary schools,” Andy says.

They have stanchions, oval tables, concessions, chafing dishes, dishes, glassware and lots of linen, including pastels, checkered and Hawaiian-style prints.

Andy says a track loader and sewer snakes with cameras are a couple of the more unique items they have for rent, different from any nearby competitors. They also accept used motor oil, which they then use with the oil burner to heat the warehouse.

“We used to have TVs, VCRs and combo VCR/DVD machines. Then there’s the DJ in a box and karaoke machines. We also got into LCD projectors, screens, overhead slides, 8mm, 16mm and camcorders. We used to have medical beds, but they are too heavy and take up too much storage space, so we dropped them, but we still do walkers, wheelchairs, crutches and things like that,” he says.

His chief concern is figuring out which way to go to grow the customer base. “This past summer, we were so busy, you couldn’t catch your breath, but you have to try to figure out which way to go. All the forecasts point to party. Plus you have to decide when to get rid of something and when to start something new. That’s always a concern,” he says.