Creativity at Crown Rental

Doug Haas, president of Crown Rental in Burnsville and Rosemount, Minn., is the quintessential independent rental guy. He gets along with most everyone, describes himself as a “firm, but fair” boss and always seems to find creative cost-efficient ways to solve issues.

“I try to keep a positive attitude all the time. I’ve seen other rental stores that have a negative attitude and the business goes down. Two rental stores closed within five miles of us during the last year. We also try to keep everything like new, clean and happy. That has treated us well,” he says.

Haas also has a practical and imaginative mind, finding inexpensive ways to improve processes and organize inventory at each of the company’s locations.

In Rosemount, for example, he created an area upstairs for tent cleaning with a hoist system to hang tents to dry. On the other side of the building, he installed a makeshift “elevator” by building a pit and a cage around a used scissor lift to move items up to the mezzanine for storage.

“When you stack tables and chairs, it scared me to do it with forklifts, so we built an elevator using a 33-ft. scissor lift. If I sold the lift, I might have gotten $1,500 or $2,000 for it and I priced elevators at $10,000 used, so I thought I could make one. It has a safety switch and will not work if the gate is not closed,” he says.

Instead of spending $200 for laundry carts, he bought wheelbarrow tubs and added wheels. Haas also built his own carts for high-top tables. “They were getting wrecked in transport, so I built wood boxes over the winter. We put in the tops and legs and then they can be wheeled in and out of the trucks to keep the tables from getting scratched,” he says.

Crown Rental also offers propane and dry ice, something Haas added to help raise revenue during the recession. “The dry ice is going very well. I don’t know that I’ve grown it much, but we sell about 600 lbs. per store a week. We advertised it heavily when we started and then cut back on the ads and we’ve been making money on it for five years now,” he says.

Anyone visiting the store in Burnsville is greeted with the smell of fresh popcorn. “We’ve done that since day one. We have guys who stop in just for popcorn. It helps keep them going. We have one delivery driver who has his special big bags he brings in,” Haas says.

Haas started the company in 1988 and joined the American Rental Association (ARA) that same year. When touring Crown Rental’s locations, it seems that Haas runs a tight ship. All employees are wearing Crown Rental t-shirts, the showrooms are spotless and equipment stored is ready to rent, but Haas is fairly modest about his impact.

“I’m a pretty lax guy, but I’ve got my rules. I always liked my managers and I like my guys to like me. I don’t want them to be scared, although I’ve been told that I’m intimidating,” he says.

That’s because he’s often riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and has an impressive moustache that can create a “tough guy” persona.

In Burnsville, Crown Rental is spread between three buildings in an industrial park built by Haas and his business partner. The main showroom building has about 10,000 sq. ft. of space with a repair shop, offices and storage. A series of garages in another building houses a variety of equipment while a third building is used to warehouse some party and event equipment.

“We call the garages ‘cold storage’ because we don’t heat them. It’s where we store lawn and garden equipment, chippers, mowers, stump grinders, air compressors and skid-steers. All the doors have openers and we have a timer at night, so the power goes off and the garage doors cannot come up. This helps us keep everything out of the sun so the equipment doesn’t get faded,” he says.

“My partner built that building and the other side of what was his family’s building. He retired, built this one and was renting it out. As we grew, however, we started taking over the garages until we have all but the last two my partner still has,” Haas says.

They also store parts for their equipment at the facility, as well as for STIHL and Honda products, which Haas says are the only things they will service outside of their own equipment. “Mechanics are too valuable to do things for others. Repairs are up when rentals are up, so we have to be ready. Small engine repair also is hard to make a profit,” he says.

The Burnsville location is mainly general tool rental with light party. The Rosemount building is split into two sides with separate entrances and showrooms for party and event and general tool.

“We divided the store in Rosemount because there are two totally different customers for party and event or tool rental. This has really helped party because a woman who wants to rent things for a wedding doesn’t want to talk to the guy who rents drills and the guy who wants to rent a drill doesn’t want to be in line behind someone renting wedding stuff,” he says.

Haas says 2012 started off very well, with rental revenue pacing 30 percent above 2011, which was the company’s record year. With some creativity and hard work, he says his business was not as impacted by the economic downturn as others might have been.

“As a company, our dollar volume never varied much. Our worst year, we were down one percent. Earlier, we saw a shift from equipment to party, so we started increasing our party and event inventory and that kept our dollar volume flat. Then in 2011, we opened up the party store and in 2012 we were seeing growth in both party and general tool,” Haas says.

“One thing I’ve always noticed is when the economy is good, people are building decks and they rent augers. During the downturn, we hardly ever rented an auger. In 2012, we started to run out of augers to rent again,” he says.

Crown Rentals carries hand tools up to mini excavators in the 10,000 to 12,000-lb. range. “We don’t carry anything you need a semi-trailer truck to deliver. Once you buy that size of equipment, then you have to buy the semi truck, too,” he says.

Crown Rental also is a family affair with three of his four children now working in the business. His oldest son, Billy, had worked in the business until he was put on active duty with the U.S. Marines. His daughter, Brittany, manages the store in Rosemount and his second-oldest son, Marty, joined the company full-time to run the warehouse in Rosemount. His youngest son helps during the weekends and in the summer when he isn’t in school. During 2012, they were up to 42 employees between the three stores.

On the marketing side, Crown Rental upped its presence in social media by hiring a company to manage its Facebook page, Twitter and Foursquare.

“This company has two full-time people who do Tweets, specials and more. They came with a whole marketing plan and took it over for us. It is not cheap, but it’s kind of where things are going,” he says.

“One neat thing they are doing that got me excited is that we say, ‘Get a photo of yourself at our store and post it on Facebook. Whoever has the most likes gets a free meal.’ We’ll do it for weddings, too. ‘Take a picture using Crown Rental items and post it on Facebook, and we will give you a $100 gift certificate for another rental.’ This way, we get a lot of pictures showing our items in use,” he says.