Reading Rentals finds ways to build business
The economy hasn’t been kind to Reading, Pa. Several companies have either closed or moved, leaving behind vacant buildings and more.
Through it all, Nancy Vokorokos, president, Reading Rentals, has kept a positive attitude, searching for ways to keep her equipment rental business thriving during tough times.
“Between winter weather, contractors going under and industry leaving, it hasn’t been easy,” Vokorokos says.
“This is a highly developed area. There are close to a million people in the county and about 55,000 in the city of Reading, but there are a lot of empty buildings and absentee landowners. The city is trying to bring the buildings up to code and making landlords responsible, which has been good for us in renting ladders, bucket lifts and scaffolding for jobs like painting,” she says.
“However, a lot of contractors have gone out of business. Some owe us money or someone else returns the equipment and doesn’t know about the money owed. What we started to do about two years ago is require those who want to rent tables and chairs to pay in cash. There is a deposit that is incremental and they get it back when we get the equipment back. With credit cards sometimes, you are taking a chance. They can close the account or have a small credit limit,” she says.
As a result of the local economy, Reading Rentals, like many independent construction and general tool equipment rental companies, has expanded its party and event inventory and increased business in the party and event segment.
“I would say the party and event end of things is busier than the equipment side right now. We have helium, bounce rides, chairs, high-top tables, games and more,” Vokorokos says.
“We also have a large Hispanic population and in the Hispanic culture there are many large family parties, including baby showers, first birthdays, five-year-old birthdays, the quinceañera for when girls turn 15 years old and, of course, weddings,” she says.
“Baby showers for everyone are becoming big here, too. Often, the men organize the event. They come in and make the arrangements for DJs and dance floors. The events might have 70 to 100 people,” she says.
That’s just a few of the changes Vokorokos has seen over the last 17 years of running the company.
A former stay-at-home mom and kindergarten teacher, Vokorokos was thrust into running the company when her first husband, Ron Marshall, became ill and subsequently passed away in 1995.
Her history in the equipment rental industry started when she was in high school and helped Charlie McCourt, who needed a bookkeeper because his wife was having a baby. At one time, McCourt owned six rental stores in Pennsylvania before selling each to the location’s manager and founding McCourt Manufacturing to produce lightweight folding chairs for the rental industry.
“I would go in after school to do the books. Then I graduated from high school and got a job. Charlie’s wife, Julia, was able to take care of the books, but when she had another baby, I went back to work for him while I was going to college,” Vokorokos says.
Marshall, her late husband, originally worked for Ace Rents, handling advertising and promotion, and they became friends. They eventually married and he became the manager of Reading Rentals. Vokorokos helped with the books, so she wasn’t completely overwhelmed when she took over the business.
“It’s been a great growth opportunity for me personally, learning the equipment, how to conduct business and meeting people. I learned a lot from Charlie, Allen Morehead and my husband. When I took over, Allen was a tremendous help and the people working at the store helped me,” she says.
She later married Dan Vokorokos, who works at the company. “He’s been a tremendous help. He explains what we have to do and why, what needs fixing and what we need to buy,” she says.
Morehead, president of Ace Rents in nearby Lancaster who also served as president of the American Rental Association (ARA) in 2004 and 2005, helped mentor Vokorokos and is the co-owner of the building that houses Reading Rentals.
The building, a former school, has several levels and a varied floor plan that allows for all kinds of storage for a variety of construction, general tool and party and event equipment. Reading Rentals moved into the facility about 27 years ago and Marshall initially did a lot of work to set it up as a rental store.
“This is built on a hill and it seems that different people have added on to it over the years. We have a wash bay that Ron, my late husband, probably put in. We have an area for bigger pieces of equipment and repair space, and this is just the top floor,” she says.
“The building also was a body shop at one time. We refinished the wood floors about three years ago and at the same time divided it into two divisions. Equipment now is in the back part of the building and party and event is up front,” Vokorokos says.
Other levels have space for offices, storage, parking and more. “We have to make use of every square inch we have and we have to be creative,” she says.
For example, the company acquired a used mangler to help handle the growing linen rentals and a dishwasher from a restaurant that went out of business.
Vokorokos grins while giving a tour of the building because there are so many corners, twists, turns and levels, all in use, including a space where her husband, Dan, has started work on repairing an old Grand Prix.
“He likes restoring old cars, but I don’t join him in that activity,” Vokorokos says.
The building is large enough to have everyone park cars indoors and most of the equipment can be kept inside to protect it from being exposed to the elements.
“We have a tent cleaning area and a water system to trap oil and dirt. Then there’s the ‘graveyard’ with older equipment. There’s also an antique safe that we use for storage,” she says.
Customers can drive in to load items. In one area, ladders hang from a wall while dunk tanks, staging and dance floors are stored in an out-of-the-way corner. Everywhere you turn, the space is used for something.
“For rental people, it’s almost innate to be creative. We’re solving people’s problems and we have to solve our own problems,” she says.
Today, Reading Rentals has eight employees and two others handling laundry duties as well as a high school student who puts in a few hours a week.
They recently created a full-time position to handle party and event, freeing Vokorokos to focus her efforts on other tasks.
“If I’m doing too much, then I don’t do anything well. I’ve been trying to wear too many hats,” she says.
Training police dogs
The multi-level building that houses Reading Rentals, Reading, Pa., was once a school that was converted into a body shop and then eventually became a rental store.
Nancy Vokorokos, president, Reading Rentals, says she is amazed at how often her customers are fascinated by the older building.
When part of the floor was replaced several years ago, one customer used the hardwood to carve a train, which he later presented to Vokorokos, who keeps it at the tool counter.
Another customer is a police officer, who asked if the police could use the building for training purposes.
“He said he trained the dogs and thought the building would be great for them and I said, ‘Yes.’ So at night, the police will come in to train dogs because of all the smells in here, as well as the nooks, crannies and different levels including a mezzanine. They hide drugs and people for the dogs to find. I have a sign that says the police use this building for training. That’s unique,” Vokorokos says.