Editor’s note: Ted Cook, co-owner of Ventura Rental Center, Ventura, Calif., will become the 49th president of the American Rental Association (ARA) at the conclusion of The Rental Show 2011 in Las Vegas. It was during a summer break from college that Cook was first introduced to the rental industry through his wife’s family business. “I did not enjoy the first week or so. I think I crashed into a fence, pressure-washed my hand and found out I had a lot to learn. Then something happened. I was actually able to help a customer and I was hooked,” Cook says. He stayed in California and earned his bachelor’s degree in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara while working at Ventura Rental Center. When Ron Holley, his father-in-law, retired in 2000, he turned over the construction and general tool business to Cook. Holley’s daughter, Heidi Whitcomb, continues to run the party and special event side of the business at a separate location. After a year as ARA president-elect, Cook doesn’t expect much to change when he becomes ARA president, but one of his goals will be to convince more members to use the online resources available at www.ARArental.org and persuade as many rental stores as possible to at least get a quote from ARA Insurance. He wants to “encourage members to add to their business arsenal of knowledge by taking advantage of the great resources at their fingertips through the ARA and ARA Insurance.” As a result, he says, “we will continue raising the industry standards.” Cook recently spoke with Rental Management about becoming ARA’s next president. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
RM: What convinced you to become more involved in leadership within the American Rental Association (ARA)?
Ted Cook: In the early 1980s, as I was starting my rental career, I was first associated with industry pioneers like Sam Greenberg, Jack Wanamaker, Henry and Lloyd Wells and many more. They believed in helping other rental people and helping their friends. From my earliest days, I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. They certainly helped me. I was more than welcome to ask anything I wanted. Even unsolicited, they would offer information. Plus, I would just hang around listening to them and picked up a lot of tips. I hope I can do the same for others. To serve in rental leadership, a lot of folks get their start by stepping out of the room at the wrong time. So it was with me. I missed a meeting and was then named vice president of the local association. I’ve always sought more education in the industry because my degree is in English. It has served me well, but I was at a loss when it came to accounting. To better understand the right metrics to measure, I depended on ARA and got involved in Construction U. Soon I was invited to attend a committee meeting and my involvement grew from there.
RM: The commitment to ARA will take you away from your business. How will you handle that?
Cook: Balance is the key word. You have to have a sense of balance and the support of those around you — your team at home, your team at work and your partners. Everybody is supportive, but you have to go back with something for them and say, “This is what I learned. This is something we can try here. What do you think?” If you come back with useful information for them at work, they are a lot more supportive. I call that balance because it offsets the time away and extra burden on them.
RM: What do you think you’ve learned this past year as ARA president-elect?
Cook: I’ve learned that we have a great system in place. We have a strategic plan that is our coat of arms to which we adhere, respect and let guide our actions. We think we’ve got it right. The ARA board reviews and updates the plan, as needed, every July and I’ve learned to trust that process. We listen to
them as they listen to members. If we continue to follow the plan, we will take care of what’s important and focus on our members. We’ll provide the right products and programs for our members. To achieve success for membership, the association must continually improve yet remain grounded
by our strategic plan.
RM: When you look back at ARA’s history, there was a time that each new president would have a new agenda and direction. The strategic plan brings
continuity, but allows each president to change emphasis with the guiding principal of helping members be more successful. When you take over
in March, is there anything specific you want to accomplish as you start off your presidency?
Cook: Being an officer is a three-year commitment and ARA’s four officers work as a team. Nothing in particular will really change when I become ARA president, but ARA has goals and work that needs to be done. We want more members to log onto the website. We need to have more managers and leaders in our rental stores be able to access those tools. I want to encourage them and find ways to accomplish that. My hope is for ARA to be able to reach out in innovative ways to persuade rental owners to trust their employees and afford them the time to learn from the ARA website and programs. Their staff members can pick up an awful lot of tips, improve safety meetings and improve the quality of their in-store programs. A second item is to persuade as many rental stores as possible to at least get a quote from ARA Insurance. As a member, you’re entitled to do that. There is no promise that the quote will be the least expensive, but it may be and every effort will be made to compete. Our members will receive the coverage they need, as well as considerable services and value-added items that no one provides better than ARA Insurance. ARA Insurance is the leader in the industry, yet there is a percentage of our members who haven’t taken a look yet. I’d like to see more people get a quote and compare what ARA Insurance can offer their business for the long term. A final item is to encourage members to add to their business arsenal of knowledge by taking advantage of the great resources at their fingertips through the ARA and ARA Insurance.
RM: When you complete your year as president and make the transition to ARA chairman, what in your eyes will make this coming year a success for you?
Cook: It is a high priority to identify and engage ARA leaders to represent our industry in the future. It would be terrific to know that someone I asked to serve on his or her first committee ended up investing years of service to ARA in various volunteer and leadership roles. It would be rewarding to say, “I knew that guy or that woman. I knew they had leadership potential and were just waiting for someone to ask them to help.” As a business owner, I take real pride in the employees I have or had who are now managers or general managers at my own or even other companies. My reward is seeing them be successful and taking pride in exciting them about the rental industry.
RM: What can convince people to be more involved in ARA?
Cook: The questions have to be asked — “At what level would you like to work with ARA or serve?” “Have you thought about it?” These questions can get the dialogue going to identify interests and then you need to follow with an invitation for them to serve. Whatever the invitation is, you find out where their comfort level is and ask them something to make them answer, “Yes.” We have to ask, “Would you like to be a member?” “Have you seen the driver certification course?” “Will you or some of your employees give it a test run?” “Could you send me a note after you check it out and tell me something you learned?” “Will you be a part of the legislative caucus?” “Will you participate in your state’s legislative day?” We have to ask those kinds of questions if we want to invite more involvement.
RM: What makes ARA membership valuable and what more can the association do for members or to attract more members?
Cook: ARA is committed to continuing to invite people to join. I used the word “persuade” earlier, so it fits to persuade a little bit when somebody knows there is value, but isn’t a member. You have to say, “Here are some reasons I am a member. Here is how I made money from my membership last month. How can I make it easier for you to join? If I bring the application and ask for your signature, will that help?” Prospective members want to and are willing to join, but won’t always take the time to get online or make a phone call. Many out there know ARA is where they belong, but haven’t yet joined. You save money by being a member and make money by being a member. While the amount varies from member to member, I can say that number is annually many times my dues. The ARA staff members are professionals. As soon as nonmembers realize that, they want to be a part of the association. There’s something very attractive about having a professional in your corner that is out there doing something for you and all you have to do is sign the dotted line to take advantage of it. The fact that volunteer leaders direct the programs and services offered by ARA and that they are rental-specific also are large selling points. ARA is a true membership organization.
RM: What’s your opinion of the role of the association in government affairs?
Cook: Our advocacy works on behalf of members and our most important message is to let our voice be heard. There’s nothing more powerful than the Ventura Rental voice in Sacramento or in Washington, D.C., to tell my story about how something that is happening, or can potentially happen, can adversely affect or benefit my rental business. There is nothing more convincing than our personal stories. It’s helpful for elected officials to be able to point out that a certain proposal will cost three jobs out of 10 or prevent a company from hiring. The message becomes more powerful because it’s real for your business — and we vote. Hearing our voices at the grassroots is part of ARA’s strategic plan. Then we have professional voices heard through John McClelland [ARA’s vice president for government affairs] and Alysia Ryan [ARA’s director of state government affairs] and the influencers they work with to advocate for our membership. Alysia’s famous saying is, “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” There’s no way we can always be at the table as a rental store owner and this is our answer to that — have professionals represent us. The combination of rental and supplier members being individually active in this process along with ARA’s staff leadership makes a powerful advocate for our industry.
RM: What do you see as the future for the association and its role for rental businesses as we move forward?
Cook: We were concerned in a board meeting a year or so ago about technology and social media replacing face-to-face contact. There’s such a rich history of ARA that involves networking face-to-face, rental store to rental store and rental store to supplier. Then there’s the buyer-seller connection with our suppliers. It’s hard to envision doing that by social media. It’s been interesting to watch young people in my business — and some I’m related to — that have opportunities to come to The Rental Show, a leadership conference, the legislative caucus or a state legislative day. That’s our future right there. How they have reacted is interesting and a relief to my generation because they are very much engaged in face-to-face communication. However, they also use social networking to keep in touch better than we kept in touch. We would come to the annual convention to see someone we hadn’t seen for a year while they stay in touch continually and can pick up rental tips more frequently. Social networking is an added bonus. The future of ARA and of the rental industry I think is very bright. There are third and fourth generations in the business now, still family-owned, and others who are new to the industry. I want ARA to reach out and help those people succeed. Each generation adds more people to the business, creating a bigger industry pie for all to share. It brings more people to the concept of rental as opposed to ownership and that’s good for all of us.
RM: What do you see as the association’s greatest challenges to confront over the next year or two?
Cook: Our members are still under a lot of economic pressure. While the future may look brighter and there’s lots of room in the industry for everybody, the reality today is we are not where we want to be economically. People have been let go. Businesses have downsized. Business potential has definitely flattened on the downside. It’s beginning to show signs of improvement for many businesses, but not all. Business volume still hasn’t returned to what it was prior to the recession and that remains a huge concern. ARA wants to make sure membership is affordable and beneficial. We have the challenge of helping our smaller and mid-size businesses with their day-to-day operations, while also serving our national company members and suppliers with synergy and professionalism, especially advocacy. If people look at ARA’s website, the tools are there. We want to find a way to get members to take advantage of all that their ARA membership offers to them.
RM: In your opinion, what is the state of the equipment rental industry? It’s been a tough economy, but some people have had good years while others have gone out of business.
Cook: I think we’re right on the cusp of having a lot more fun. It hasn’t been much fun the past couple of years. One key challenge is rates. There is a harsh reality today that rental rates have been cut in many markets by more than just one player and, although improving, rates may not be rebounding as soon as we’d like. That creates pressure to find different ways to create revenue. We are searching for new opportunities. You have to be an optimist to stay in business. I see opportunities right and left, such as doing business with the government and identifying new niches. Rental entrepreneurs are great at finding those spots to fill a need. There’s the question of where the green economy fits into rental. Some are finding a niche for it. It’s invigorating to live in the information age to see the technology changes that provide tools to operate a better “knowledge-based” business. Over my nearly 30 years in the business, the standards are so much higher and the industry has strengthened. We will continue raising the industry’s standards. The state of the industry is excellent and we are getting ready to continue our growth.