Classic Party Rentals new CEO sees opportunities
Editor’s note: Jeff Black was appointed CEO of Classic Party Rentals, Los Angeles, in early April. Black is the former vice president of customer care for Aramark Uniform Services and general manager of Aramark Japan, and was with Aramark for 17 years prior to accepting the position as Classic’s CEO. Classic Party Rentals, which boasted seven locations in 2003, went through a series of acquisitions across the U.S. from 2004 to 2009. Today, the company has more than 30 locations nationwide and exclusive agreements with Chameleon Chairs, Designer8 and National Response. Black recently spoke with Rental Management about his impressions of the company so far and his plans for the future. An edited version of that conversation follows:
RM: What convinced you take the job as CEO of Classic Party Rentals?
Jeff Black: I think the thing that attracted me the most was the similarity in business approach. Aramark is a very successful, entrepreneurial-driven service business with great people and a customer-focused business model, which was very transferrable to this business. Classic is an entrepreneurial-driven, customer-driven business with passionate employees. One thing Aramark has done well over the past years is to build standardized processes and optimized delivery processes, and that’s something that is also transferrable to Classic. I think we do a wonderful job of pleasing the customer and behind the scenes we have some opportunities for improvement.
RM: According to the company’s announcement, one of the reasons you were chosen as CEO is because of your “customer-centric vision and philosophy of creating a strong culture that begins with integrity and emphasizes building great teams.” What kind of culture are you hoping to create?
Black: My philosophy is employee-focused. You focus on the employees and you focus on creating a great company experience. As you drive loyalty with employees, they can’t help but love the customer. I intend on being very employee-focused. It’s a people-centric culture that guarantees great customer experiences. Right now, we have support for our employees, but we can improve that and make sure that behind-the-scenes support exists. I think we have an opportunity to leverage that. Our customer satisfaction survey came back with great results. The question is, “Can we take it to the next level?”
RM: You’ve been in your new position since April. What have you learned? What has surprised you?
Black: During the first 90 days, I visited over half the locations and visited 12 more locations a month later. I’ve met all the general managers and a good amount of the sales people, and I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the passion people have for creating a meaningful event for our customers. I’m used to working with employees who are passionate about what they do, but this is a whole new level. We already have that. Now, it’s all about how can we make things more efficient and easier for our people. Our people work pretty hard, so I think there’s behind-the-scenes service improvements we can make to let them work hard, but not as long. The customer thinks we do a pretty good job. Now we just need to make sure the employee thinks we’re doing a good job, too.
RM: Classic Party Rentals has more than 30 locations, a singular computer system and a national network. What kind of changes will we see in these areas?
Black: We plan to focus on three things — people, processes and technology. For processes, we will implement standard operating procedures and efficiencies to improve customer service. With technology, we are implementing a new database program to handle inventory, ordering, accounts receivable and other programs. We had 25 percent implemented by July and we will complete the transition within six more months. That gives us a platform to work from. This will greatly impact the inventory side of the business. One of the differentiators of Classic is that we have this whole network and supply chain. We can leverage that and deliver a more cost-effective approach. We’re very focused on continuing to improve that. We also are in the process of totally revamping our website and looking at our online marketing strategy, which will include all types of experiential types of marketing. However, our most unique and precious assets are the people. Our customer survey said what separates us from our competition is our people.
RM: What are your key concerns? What keeps you up at night?
Black: Safety and creating a safe workplace for employees. That’s our most important priority.
RM: Classic Party Rentals was once on a buying spree and built the largest party and event rental company in North America through acquisitions. Will Classic return to acquisitions for growth in the future?
Black: I think we’ll still look at acquisitions, but I would say that’s not our strategy at this point. Our strategy is to leverage our current network and to improve the customer experience. We love the markets we’re in and we really want to improve those markets. It’s not to say we’re not looking at markets we want to expand into, but this is a comfortable size for us.
RM: How did the recession impact your business? What was learned by the company during those challenging times?
Black: With the economic downturn, this business — like a lot of businesses — became very price-oriented. When the market expands, it allows for a wider focus. We’re seeing that change now, from price to creating a meaningful event for our client, which is encouraging for the industry. For us, the recession was geographically focused. Currently, we have markets growing at a 30 percent clip and some are flat. However, I think we’re pretty encouraged by what we’re seeing in the markets. The weddings, bar mitzvahs, backyard barbecues, graduations — those are always there. Corporate spending is coming back now and we’re pretty encouraged by what we see with customer spending. Event planners and caterers are part of that, and those are important clients for us.
RM: Party and event equipment rental revenues, according to IHS Global Insight and the ARA Rental Market Monitor™, will continue to show steady growth in the foreseeable future. How do you see the overall segment evolving?
Black: Business in general is more competitive than it was four or five years ago. I think if we stay focused on the customer, the industry is going to accomplish a lot. When the market is expanding again, that’s great for the whole industry.
RM: How do you see Classic growing its business in the next five to 10 years?
Black: I think one of our goals is to get focused on exclusive products and service offerings. Being the leading company in the industry, we’d like to continue to lead with new, exclusive products and great ideas for the industry. In general, I’d like for Classic to be the premier event rental company with the best people in the industry and that’s our goal. We will stay passionate about that.