Steve Wagner’s father once lived in Moline, Ill., and worked at John Deere. However, along the way, he met Leonard Hawk, then the head of the American Rental Association (ARA) and owner of A-1 Rental in Moline, who helped launch the Wagners into the rental industry.
“Dad had finished with Deere and was coming back to Minnesota because his mom and dad were up here. The way he got excited about the equipment rental industry was Leonard Hawk. Leonard sold him his first inventory and got him connected to people he could purchase equipment from,” says Wagner, the second generation owner of A-1 Minnetonka Rental in Wayzata, Minn.
“He joined ARA and started the store in 1963, Because of the connection to Leonard, he named the business A-1 Minnetonka Rental,” he says.
Now, about to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, Wagner, who bought the business from his father in 1977, has seen several changes in the rental business over the years, but has a quick smile when talking about rental. He’s also very enthusiastic about the future and the prospect of his son, Chad, who is a high school math teacher, becoming more involved in the company.
A-1 Minnetonka Rental also was a Ryder/Budget dealer for 30 years, but recently dropped the affiliation to carry its own line of trucks, trailers and dollies as well as the sale of moving boxes.
“We were once part of the Grand Rental Station True Value system, too, but last year decided once again that a rule issue made it more difficult for us to fit with them, so now we are truly independent,” Wagner says.
“The core of the rental business is still the same. It’s about getting jobs done for people, satisfying people’s needs, wants, desires, and it’s still renting essentially the same tools,” Wagner says.
“There are some changes in technology. The computer has made a world of difference on who we can market to, how we market and how we handle ourselves with our customers. We don’t have arithmetic errors in contracts. The state gets its sales tax nicely and more easily,” he says.
As a full-service equipment rental and party rental store, A-1 Minnetonka Rental serves the western suburbs of Minneapolis, including Wayzata, Excelsior, Chanhassen, Orono, Mound, Minnetrista, Plymouth, Minnetonka and Deephaven.
“Lake Minnetonka is so big it cuts off the population. It is a huge, beautiful area with great people who have supported a moderate size business nicely for years. We’re not going to get bigger, like others that might have 250,000 people in their trade zone. We have 50,000 people. I love my business and it’s a lot of fun to be here,” Wagner says.
The triangular piece of property has three buildings, including the original rental store that is now used for storage and has a 1,500-sq.-ft. workshop on the top floor. They completed a remodel of the main 5,000-sq.-ft. building about seven years ago, creating two showrooms, one for general tool and the other for party and event. There’s also a garage used for storage, but the two-acre lot has a varied terrain, making it difficult to use all of the space.
Party and event currently accounts for about 25 percent of the company’s revenue, but the plan is to bump it up to 30 or 35 percent as Wagner’s son wants to make party and event his “niche” in the business.
On the party and event side, the company focuses on weddings, graduations, reunions or other homeowner celebrations, renting canopies, china, glassware, flatware, linens, concession machines and more.
“Right now, it’s easier to make the party side of the business better because there is a lot more party business, which is what you hear everywhere with rental stores,” Wagner says.
A-1 Minnetonka’s inventory on the tool side ranges from truck rentals, trailers, air compressors, saws and sanders to
skid-steers and mini excavators.
“We stop purposely at that size of equipment because if you go to the next tier, then you need larger trailers and heavier trucks, which means you have to deal with Department of Transportation issues and rules,” Wagner says.
“We target the contractor that works with a pickup truck. One of our ‘claims to fame’ is that we have these 4-ft.-by-5-ft. trailers and we send them out for $5 to any customer who needs a small trailer for a small piece of equipment. This way, we don’t have to load the equipment into trucks. We don’t have to load a compactor into a trunk of a car that the customer will then have to get it back out. We started this 10 or 15 years ago and we have about seven of these trailers. The $5 doesn’t make you a ton of money, but it pays for the trailers and saves people’s backs,” he says.
Located so close to Lake Minnetonka, the company also has a couple of unique rental items that do well, Wagner says: pontoon boat
trailers and post pounders.
“We have a specialty niche for around the lake. Pontoon boats usually go in the water once, come out once and sit on blocks. A lot are sold without a trailer, so we have three of them and do an awesome business with them,” Wagner says.
“What is probably different from anyone in this state or the country is that we rent a lot of equipment for putting in docks. There are dock barrels, the float to run the dock out on and post pounders. We have 15 post pounders and most rental stores don’t carry many post pounders,” he says.
Located in Wayzata, one of several small lakeside communities, Wagner says there isn’t much call for heavy construction equipment since the lakefront is an established area and any new construction projects on the lake are usually multimillion-dollar homes built by upper-end contractors who don’t usually rent equipment.
“They might come in three times a year to pick up an odd tool, but we don’t have a heavy construction base where the same contractor comes into the store three times a week to rent something,” he says.
While the recession impacted A-1 Minnetonka’s business, Wagner says 2012 has been a near record-breaking year.
While he worked at the store while he was growing up, Wagner went to the University of Minnesota, earning a business degree. Then he traveled around, working in another rental store, at a car dealership and other odd jobs in places like California and Colorado before returning to Minnesota.
“I never had anything else in mind in terms of what I wanted to do. In 1977, I bought the business from my father. In 1985, I started a jet ski business for a few years. We also opened a second store about six miles from here, but it hit a plateau too soon, so we came back to running one store here and made it bigger,” he says.
The company has four full-time and two part-time staff members on the tool side and usually has five part-time employees as seasonal help for party and event.
Three family members are involved, including Wagner, who works full-time and usually runs the counter. As a teacher, Wagner’s son, Chad, is a seasonal worker focused on party and event, and Chad’s wife, Vanessa, works part-time to handle the accounting and help with the party side of the business.
Outside of work, living so close to Lake Minnetonka, Wagner enjoys fishing. “I get out enough to be satisfied, but not enough to be a great fisherman,” he says. He also plays golf and has a passion for woodworking, which often comes in handy to fix tables and chairs.
His wife, Deb, has been a registered nurse for 25 years. “We come home and talk about our passions versus our problems. My mother and father worked in the business together, so I grew up with passions and problems muddled together. It’s nice to have someone outside of the business to come home and talk to. She loves to go to The Rental Show and understands the rental business, but has no desire to work in it,” Wagner says.