General Rental follows the trend away from tools
When Ronald Pierce launched General Rental in Mt. Pleasant, a suburb of Racine, Wis., in 1978, he expected people would flock into his store since no one else in the general vicinity offered tool rentals.
“I built my own house from the ground up. I did all the carpentry, electrical, everything and I thought we could use a good rental store here,” Pierce recalls.
The first few years were tough, but slowly General Rental gained a following. Now, nearly 35 years later, however, tool rental is only a small part of his business that is more focused on party and event.
“It seems like most everybody started out in tools and then dribbled into party. Everybody was 20 percent party, then 40 percent and then 60 percent. After the last recession, we’re now about 90 percent party and that saved us,” Pierce says.
The company has its main 12,000-sq.ft. facility and showroom in Mt. Pleasant and a separate 18,000-sq.-ft. warehouse about two miles away on the south side of town. Pierce says the ideal situation would be to have everything in one location, but he did not want to move the business from its long-time spot on one of the busiest streets in town.
“We didn’t have any more room for expansion here after doing that once or twice, so we built the warehouse. We have almost all of our party and event equipment there. The only party equipment here is for customer carry out. We have eight delivery trucks and everyone reports here in the morning. Things are pre-loaded the day before and then we are ready to go. All the tenting, tables and chairs are at the warehouse and we have good managers, so it works out,” he says.
The warehouse also has 20-ft. ceilings with a racking system and forklifts to use all available space to store inventory.
General Rental still carries some larger equipment on the general tool side, some of which is used for plowing snow at the store. The rental yard at the main store includes everything from trailers, skid-steer loaders and scaffolding to air compressors, manlifts and dunk tanks.
Each nook and cranny in the 12,000-sq.-ft. facility is used for everything from laundry to staging and storage for things like plastic
wrap, food warmers, coffee makers, china, glassware, cotton candy machines and more.
“I know people in our area who have completely closed down the tool departments. Our guys are pretty good mechanics, so we use them to service our trucks and we’re keeping that part of the business open, but it has really died off,” Pierce says.
This is an often-heard story from many independent rental stores across the country as they have followed customer demand straight into party and event.
“We mostly do corporate types of events as well as events for colleges and universities,” he says.
“Our biggest sales point is service. We’re probably one of the most competitively priced rental stores around, but the most important thing is service,” Pierce says. “You won’t get a second chance from most places nowadays. You have to give good service and we get so many compliments on all of our good employees. Your employees
General Rental uses quite a bit of temporary help, but usually has 10 to 15 people working in the winter and up to 35 or 40 in the summer.
He says his secret to finding good employees at one point was his daughter when she was in high school and college. “The kids in college were all great. Today, we go by word of mouth. In the spring, we usually hire about 20 people and then lose about five. We have a lot of entry-level people that we’re using and all of our good people who have been here for awhile love it,” he says.
“I also tell anybody, ‘If you do a good job here and later want to get another job, I love giving good recommendations.’ Also, if they do good a job here, they will absolutely do well in their next job,” he says.
Pierce says business had been picking up since the recession, but that this past summer was hard on profit because of unusually hot weather in his area.
“The downside of the party business is that it is labor intensive. We were doing pretty well, but for the first time ever, we had multiple days and weeks of temperatures in the 90s and 100s. Our employees did their best, but because of the heat, it would take a crew two hours to do what was usually a one-hour job. We were still as busy, but paying two hours for a one-hour job resulted in a lot of overtime, so profits were crushed this summer,” he says.
Like many small businesses, one of his main concerns about the future is health care because no one really knows for certain how the Affordable Care Act will impact what he currently does.
“My biggest fear is government regulations that will cost us money. As a small business, I have to be an attorney, a human resources specialist, an accountant and a business major and it seems like they don’t give you any slack,” Pierce says.
Another cause for concern, he says, is the growing trend among customers to make last-minute orders. “People used to book weeks and months in advance. Recently I had someone who wanted $2,000 of stuff in an hour. People know competition is out there and they don’t understand that it costs me more to keep people after work to meet those late demands, but the customer is king,” Pierce says.
“We’ve added a tight time slot delivery charge. People complain, but then you simply explain that you have to leave another job on the other side of town to be there in time for them. Depending on who orders, 90 to 95 percent of the people are great and understand, but some can’t fathom it or don’t want to pay extra,” he says.
Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Pierce graduated from Winona State University in Winona, Minn. His wife, who is from Wisconsin, wasn’t interested in moving to Iowa, so he started searching for work in Wisconsin. He then landed a job as an industrial arts teacher in the Mt. Pleasant area in 1972, where he also coached football and wrestling before deciding to open his own rental store six years later.
“It all worked out great. We moved here after college as this was the first place I applied. Being near Lake Michigan was a big deal when you are from Iowa. We like the Racine area and have a great group of friends. It’s a great city to live in,” Pierce says.
Outside of work, Pierce is an avid tennis player, hitting the courts three to four days a week. He and his wife also split their time between Racine and Florida.
Pierce joined the American Rental Association (ARA) soon after he started the business in 1978 and is a big proponent of The Rental Show as “one of the greatest things in the world” to “pick the brains of everyone there and to see all the things you might need for the future.”
Today, he says he is a bit more picky about the inventory he buys. “You used to be able to go down the aisles at the show and try this or that. You would pick 20 items and maybe have a couple of losers. Nowadays, you can’t afford to have any losers,” he says.