In 1972, at 23 years of age and six months pregnant, Holly Kuchar decided, along with her husband, to pack up their life’s belongings in the San Francisco Bay area and borrow money for the entire down payment — including $500 for moving expenses — to purchase and run a rental business on California’s Mendocino Coast.
“My mom was in real estate. Her broker told us there was a business for sale. We had just graduated from college and said, ‘So what?’ but he said we should look into it. We had a handyman business. When my husband, a Nebraska farm boy, heard it was a rental business, he felt he had died and gone to heaven. The business came with a house, which every pregnant woman wants, so I was sold. Within two weeks, we had moved and started running a general tool and construction rental operation,” says Kuchar, recently retired as president of Fort Bragg Rent-All & Party Works in Fort Bragg, Calif.
Not knowing a lot about rental, the previous business owner said he would “be there to help us, but he didn’t stick around for even a day. He did leave us $100 that was a deposit left for some camp trailers. That is the $100 that we used for the first 10 years for the cash drawer,” she says.
The business was a time-intensive endeavor. “We were open seven days a week and had no employees the first year. Three months after we arrived, I gave birth to our first child. We were so ignorant,” she recalls, “but this was a boom time for California. All of the equipment in the business was old, so we kept borrowing money and buying new. We figured that if we could make the payments and have a little extra after that, we were doing OK. We also became a John Deere consumer products dealer, which was great,” she says.
Their hard work paid off. After five years, they had three businesses all next door to each other — the rental business, a natural health food store and a gourmet kitchen store. They had 12 employees to work in the three businesses and two children.
Everything seemed to be going like clockwork. Then, in December 1977, Kuchar and her family were in a terrible plane crash. “We were flying our Cessna 206. We lost one of our children — our five-year-old — in the crash. I was in intensive care for two months and my husband was hurt, but my other child — my three-year-old — was OK,” she says.
The grief and the intense recovery took its toll. “It was eight months before I could go back to the business,” she adds.
Added to that were the legal challenges. “The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) declared it was pilot error. We knew this was wrong, so for seven years we fought that. We got it changed to mechanical error. This is only the second time that the NTSB has ever reversed a pilot error decision. We did this because we never wanted another family to go through what we went through and feel responsible for it when they weren’t,” she says.
During this time, Kuchar says the business survived because of her employees and the way they were used to being managed. “I’ve always given my employees spheres of interest and responsibility. I always have told them that if they are honest and good to the customers, I would back them up. Our employees were used to making decisions. If they weren’t sure what to do, they would get together and make the best decision they could. I have been blessed with great employees. At least two have been with me for 40 years. Several have been with me for 12 to 18 years,” she says.
While going through this recovery period, Kuchar and her husband sold the health food store and the gourmet kitchen business. Just as they were ready to come back to the business full time, another rental yard opened directly across the street. Both the new business and Kuchar’s were U-Haul dealers and offered welding supply and small engine repair.
To show that Fort Bragg Rent-All & Party Works wasn’t going anywhere, “We leased $150,000 in new equipment to make a statement that we were here to stay,” Kuchar says. “The new company had party equipment, but I noticed that they didn’t know how to process that equipment. At the time, I didn’t understand party, so I learned from Events & Tents, other seminars and rental operators. That is what I have loved about the rental industry. Rental people are so willing to share information. That year, when I went to The Rental Show, Linda Bradley from Big 4 Rents walked me around for four hours, telling me what party inventory to buy. The party exhibitors were so helpful, too. I kept placing orders and really started the party end of my business,” she says.
Since that time, a lot has changed. The store across the street has closed. Kuchar’s husband decided after 23 years to leave the business and the marriage. Recessions have hit, but Kuchar has survived. All areas of her business — the general tool, construction and, particularly, the party and event sides — have grown because she always has looked for ways to bring customers to her business.
For instance, as her area of California became a wedding destination hot spot, Kuchar made sure her business was there to serve all of their rental needs. In addition, she has offered costume rental, has even delivered telegrams as a belly dancing gorilla and added a party goods retail business.
“I’ve been so broke and so scared, but I have learned you have to keep positive and dynamic,” she says. “I view money as an energy flowing through a hose. If you get scared and stingy, you cramp the hose. If you get scared, you stop thinking creatively and you have to stay creative to grow.”
Now, after 41 years, Kuchar has decided to begin a new chapter of her life. She met a Canadian who happened to stop at her business because his daughter said he had to be in costume for a party he was attending. After four years of dating, Kuchar married her Canadian suitor last month and plans to live part of the year in Canada and part of the year in California.
Before she could move on, she had to sell her business. “I had to make sure that whoever bought my business had to have the same integrity as I. I wanted to make sure they took care of my customers,” she says.
At first she was thinking of closing the equipment side of the business. “I called my longtime friend, Mike Sutliff from The Rental Place in Sebastopol, just after I returned from The Rental Show this year. He told me that I couldn’t sell half of my business. He came up and said he would buy all of my business and keep all of my employees. It’s a win-win for everyone — my community, my employees and my customers,” Kuchar says. The business officially had new owners as of April.
When Kuchar thought about leaving the business, she knew it would be hard. “I will miss all of the interactions and the creativity of it. The highest point has been being of service to my community. My community can’t be its best self without a rental yard. People use the equipment to make money and fundraise for different community projects,” she says. “I also have been blessed with wonderful employees and have had so many friends in rental who have helped me, from Linda and Mike to Jim Hanson, Ken deVries and so many others. The industry has provided me a way to grow up and meet incredible people. When I started out, I was very shy. I had to learn how to be outgoing. I had to make a decision about how I approached life and dealt with people. I decided I wasn’t going to let people mold or jade me. I was going to think the best of people until they proved me otherwise. All in all, the industry has challenged me to be my best self.”
The rental industry, she says, has provided her with a very rich and satisfying life — learning so much from the industry, other rental operators, her employees and customers. One important lesson is one she gladly shares with others: “When you get in a difficult spot, do not let fear override you. Do not respond from a place of fear. When you let the fear go, good things happen,” she says. That is what she did as she was thinking about selling her business and entering a new chapter in her life. “I let go of the fear and knew that things would work out.”