Mother and son work side by side to grow business
Sherri Creighton, president, Pleasanton Rentals, Pleasanton, Calif., has been re-energized about her business while at the same time taking a step back as her son, Collin, takes on more responsibility for running the party and event rental store.
Sherri initially bought the company 17 years ago with her then-husband and soon bought his interest in the store after they divorced. While Pleasanton Rentals initially was a general tool rental store, she decided to focus on party and event, selling the general tool inventory to Cresco Equipment Rentals.
For the first eight years, Sherri says she would easily put in 60 to 80 hours of work a week while being a single parent as the company was in what she calls “drive mode” to grow.
“I can’t do that nonstop my whole life. I was starting to wear down two or three years ago when Collin was done with his college training and wanted to give it a shot to see if he liked it. He even went to Texas to work for my sister and her husband, who have a rental business. That way, he could see how somebody else does it,” she says.
“Some weeks it is easier than others,” Sherri says. “It’s nice having him here. I’ve been able to reduce my work week to what I want it to be right now. The biggest benefit of having a family business and having family in your business is the reliability and trust factor. They own it and there’s nothing like that sense of ownership in an employee. I consider myself an employee and he’s an employee.”
Collin attended College of the Canyons in Los Angeles, where he also played football. “When the economy started to dive in 2008, my younger brother, Nate, had just started college, so I thought I would help out at the business to make it work during tough times. We found a way to make it through and I’m pretty happy where I am right now,” Collin says.
“Now that he’s here, I have the drive again. It’s easier when you know someone is next to you who can put the shoulder to the wheel with you or push harder than you can. I’m excited about the business and it’s nice to see him excited about it, too,” Sherri says.
Sherri describes Pleasanton Rentals as a “tabletop company” because 30 percent of the rental volume is linens.
After purchasing the company and selling off the general tool inventory, she found another building in an industrial park in Pleasanton and changed the image of the company to serve a more upscale clientele. The facility is 10,000 sq. ft. with another 5,000 sq. ft. of storage space across the street as well as a fenced-in area next to the main building.
“Image is important in California. We have customers come in and touch things, so that they can envision it as theirs and see it through to their event. Not everyone can do table design, but we want it to be that way,” she says.
The company also embraces the community and gives back to schools and local charitable organizations by earmarking a percentage of the previous year’s profit for donations.
Most of the company’s business comes from weddings and Sherri has high expectations for her staff members to make sure everything is perfect with every order.
“Weddings are a lot of work. You probably have 50 touches and the chances for making a mistake go up as you tweak it. You have visits with the brides, the grooms, the sisters and the mothers, but our staff members are really good. I hardly ever work with customers because I don’t want customers to think I’m the best, but that our staff members are the best. I can tell you what it cost to buy everything and how much we own, but not the rental price or what is in inventory at a given time,” she says.
“Our products are far beyond everyone else. Our service is great and our employees are friendly. We are not a huge corporation, but a mom and son with a group of employees who work very hard and we have a great product,” she says.
When Sherri was growing up, she remembers when the Sears catalogue would come in the mail and she would sit at her grandmother’s home and flip through it, page after page, dreaming about things she might have.
“The Internet is like a Sears wish book for brides,” she says. “There is no limit to what a customer can say they want and we then have the choice to say, ‘It’s not available’ or ‘We can’t do that,’ or we say, ‘Let us make it happen.’ It drives margins down. Because you own so many things, the item utilization goes down. That means you have to pick your position whether to be the freshest and in step with the cutting edge or be more concerned with better margins. We try to hit it in between, I want to make a lot of money, but it’s also important to project a certain image versus profitability. Sometimes you have to err on the side of having what customers want us to have.”
“We redesigned our website and still need to do tweaks to change it. The beauty of a website is that you do not have to wait a long time to redo it. You can call in someone to fix it quick. The Internet is what has driven business. We are located back in an industrial area. We wish we could improve walk-in traffic, but that would probably mean having a storefront downtown. Everybody does know us now and business has gone up with will-calls because when brides come in, they bring in their bridesmaids who later become brides,” Sherri says.
Collin also has helped move the company into tents on a small scale to start. “Are we a big player in tents? No. Do we want to be? No. Collin may want to do that later, but we are getting in one step at a time to where his comfort level is and where we stop losing events we could do if we had the product,” Sherri says.
Sherri says the biggest challenge for the business is finding and retaining quality employees. They currently have 18 people on staff.
“Employees are the backbone of the business. We have three people who have been with us 10 years or more and I wish that number were higher. What we need to do now is develop more of a culture to entice and hang on to this new generation coming into the workplace. It’s really hard to hire quality people or ferret out those you could develop into quality people. We’ve raised our starting wage for drivers and for sales, but drivers continue to be the hardest positions to fill because they have to be English-speaking. We are in a wealthy community and it’s hard to find drivers that fit our criteria who would work for $15 or $16 an hour,” she says.
Generations growing up in rental
As a third-generation rental store owner, Sherri Creighton, president, Pleasanton Rentals, Pleasanton, Calif., says she simply “grew up” in the rental industry since her grandparents first opened a rental store in Tyler, Texas, in 1967.
“My father joined my grandfather in business in 1968 or 1969 and then they grew the business. My grandparents retired and by that time, my father had four or five locations in east Texas. When I graduated from University of Texas in fashion merchandising, my father surprised me and offered me a job. I had not thought about working for my father, but when he said that, I thought I would love doing that,” Creighton says.
She moved back to Tyler and managed one of the company’s locations until she was engaged to be married and moved to Dallas.
“I had a hard time leaving Tyler, but it was one of those things in life where you come to a juncture and there are two hard decisions and you have to make one of them. I got engaged, moved to Dallas and went to work for Ducky Bob’s. They were good friends of my grandparents and it was an invaluable learning experience,” she says.
“I learned a lot about business and the rental industry from my father and my grandparents, but I learned an awful lot about events from Ducky Bob’s. They knew event rentals and have some of the best operators working for them,” she says.
She stopped working when she was pregnant and her then-husband was transferred to California.
“I was out of the rental industry from 1988 to 1996. In 1995, my uncle, who had been partners with my father, calls me up and says, ‘Sherri, there is a rental company in Pleasanton that I want to buy, but I can’t get your aunt to move to California. I think you and Dirk should go and look at it because it is so close.’ We lived in the Sacramento area and we took a look,” she says.
“The store was a clean, well-run operation and I liked the feel of the area. I could sense a missed opportunity for party and event rentals because it was just a small portion of the business. My husband quit his full-time job, we moved to Pleasanton and bought the business. The first day I unlocked the door, I was hit with the smell of two-cycle oil and I knew I was back,” she says.
However, she and her husband divorced shortly thereafter and she bought his interest in the business.
Her oldest son, Collin, has his own memories of growing up in the rental industry and is now the fourth generation working in the business.
“I’ve been here as long as I can remember. As a kid, punishment wasn’t getting grounded. It was ironing napkins and cleaning flatware,” Collin says.
He now works with his mother in the business as a sales representative, taking more responsibility to run the company as time goes on.
“I’ve done just about every job here and still get in the truck and make deliveries. You have to pitch in. What I’ve learned is owners of rental stores are not typical technology company CEOs above the business, but people who are more involved and right there. They have a hand in everything and I enjoy that,” he says.
Serving customers isn’t always about the money
While Pleasanton Rentals, Pleasanton, Calif., mostly handles weddings, it also supplies equipment for a variety of events and for homeowners.
Thanksgiving, particularly, has become a favorite time of year for Sherri Creighton, the company’s president, as she pitches in to fill customer will-call orders.
“The day before Thanksgiving, we run out of everything,” she says. “We will have more than 130 will calls and that many deliveries. I’ll work in the back and chat with people about what food they are making, who is coming this year and what their family traditions are. The customers love sharing that information with you and I love that connection. It’s not always just about the money.”