When he was in high school and college, Josh Nickell often told his father, Tom, that he would not follow his footsteps into the rental industry.
“I was a music major and I couldn’t even change the oil in my car. I didn’t know anything about equipment, so I didn’t think it would be the right fit,” Josh says.
While attending college, Josh switched his major to business and had an opportunity to participate in several internships. “I worked as an intern in a brokerage house that sold insurance to insurance agents. It was a small business and what the owner said resonated with me. He said, ‘It’s not about insurance. I could be selling hot dogs, insurance or renting equipment. It’s about having a good product I believe in and running a business.’ That set it off in my mind,” Josh says.
“I had worked at the rental store during the summer, but this time I came back and looked at it as not all about fixing and running equipment, but about running an effective business and offering a good product. Then I started to enjoy picking the right excavators, picking the right inventory and hiring the right mechanics. I developed a passion for it because it was a business I could get in, wrap my hands around and make a difference,” Josh says.
Tom welcomed the change and Josh started working full-time at Nickell Rental in Newnan, Ga., after he graduated in 2004. They are now co-owners with Josh preferring to handle operations while Tom is mostly involved in sales and promotion.
“We work well together,” Josh says. “We have different strengths and weaknesses that we play off of each other. It has made the transition a little easier, but he’s not going to ever stop working here. I’m more management and operational behind the scenes while he is the face of the company with customers and banks.”
Tom smiles and nods. He’s now been in the industry for about 35 years, but he also was on quite a different career trajectory as he was three months away from earning his doctorate in dentistry before deciding to switch to the rental industry. He joined his father-in-law, who had a Taylor Rental franchise in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I had never thought about being a business owner before I went into business with my father-in law, Wayne Stringer. I just fell in love with the rental industry,” Tom says.
Together, they built the business into one of the largest Taylor Rental franchises in the country before the company was bought by Stanley. Tom stayed on and moved to Atlanta to run the Georgia market for Stanley, but as industry consolidation started in the 1990s, he decided it was time to go independent.
He acquired the location in Newnan, which was a 4,000-sq.-ft. nursery at that time in 1998. They remodeled and Tom says the business just “grew very quickly. We were blessed with a great location and a great market.”
Two years later, he purchased a second location in Griffin, Ga., which had been a Taylor Rental that he had once managed.
“As consolidation continued, the national companies focused on larger contractors leaving small local contractors underserved. I saw an opportunity for a company to target that market and that’s what I did,” Tom says.
Nickell Rental carries a variety of inventory, including small DIY items like tillers and aerators up to larger forklifts, skid-steer loaders and manlifts, targeting smaller contractors and homeowners as key customer segments.
“This allows us to work well with United Rentals and other large companies. We are not a threat to them. They will call us for smaller equipment and we call them for larger equipment. It’s an interesting dynamic,” Josh says.
One thing that sets Nickell Rental apart is that the company guarantees equipment delivery in 90 minutes or less. With Newnan located in the southwestern suburbs of Atlanta, a major metropolitan area with plenty of traffic, such a guarantee would seem to be difficult to uphold.
The delivery guarantee, however, is within a certain radius on the south side of Atlanta and Josh says the company has a lot of small trucks that work well with delivering the equipment they carry.
“If someone needs an item in the morning, we deliver it the day before so it is easily there on time, but if someone orders an item and wants it in less than 90 minutes, we can do it. Back when my father first opened, he only had three employees. A customer wanted a hammer drill with the 90-minute delivery guarantee, so he called a cab, sent the hammer drill and the customer got it in time,” Josh says.
Nickell Rental also will deliver to the north side of Atlanta for current commercial customers, but those aren’t covered by the guarantee. The company also works with other independents like Northside Tool Rental to serve the metro area. “They’re more comfortable handling the urban job sites and we’re more comfortable with the rural jobs, so we work together,” Josh says.
Nickell Rental isn’t cheaper than other rental stores, but the company aims to supply better equipment, take care of their customers and get equipment to customers faster.
“If you have trouble, we will work with you. We try to create an experience. Our job isn’t equipment rental. Our job is to help our customer complete projects. We try to train customers to call and tell us what they are working on. Then we help provide them with a solution to get their job done. That’s where our value comes in. Sometimes we will sell them down to a cheaper piece of equipment because that’s what they really need or it might be more expensive, but a lot more efficient for the customer,” Josh says.
Their logo includes the slogan, “Idea! Solution! Done!” The company also periodically visits job sites to deliver a bag of biscuits and orange juice or some other item to let the customer know how much they appreciate the business.
The company opened a third location on the west side of Atlanta in 2007, but eventually had to close it during the recession.
“We will be more conservative moving forward and we did learn to operate more efficiently,” Tom says, adding that they now have 29 employees, down from a peak of about 40.
“Since 2009, business has been up and down, but since late 2012, it seems the market here has finally gained traction,” Tom says.
Josh says a variety of factors have led to the up-and-down results, but says 2013 was up 10 to 20 percent on average, although those totals are 20 percent below what they were doing in 2007 and 2008.
Tom also has been giving more responsibility to Josh for operations as well as the company’s website and social media efforts.
“He understands technology and social media. He says, ‘Dad, we need to do this. Homeowners are using the Internet.’ I told him to take it and run with it and our website today is awesome,” Tom says.
“Our customers are ready for this,” Josh says, adding that their research shows that 40 percent of their website’s visitors looked at the site on a mobile device. As a result, they have a website that realigns depending on the device used so that the end user has a similar experience.
They also have expanded their efforts into social media, but only after setting the foundation with the website.
“Once we had a solid website, it made it easier because we can put a blog on our website about common customer questions and then tweet it, post it on Facebook, add it to LinkedIn and put it in an email newsletter. We want to be anywhere customers want to find us. Once you have the content you can blast it out,” Josh says.
He’s also made his own videos using equipment to help educate customers. “This isn’t something a lot of people are offering, so we can be ahead of them. Once everyone else does it, we can be on to the next thing,” Josh says.
Promoting Nickell Rental
Nickell Rental uses new advertising vehicles like Google Adwords as well as email newsletters and some old standbys, like billboards.
When it comes to contractor customers, however, Tom Nickell, founder and co-owner of the company with his son, Josh, continues with one tried and true method to keep the company top of mind — promotional items.
“We have pencils and safety sunglasses for contractors. We’ve put decals on coffee makers,” Tom says.
One of his favorites is giving out decks of cards and showing customers a couple of card tricks. “They love it and remember you,” he says.
Another trick of the trade, he says, is not to drive to a job site in a vehicle with the company’s logo, but in a nice-looking SUV, and be dressed nicely, but not in a company uniform.
“When you walk up to the job site, they will think you are an inspector, so the person that comes out to see you is usually the person you really want to talk to,” Josh says.
ARA honors members each year at The Rental Show with the ARA President’s Image Awards that reward companies for commitment to improve the rental industry through a remodeling, rebuilding or renovation project.
Nickell Rental displays a plaque behind the counter to promote the ARA President’s Image Award the company was presented with