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A big-time focus on small town hospitality

By Steve Campbell

June 9, 2023

Paw Paw Rentals storefront in Paw Paw, Mich.

Popsicles, dog treats, skid steers and tents. Those are just some of the items customers will find at Paw Paw Rentals in Paw Paw, Mich. For more than 30 years, Paw Paw Rentals has been serving the small community outside of Kalamazoo in southwest Michigan. Whether it’s a contractor, homeowner, bride, child or furry friend, owners Tim and Lori Tuma have what they need.

“We’re just a small rental company in a small community, and we know most of our customers very well,” says Lori, vice president and also the “boss lady” according to Tim. “We keep popsicles in the freezer for the kids that come in with their parents and dog treats behind the counter for the people that come in with their pets. We just try to be very friendly, and we’ve had a lot of people tell us that we are really easy to get along with and work with.”

Paw Paw Rentals was founded in 1989 by Tim, who is the company’s president. It was originally just construction equipment, but it didn’t take long for Tim to find value in the event rental side as well. He had previously worked for a company that did event rental so it was a natural transition. The only tough part was whether event rental would be successful in this small town of around 3,500 people.

“I was familiar with it, but I didn’t know what we could do. This is a small, rural town surrounded by other small, rural towns. It’s not a big city, but I think my first inventory was five canopies and a couple hundred chairs and I was freaking out about that. Ever since then, we’ve been growing and growing and adding bigger tents, more inventory, different things — an upward and onward kind of thing,” Tim says.

Event rental has become a main part of their business and also is a family affair. The Tuma’s oldest son, Travis, heads up the event side. But it’s impossible to discount the success the equipment side has had, which continues to evolve as well.

Left to right: Travis, Lori and Tim Tuma

“It’s evolved tremendously over the last 30 years. Bigger equipment, more of it, and constantly updating and upgrading,” Tim says. “Somebody said we’re a ‘small town rental shop with big-time equipment’ because we can do pretty much anything a big city, monster rental company can do. It’s not to the scale, but we can handle it and we grow every year a little bit.”

Having fleet in both rental segments keeps Paw Paw Rentals busy and has helped them weather financial storms including the late 2000s recession and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When COVID hit, we were very thankful we had the equipment end of it because we have some friends that have strictly party rental businesses in Kalamazoo and it was a struggle for them,” Lori says. “We feel fortunate that we have both and sometimes they both do really well, but if not, you have the other one to fall back on.”

“We aren’t so seasonal [with both segments]. With the equipment side of it, come end of November, everything starts slowing down. Then we have to get through the next three and a half months with low cash flow. No big projects are being started to get by. With the party end of it, it goes right on through December and into January — not at the rate it does June, July and August, but it’s cash flow. It keeps us busy.”

Paw Paw Rentals rental counter

In such a small town, the Tumas recognize their importance to their community. They sponsor events at the schools and also have a great reputation throughout Paw Paw and the surrounding area.

“We try to be involved in the community. We do support a lot of the schools around here and their sports programs,” Lori says. “Especially with the schools, when it comes graduation party time, people know they can come to us. Our name is out there.”

“We’ve been here for 33 years, we know our customer bases and people will send people to us, which is really nice,” Tim says. “We don’t think of them just as customers. It’s not all business and slap a pen down and give me the money. We’re invited to weddings. We go to some funerals just because we’ve become friends with these people. We’ve known their kids. It’s unique. That’s why we like it. It’s not the hustle and bustle of a big city. Everybody knows everybody here.”

That sense of community extends throughout Michigan as well. Tim and Lori are active within the ARA of Michigan where they attend the Winter Conference and other events. That network has played a crucial role in equipment theft that has plagued Michigan rental businesses in recent years. Paw Paw Rentals was a victim of equipment theft and now uses that experience to assist others.

Travis Tuma loads equipment for a customer

“Communication is big. There’s a group of us, probably three or four of us around here that if somebody comes around and steals a piece of equipment, that’s the first phone call I make before the police is I call the competition and tell them,” Tim says. “If someone steals something from them, they call me. They say, ‘Be aware of them, this is their ID, this is what they’re doing,’ and it’s worked. We set up multiple stings before and
got the crooks.”

In between theft stings, recessions, pandemics and anything else the world can throw the Tumas’ way, they’ve continued strong with Paw Paw Rentals doing what they have done for more than 30 years: treating their customers like family — all the way down to popsicles and dog treats — and aiming to get that family feeling in return.

“I’m not afraid to say a lot of our customers think the same way,” Tim says. “They’ll say, ‘Go see Lori’ or ‘Go see Tim. They’ll take care of you,’ because we do.”