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A to Z Rentals closing its doors after 69 years

By Stephen Elliott

May 14, 2023

A to Z Rentals

Phil Stumme, owner, A to Z Rentals, Elgin, Ill.

A piece of history is ending within the American Rental Association (ARA) and the closing of A to Z Rentals in Elgin, Ill. 

Owner Phil Stumme, 64, is retiring from the rental business that started with his father, a charter member and pioneer of ARA, the late Edmund Stumme.  

Phil’s father and 20 other rental store owners or employees met on March 6, 1955, in both Rock Island and Moline, Ill., at the rental stores of Leonard Hawk, ARA president from 1955 to 1958. 

They created the National Rental Operators Mutual Association (NROMA), with headquarters in Moline, Ill., and started with an initial $10 dues payment intended to supply a modest amount of capital to benefit all concerned. 

Later in the year, the name was changed to the American Associated Rental Operators (AARO). The name American Rental Association was approved by the board of directors in February 1961. The ARA grew over the years with a group of rental store owners, like Edmund Stumme, who called, mailed and met each other to bring unity and spread growth. 

“I’ve got some old letters here on old carbon paper that my dad was sending,” Stumme says. “My dad started his business with $3,000 from the G.I. Bill.” 

Stumme says his father opened initially as a United Rent-Alls (URA) franchisee in Elgin, Ill., in 1954. This was at a time when rental was fluid and a relatively new industry, changing with a society wanting to build and needing the equipment necessary.  

Rental store owners discovered new markets and demands. Equipment, such as sanding machines, carpenter and cement tools, and party and banquet supplies, were just outside the front door of the Elgin store. A four-digit phone number is pasted on a small newspaper advertisement from over half a century ago, a sign of the times. 

“For the first several years, these guys would meet at each other’s houses until it got going,” Phil Stumme says of the initial days of the ARA. “It was a different world then. Dad told me of one of the first conventions, hooking a trailer up to his truck in a snowstorm, and loading up equipment at the convention.” 

Stumme says his grandfather Arthur was the first employee of his father’s operations.  

“My mom, Frances, was secretary,” Stumme says. 

Original store of A to Z RentalsThe business grew.  

“He had good people-handling skills,” Phil says of his father. “When I was a kid, I grew up sweeping floors, doing what kids can do. As a teenager, I helped load equipment for customers.” 

Eventually, Phil left the business and struck out on his own, living near Reno, Nev., for 10 years. In the spring of 1987, his father came out for a visit and said he was retiring. 

“He asked if I had an interest in the business,” Stumme says. “I felt it was family. Over the years, we both evolved, and we were able to work together.” 

Stumme says his father moved the business to the current Elgin location in 1963. Aside from his 10 years out west, Phil’s life has essentially been rental. He speaks like someone who enjoyed his job. 

“It took me a long time to learn what I learned,” he says. “There were employees here with many years of experience. Just being around these guys was helpful. One of the greatest perks of this business was when someone came in with a frown on their face and you’d give them the right tool. 

“The next day, they were smiling.” 

His family rental business consisted of a wide spectrum of construction, general tool and event items. Adaptability was key for his business through the years, renting backhoes and ride-on trenching machines for sunrooms to sod cutters for landscaping and party goods such as canopies, chairs, dunk tanks and more for events. 

“In the early years, some of the biggest customers were the City of Elgin and utility companies,” Stumme says. “They needed big equipment. Back in the day, there were a lot of independent builders who would rent equipment to put a foundation in during the summer. In the wintertime, they’d work inside.” 

Today, with the business closing its doors, Stumme has recently had visitors arrive, faces from the past, both employees and customers, to say goodbye or reminisce about a memory.  

“An auctioneer will be working this week and getting what’s left online,” he says. “When that’s all done, the property will be sold.” 

Stumme says he enjoyed being his own boss. He brought two different dogs to work with him, and people would come in sometimes just to see his dogs. Stumme and his employees worked together with a purpose. 

“I just had a fella stop by that worked for me,” he says. “He told me, ‘It was the best place I ever worked.’ He has a son and daughter now, and wanted to stop in and have a little reflection. We were laughing. We were like a family. Everyone looked out for and took care of each other.” 

Stumme says typically, he would travel every year to The ARA Show™.  

“The shows have been extremely helpful,” he says. “And the publications, I get ideas from them.” 

Stumme, a paraplegic, says he and his partner, Nancy Howe, want to enjoy some things while he is still able to physically. One of his passions is woodworking, and the couple also plans to spend time in the Upper Peninsula where they have a piece of property. 

“During the warm weather, you didn’t get two weeks off,” he says. “I can’t remember the last five days in a row that I took off.” 

Stumme, an ARA Region Five Person of the Year award recipient in 2016, says he will no longer get up to an alarm clock. To those who know and understand rental, Stumme says the legacy of simply helping make people happy will always be a part of him. 

“Everybody seemed to help one another,” he says. “That’s what I love about this industry.”