Being bullish on diversification, investment in middle management and tech
By Connie Lannan
November 7, 2023
For G. Richard Young Jr., owner, Element in New Orleans, growth has meant taking three distinct actions: diversifying and investing in both middle management and technology. It is a strategy he says is now more important than ever.
Element has become known in the New Orleans area as a one-stop event rental operation that caters to everything from backyard gatherings and weddings to the film industry and municipalities that might need emergency temporary housing after a natural disaster.
“A lot of companies call themselves a one-stop shop, but we truly are,” Richard says. “The only aspects we don’t do are the invitations and food. Why? It’s unique. Companies our size are usually in cities like Houston, Atlanta, New York and LA, but we are in a city with less than a million people. There’s only one way to do that. You have to do more of everything else — to capture the revenue. That is the only way to grow in a city with less than a million people.”
Some of the unique features of the company include having its own welding shop, carpentry shop, mechanic division that takes care of all the fleet, a sewing and cutting room, and a fabrication department where they can make their own tents and sidewalls.
“We are the ‘Super Target’ of our industry. We serve just about everybody. And if you are a logistics company or a municipality in Lake Charles, La., and you have just been wiped out by a hurricane and need to build a man camp or are a chemical plant in Gonzales, La., and need a tent structure with HVAC and restrooms for six months, we can do that, too,” he says.
It takes a lot of people to run an operation of this size. “We average 100 to 110 full-time employees. We will usually pick up about 20 people part time in the busy season. We keep a good staff because we have been able to diversify so our slow season doesn’t affect us as much as some other companies,” he says.
All was moving at a good clip when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit.
“Like most companies our size, we would not have made it without the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans. We would have had to liquidate inventory, have an auction, do massive layoffs. We would have survived, but we would have been a whole different animal coming out of the pandemic. We did not lay off anyone because of the PPP,” Richard says.
The pandemic helped prompt his daughter, Taya, to join the operation in 2021.
“This was something I tried not to be part of,” laughs Taya, Element’s senior event specialist. “I was working for the [state] government and it wasn’t what I had pictured, although I was very fond of it. He offered me a job until I could figure out what my next move was. I came on board and fell in love with it. I realized, unfortunately, this is what I want to do.”
“She was working at the state capitol for the secretary of the Department of Children and Family Services as her assistant,” Richard adds. “It was a good gig and then COVID happened, turned the world upside down and changed the dynamics of her position. She wasn’t having very much contact with the secretary anymore. At that time, I approached her. I said, ‘You aren’t making any money there. I can triple that.’ She tried it out, ended up being really good at it and had the stomach for it and the personality for it.”
For Taya, there was no going back. “I love my interaction with my clients. My favorite thing about my job is going to site visits, seeing just a backyard of grass become the client’s dream venue in a day — watching it all come together and seeing the clients fall in love with it. It is very fulfilling,” Taya says, noting that she values what she has learned about the technical aspects of the industry and “how to gain respect as a businesswoman in a world full of men.”
That same year, the business started to turn around. Work with the film industry helped.
Film work “grew organically as the city started attracting more and more film productions,” Richard says. “We happened to be the company that can supply what they needed.”
Adds Taya, “We have been doing a lot of film work for the back of the house, such as tenting for the catering department, the extras in a movie, makeup, wardrobe, etc.”
When the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) unions went on strike in May and July, respectively, Element’s business in that area came to a standstill.
“It’s been as bad as COVID,” Richard says, adding that because the corporate market hasn’t returned to pre-COVID levels in New Orleans, it has been a double blow. “New Orleans was a major convention city. Our convention business has been significantly reduced,” he adds.
Even with these setbacks, Richard, Taya and their team are moving full steam ahead, honing in on key aspects to stay ahead.
“The biggest challenge of an operation like this is middle management. That is why Taya is here. Middle management is the most difficult part of this business if you are diversified like us. You have to find people who really care and are smart enough to keep those multiple frisbees spinning at one time. We are investing in middle management and now investing in technology such as RFID systems, barcoding, automated laundry and tent washing systems,” he says.
Not only is Richard investing in Element and increasing its reach, he also is looking at expanding into other rental markets — going back to his rental roots in a way.
“My father started as a Taylor Rental Center franchise in 1982. My dad and brother moved on to get in the party rental business. At the time, I was running an audio-visual company. Dad put the tool rental business up for sale. I took that over and then purchased my father and brother out of their party rental operation and merged everything together in 2000 and slowly got rid of the tools to where we are now. Element is now in a 100,000-sq.-ft. building — a former grocery store — on 11 acres of concrete, fenced-in yard and automated gates,” he says.
Richard moved out of tool rental because he thought “mechanics were hard to find and equipment is expensive.” At the time, event rental wasn’t so challenging.
“Twenty years ago in the party rental business, you needed white folding chairs, black folding chairs, gold Chiavaris, maybe silver Chiavaris and some Samsonite chairs. That was it,” he says.
That business model has changed significantly over the years. “We now have over 40 types of chairs that we offer our clients. For every type of those chairs, you need about 300 to 1,000 of each one. Some of them are very expensive. Before, we had one type of tent. Now we have six different types of tents. You need really smart people to work in this business. That is hard to find. The dynamics have changed over the years. We are considering getting back into the tool rental market,” Richard says.
It’s all part of diversifying the portfolio.
“My daughter is watching me operate during these difficult times and she sees me doubling down. Everyone else has laid off people, sold off equipment. I am hoping that when we come out of this next year that this strategy will work again for us,” Richard says.
ARA played major role in rental operator’s development
G. Richard Young, owner, Element, an event rental operation in New Orleans, started out as a DJ in the 1980s and developed a deep background in lighting and audio-visual equipment.
“At the time that was all new to the rental industry. My dad came into the industry in 1982 when he started as a Taylor Rental Center franchise. I came on board in 1996. I was the poster child for the ARA [American Rental Association] in the late 1990s. I was on the cover of the magazine, did seminars at the conventions and was on multiple committees. I was heavily involved,” he says.
For instance, he was a member of the ARA Events & Tents Task Force from 1997-1998 and then again from 2000-2002 and a member of the ARA Education Committee from 1999-2001. He also served as ARA of Louisiana vice president from 1999-2004.
In addition, he was honored by the industry numerous times. He received the Rental Excellence Award: Construction & Industrial Equipment — Best Store Design in 1999 and received the President’s Image Award in 2002, 2011 and 2018.
For Young, ARA was instrumental to his development as a rental operator, thanks to “the networking and knowledge” he gained.
While he became so busy with his rental business that he had to discontinue his involvement on all the committees, he still relies on the ARA Facebook group pages for that connection and insight.
“I look at them and learn something every day,” he says, adding that the information shared is “useful, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”