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Building a brand one transition at a time

By Steve Campbell

April 17, 2023

Sean Williams, ECP-SM, and Brian Soares

Sean Williams, ECP-SM, and Brian Soares

Sean Williams, ECP-SM, had a plan to become the owner of First Place Rental, Oswego, Ill. He had moved up from a part-time employee to become a manager of their location in Sandwich, Ill. One day, he met with then-owner Scott Munsterman about the future of the business.

“I sat down with Scott and said, ‘I know you’re probably going to want to retire at some point in your life. Do you have a plan for that?’” Williams says. “He was really excited, but after we had that conversation, Scott said, ‘You know, I had this exact same conversation with Brian Soares.’”

Neither Williams nor Soares knew the other was having the same conversation with Munsterman.

“I didn’t know that Sean had also been talking to Scott about that,” Soares says, who had been working at First Place Rental since 2012. “This was years after we had been here, but then Sean and I got to work together more frequently and started mentioning it to each other.”

Those conversations began a series of major transitions for First Place Rental with Williams becoming president and co-owner while Soares serves as the vice president and co-owner. But before they could transition to owners in December 2019, tragedy struck.

Munsterman had a heart attack and passed away in September 2019. His wife Lisa became the sole owner.

“She didn’t have any interest in running the business. It was Scott’s dream,” says Williams, who also serves as president of the ARA of Illinois. “She told Brian and myself that this was our show. She gave us the reins. We sort of had a plan in place to take over as the owners, but it was going to be a long road no matter what. Then 2020 happened with COVID. It hit the brakes on everything.”

Buying the business was put on the back burner. Williams and Soares focused on the day-to-day operations during a pandemic with the plan to get back to the ownership transition once the situation calmed down.

“There was a very unique set of challenges that came along the way with the pandemic, COVID and Scott passing away, so all of those things transitioned into quite a melting pot of long nights,” Soares says. “We were prepared then the opportunity came about. Things were expedited. Rather than taking several years, up to 10 years, to slowly buy into the ownership and take over, it had to happen really quick.”

And quickly it did. Williams and Soares officially bought the business in January 2021. From there, they looked to settle in as owners, but a conversation at The ARA Show™ 2021 in Las Vegas changed those plans. Williams had replaced Munsterman in his Peer Advisory Group following Munsterman’s passing. In that group was Terry Trusgnich of Aide Rental & Sales, which had locations in Highland, Ind., and South Chicago Heights, Ill. Williams asked Trusgnich if he had any plans for the business as Trusgnich was nearing retirement.

“Terry said he hadn’t really thought too much about it,” Williams says. “I told him to make sure to let us know. He wasn’t too terribly far from us, but I wanted the opportunity to at least talk with him about it and see what could happen. Fast forward to the show, I heard him mention to someone else that he was potentially thinking about retiring. I told him that when we get back, the first thing I’m going to do is put together some numbers and see what we can come up with.”

For more than six months, they worked on the sale with it becoming official in June 2022. Now a new transition is underway for First Place Rental with three locations in two states.

“So here we are with three locations, almost 30 employees. I think we had 14 employees going into it, so we pretty much doubled in size. We definitely doubled in size with equipment,” Williams says.

The additional locations bring about different challenges from what they were used to operating in Oswego, a town on the far west side of the Chicago suburbs.

“The Highland store is a very similar geomarket to where we have here [in Oswego] — more open area, a lot more dirt moving. The South Chicago Heights location is a little more urban — not as much new growth, a lot of remodeling, a lot of restructuring of older buildings, parking lots, and homes being either torn down or rebuilt right on their spot,” Soares says. “Being able to introduce new equipment to both those locations — a little bit larger equipment, maybe a little bit more efficient than what they’ve had in the past — that’s been a challenge which has been exciting for us.”

Both Williams and Soares say working through these transitions wouldn’t be possible on their own. They needed to have that same discussion about ownership at the same time to make it happen.

“It was super exciting that we wanted to do it together, and we knew that we meshed well together already at that point and made us more excited about the future,” Williams says. “I can tell you 100 percent that I wouldn’t have been able to do this without Brian’s help, and I believe he’d say the same thing on his end. It’s a super big blessing.”

“Sean took a lot of the brunt of the financial side on his shoulders with talking with the banks, and then I could focus on the actual operations end which would relieve him of that,” Soares says. “That was all stuff that has to be done, but you can’t do both at the same time efficiently so having that partnership was crucial.”

For some businesses, the amount of transition First Place Rental has had would put an end to any thoughts of future movement, but that’s not who Williams and Soares are. The opportunity to continue building their brand is always on their minds if something presents itself in the future.

“We can’t stay stagnant for too long, but our goal is to get the three locations that we currently have functioning the way we want first. It could mean two years, it could mean five. You just never know,” Williams says. “We do have some ideas in mind for potential in the future. You just never know. You have to keep your options open.”