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Developing leaders through rental

By Connie Lannan

March 14, 2024

Joe Walker

Joe Walker

Joe Walker’s family event rental business, Your Event Party Rental in Plymouth, Mich., does more than create spectacular events for his clients. It also serves as a training ground for developing the leadership skills of the young people he employs.

“People forget that this is a logistics company like Amazon, but sometimes harder. We are moving party equipment, but not packages like Amazon. Once you get that understanding, students realize they can apply this work to other areas of their life — to make them more successful adults and leaders. It gives them the opportunity to be leaders, make mistakes and make decisions. I love working with youth. It is a passion of mine. I like to see young people come in and stretch themselves. That has helped my business grow and become more successful as well as helped these young people,” he says.

That passion is why he went to college to become an elementary education teacher. He developed a love of rental while pursuing his education.

“I ran my friend’s rental business while I was in college. My best skill is problem-solving, and with this business there are plenty of problems. I like the constant figuring things out and making things happen,” he says.

After graduation, he became a teacher. He left his friend’s rental company but then started Your Event Party Rental in 1997 because he kept getting calls from people who wanted to rent items.

He taught for less than a year and then moved to educational sales. “I worked full time as an educational sales rep as well as ran my rental business until 2000, when I retired from educational sales and just focused on rental,” Walker says.

Members of the team at work loading a truck

Members of the team at work loading a truck

His two passions merged, most notably when his two children, Joey and Emily, grew old enough to become involved in the business and also started getting involved in other activities such as scouting and sports.

“I like helping shape young people to make them good workers and good people. I heavily recruit from scouts. I am still a Boy Scout leader even though my kids have aged out. I hire a lot of Eagle Scouts and scouts in general. Both my kids played sports, so I have had their friends come in and help. I have high school kids who do co-op here. Some college students come here for internships. I know my son didn’t think working here would count as an internship. His teacher said it definitely would because he was helping run a business,” Walker says.

It is about getting them “to understand what they are doing and how it applies to so many other things they  are doing in their lives. Kids [who work here] have learned, made decisions and had a variety of experiences,” he says, noting that all of that counts and helps them grow.

His business — like his penchant for helping young people learn and develop leadership skills — has evolved over the years.

Joe Walker, center, and his two children: Emily and Joey

Joe Walker, center, and his two children: Emily and Joey

“We had humble beginnings,” Walker says. “For the first 10 years, I didn’t pay myself. I was doing two jobs — rental and educational sales. From the day I started, though, we have been a full-blown event rental company. Now in our 26th year in business, we are in a 30,000-ft. facility, complete with a 1,000-sq.-ft. showroom, several offices, meeting rooms, a warehouse, and a dish and laundry facility. We do about 2,000 or 3,000 events a year.”

Like other event rental businesses, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic turned his operation upside down and redirected its course.

“Before COVID, we were more focused on corporate events. We were more of the middle person, serving caterers, hotels and corporate entities. When COVID came through, that area of the business dried up and we went more heavily into wedding and residential business. We didn’t do hardly any long-term stuff. It just didn’t make sense for us. After COVID, I closed our second location in Brighton, which we had for 10 years. It no longer made economic sense,” he says.

Walker was able to pivot quickly to the wedding and residential markets because he has the equipment as well as established rental partners to assist him. “We have up to 40-wides on pole tents. We don’t do anything larger than 20-wide in frames. I subrent larger tents from other partners in the industry. On any given weekend, we can do 10 to 20 large tents. We handled the LACASA Center’s fall fundraising event, Denim & Diamonds, at Triple Diamond Alpaca Ranch. We did the entire setup for them,” he says.

He and his team of 10 full-time employees and additional seasonal staff did such a great job of rebounding — generating $0.5 million in rental revenue in 2020 to $0.9 million in 2022, which is an 80 percent increase — that his business was named a Rental Management Market Mover in the June/July 2023 issue of the magazine.

Front of Your Event Party RentalWalker attributes that growth to “sticking to what we do best. Flexibility is what makes it work. You have to be able to change as the market changes and be able to take risks, but take calculated risks. You have to decide what your niche is,” he says, noting that this means:

Carefully deciding every year what he is going to invest in. “I do linens, but I do a majority of standard linens. I do some specialty linens, but I subrent a lot of those and buy those I know I can make money on. Instead of going crazy and buying everything and then trying to make the money, I try to be more calculated. That is why I subrent my 40-ft.-to-60-ft. wide tents. In Michigan there are just so many jobs that can take those tents. Does it justify me owning those or can I work with a partner so we are both successful in order to make money?” he says.

Always working to attract new seasonal staff. “I rely on recruiting every year, making sure I recruit at colleges, high schools and my scouting people early on so I have a solid staff. I try to make sure the staff who return are treated well and paid well. Young people are more motivated by enjoying what they do. By treating people well and giving them a good experience, I can attract more good people. That has made a big difference,” he says.

Event handled by Joe Walker's teamAdapting. “If there is no corporate business, can you switch over to residential? When residential isn’t doing well, can you switch over to corporate? You have to have the right goods for the right jobs and be willing to take a risk to do this or that. We’ve also implemented texting services. Instead of calling our clients, we text them to say when we will deliver. That has increased our referral and reviews by 300 percent. It also has increased our response time. We have found that the open rate on a text is more than 50 percent higher than a phone call or email. Implementing texting has made a huge difference for us,” Walker adds.

The bottom line is “we are here to make people’s events special and help our employees enjoy their work and learn,” he says. “We are a family-owned operation. We aren’t just selling stuff to sell it. My employees who work for me are friendly and take care of people. We provide quality equipment. Those qualities are hard to find these days. Every job we do is important.”

Walker says that mindset will bode well for the future. “We are in the midst of growth. We are focusing on more corporate as those businesses are coming online and fine-tuning what we offer to fit a certain need and certain size. We are looking at more niche business with hotels, churches, etc. We want to offer those things that only we can offer. We want to do more of that,” he says.

That includes opening a new division within Your Event Party Rental. Walker has become a wholesale supplier for cotton candy and snow cone machines, etc. “We were having trouble getting supplies and those pieces of equipment, so I looked at how to resolve the situation. Being a distributor is that solution for myself as well as other residential and rental businesses,” he says, noting that it is just another way to adapt.