Event rental industry legend Bick Jones retires
By Connie Lannan
After 36 years of serving the event rental industry, Bick Jones, whose latest adventure in the event rental arena was serving as general manager of CommuniLux in Dallas, a subsidiary of InProduction, Chicago, decided to retire May 6, 2022.
“I have tried to retire three times, but none of them lasted. I love the industry too much and someone always asked if I could help somewhere. I felt like I had more to give, but I am going to celebrate a decade birthday in a month and a half. I figured now was the time to finally retire,” he says.
Jones entered the event rental industry in 1986 after building a successful career in banking. “I was serving as assistant vice president of corporate lending at what was then Chase Manhattan Bank, now known as JP Morgan Chase & Co. My partner, Emily Maduro, and I wanted to find a small business to purchase. The broker showed us a party rental business. We didn’t even know what a party rental business was. We went to the library because there was no online research in those days. I found information on the American Rental Association (ARA) and the early beginnings of party rental. We talked about it and felt this was a business we could get our arms around and understand. That is how we purchased Cannonball Party Rental in Dallas in February of that year,” he says.
While they had excellent financial acumen and understood growth strategies, they knew nothing about running an event rental operation. “When we bought the business, there were 18 employees. They made me realize how important having good people around you and working with good people are. Those employees taught me the business,” he says.
That experience made a deep impression on Jones and solidified the “servant leadership” style of managing he is reverently known for by those who have worked with and for him throughout the years, first at Cannonball Party Rental, then at Ducky-Bob’s Party and Tent Rental in Carrollton, Texas, at California-based Classic Party Rentals, at Classic Tents in Torrance, Calif., at PEAK Event Services in Woburn, Mass., at Marquee Events in Dallas and finally at CommuniLux in Dallas.
He has served in almost every management role at the various companies for which he worked, from general manager to chief operating officer and CEO. His vast industry experience and innovative ideas also made him a highly sought-after expert in the field, serving on numerous ARA committees, task forces and panels.
For instance, he was a member of the ARA Investment Committee in 2003, a member of the ARA Information Committee in 2006 and served on The ARA Show™ Task Force in 2008. He received the ARA Rental E-Web Award for party in 2004. He also has been a speaker and a panelist at The ARA Show numerous times, including at the 2021 show in Las Vegas.
But his lasting legacy is the impact he has had on those who have served with him.
Shannon Heller, inventory manager, Arena Americas, Oak Creek, Wis., knows that so well.
“I started working for Bick in 2000 at Ducky-Bob’s. I was the inventory manager. Bick is the kindest person I have ever worked for — kind, compassionate and thoughtful. He taught me everything I know about the event rental industry by example. That is a testament to him being a good leader,” she says.
It wasn’t just that Jones was nice, it was how his caring leadership style helped build strong teams. “The way Bick treats people with kindness, respect and compassion sets a good tone to run a business and build a team. I think that is an important component for working in the event rental industry — trust the people you work with both up the chain and down — that they will work for the common goal. Bick is really good at reading people and shining a light on the importance of every single person doing their job competently and completely. He never made anyone feel small or insignificant. He always made it a point to let every person know how important they were to the job. He is an amazing man. That is the most important thing I learned from working with Bick — working as a team. He always looked at the larger picture and helped you see how your part of the puzzle impacted other people in the business,” she says.
Jennifer Gullins, president/CEO, PEAK Event Services, Woburn, Mass., echoes that sentiment. She met Jones in 2016 when he helped with the Peterson Party Center’s acquisition of Rentals Unlimited, a merger that created PEAK.
“Bick is highly recognized in our space throughout the country. He comes into a conversation with a humble persona but so incredibly knowledgeable. If it has been done out there, Bick has seen it. For someone in the role he was in when I had the pleasure to work with him, I was so grateful to learn under him — the way that he approached both growth strategy within a business as well as ongoing challenges when you are scaling a business from a smaller size to a much larger size,” she says.
She learned from his leadership style too. “He is extremely thoughtful and not a man who rushes to a decision or position. He likes to absorb the information, think about the impact on the business, the people and the customers, and work through different strategies or challenges. I appreciated that about him and like that in a CEO. Now that I am a CEO, I frequently find myself thinking about situations that Bick and I had talked about. I will go digging through my files and come up with a SOP that Bick had in place when he was here and send this out to people saying, ‘Let’s revisit this SOP,’” she says.
Patrick Wendelberger, vice president of operations, PRO EM National Event Services, Phoenix, has known Jones for at least 25 years and values him as a friend and mentor.
“I first worked with Bick when I was at Tri Rentals in Phoenix, which became part of Classic Party Rentals. He then asked me to help run operations at PEAK Event Services. Before there was social media, he was already networked in. He is a connector and is always there to listen and give advice. I don’t think I am unique. I think he was a good sounding board to so many in the industry. In addition, if he wasn’t sure of something, he would ask. He didn’t think he knew everything about a certain topic. He knew people who might know more and he would reach out to them. I have tried to emulate that,” he says.
John Campanelli, the former leader of Classic Party Rentals, who retired this past January as the CEO of InProduction in Chicago, has worked with Jones on and off for the last 15 years.
“Bick was running Ducky-Bob’s when we acquired it in 2005. Then he started working for me at Classic. Over the years we have worked together directly or indirectly with Marquee Events and PEAK as I was on the board for both of those companies. In 2019, I asked him to work for me at InProduction. He was running CommuniLux, our subsidiary in Dallas,” Campanelli says, adding that “If it wasn’t for me, he would have retired a couple of years before. I got a few more years out of him so I could retire.”
Campanelli kept seeking out Jones because “first of all, he is extremely knowledgeable in all aspects of the rental business, whether that be tents, structures or under-the-tent things. From a leadership perspective, he is an empathetic leader. He is high IQ and EQ, which you don’t get a lot. He is consistent and always fair and loyal. He’s always been well-respected by employees and clients. He is an honest guy — a straight shooter. He has strong financial acumen, which is good. He led companies through 9/11, the Great Recession in 2008 and through COVID. Bick always has been about growth, but he has been through all these difficult times and knows how to adapt and change. He knows the actions to take. He is not afraid to do them. He is a seasoned, adult leader, which is so nice. He is well-rounded, calm and doesn’t frazzle under pressure or chaotic situations. He keeps his cool. He is the consummate professional and just a nice guy,” he says.
Now that Jones is officially retired, what does he plan to do? “My son and I bought a tenting business in Houston. He has been running it since March of 2020. He wanted me to help out on a part-time basis. I thought it was time to take whatever I learned over the years and help my son out a little bit — do something as a family business,” he says, adding that this time he will keep it on a part-time basis.
Inspiring innovative ideas
Bick Jones, who retired this past May after serving the event rental industry for 36 years, was known for bringing innovative ideas to the industry. Those innovations, particularly in the areas of finance, showroom displays and warehouse organization, have not only become standard procedures but also have been expanded upon by other event rental leaders.
Jones and his partner at the time, Emily Maduro, were unique rental operators in that they were among the few — or only — people in the industry who came from the banking world, offering a unique perspective that most other rental operators didn’t have.
David VanDenburgh, president, Adams Rental & Sales, Hamilton, N.J., says that perspective was instrumental in shaping the growth of the event rental segment.
“No. 1, it was that Bick and Emily were the first two to leave a major bank and get into the party rental business. Those of us who deal with banks were able to draw on that understanding he brought to the relationship we have with bankers. No. 2 is that Bick just didn’t write a paper on how depreciation works. He wrote the definitive paper on depreciation. It became the bible of understanding how depreciation and capex [capital expenditure] spending work in the industry,” VanDenburgh says.
“Depreciation in a rental business has a lot to do with how you organize your books, whether you look profitable or not and how your tax liabilities fall. So, depreciation is a very important part of the financial underpinnings of our entire industry. Bick brought an understanding that none of the rest of us had. No one understood the use of depreciation and capex as well as Bick,” he says.
Other ideas came from Jones’ keen observational skills. He paid attention to what was done by others, both inside and outside the industry. Those observations prompted “lightbulb moments,” helping him realize he was seeing something that would revolutionize the industry.
“I am always a big believer that the great ideas are out there. You can’t be the sole source of great ideas. You look around and see great ideas and lightbulbs go off in your head when you recognize something that is game-changing — a paradigm shift of how the industry will look five years down the road. You have to set your ego aside and when you see those things say, ‘That is who I want to be when I grow up,’” Jones says.
He has heard those words in his head so many times. At a National Association for Catering Events (NACE) meeting, he toured the new facility at Ducky-Bob’s Party and Tent Rental.
“I was reading the book, ‘Customers for Life,’ by Carl Sewell. Carl Sewell changed the paradigm of what service looked like in the car dealer business. For instance, he had the floors in the shop area so clean that you could eat off them, implemented high-level customer service, etc. In that book he talked about how important it was to put production processes in straight lines to make it more efficient. That is a pretty basic concept today. I read that book and that just stuck with me. When I went to the meeting and saw that the new building for Ducky-Bob’s had three dock doors on one side of the building and two on the other side, allowing them to bring in all their dirty dishes and laundry on one side of the building and then load and pack everything and send it out clean on the other side, it was like a lightning bolt hit me. It was like the concept was here at this facility,” Jones says.
Jones discussed all these and other ideas with members of his peer advisory group — the first American Rental Association (ARA)-established one in the country — comprised of current and past leaders in the industry, including John Bibbo, CERP, president, Event Source, Cleveland, and Panache Events and So Cool Events, Pompano Beach, Fla.; Andrew Paquette, CERP, president, Bravo Rentals, Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Canada; VanDenburgh; Charlie Neffle, chair, and now his daughter, Elizabeth Wilson, CERP, All Occasions Event Rental, Cincinnati; John Crabbe Jr., former owner of Vermont Tent Co., Burlington, Vt., and now Mike Lubas, CERP, current CEO of the company; Bridget Doherty, owner, Encore Event Rentals, Windsor, Calif.; William Pedersen, president, Pedersen’s Rentals, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia; Ben Shipper IV, formerly from Chicago Party Rental in Countryside, Ill.; Terry Turner, CERP, owner, All Occasions Party Rentals, Knoxville, Tenn.; Mark Clawson, president, Diamond Event d/b/a Diamond Event & Tent, Salt Lake City; and the late Maun Petersen, who owned Undercover Structures in Salt Lake City; to name just a few.
“I think there have been more ARA presidents and past presidents in that group,” Jones says. “It’s phenomenal. I am still in the group. The group has offered very tangible benefits in very real time. It is unbelievable how important it has been,” Jones says.
Bibbo admits that he soaked up Jones’ financial expertise and also was impressed with the concept of “cross-docking,” the straight-line approach that Jones had read about and seen at the new Ducky-Bob’s facility.
“He introduced that idea to me — how things go out one side of the building and return to the other side. It was a brilliant concept, which we included in our layout of our building 21 years ago. It is the only way to run this business,” Bibbo says.
“Bick’s involvement in our group over the years has been instrumental. When Bick would give his update, even if it wasn’t in person due to his commitments with the company he was working for, you could hear a pin drop when he spoke. He knew so many people and had so much experience with all types of rental ownership groups. That helped many of us in the group. As our businesses entered different stages, we would encounter challenging situations. Bick would usually have the answer,” Bibbo says.
The success of the group spread. Others in the industry wanted to join. “We wanted to keep the groups to about 10 members each and take into account a geographic diversity in each group because of the noncompete charter and bylaws that were part of the group. As other people approached us about joining a group, they were encouraged to seek out other members. That is how other groups started to form,” Jones says. Today, there are numerous such groups throughout the U.S. as well as Canada.
Showroom and warehousing innovations also were a specialty for Jones.
With the showroom, Jones realized that rental operators were “creating a workplace for customers. The showroom gave you this work area. It was just amazing how people from all parts of the industry would come. This was back when we just had the showroom and not really worktables. The idea hadn’t fully matured, but when you saw people come in, such as the public relations department for Nieman Marcus that was in Dallas and see how they wanted to put a plate on the table with a specific linen underneath it with a set of glasses for a Christian Dior shoot, I realized that we had to have more than static displays. We needed to bring people in to have them work with their ideas and work with color and patterns to develop what they are trying to do in the event space,” he says.
Jones used showrooms to introduce clients to “see all the things that you do,” he says. “It all started to snowball from there. We hosted industry meetings in the showroom, we did wine and food tastings, all these things that are happening. It also helped us realize that we could get further toward the beginning of the rental decision-making process than what we had been able to do before,” he says.
His warehouse concepts started in a similar fashion. “Back in the early days of event rental, it was tough to tell people when their delivery was going to be there. You had to look for ways to solve those challenges and bring customers the information they wanted. That need changed the way the dispatch was run and how you could take that information, whether it was back in the early days with pagers and progressing to GPS units in trucks now. It was that need to know it and need to know it now. It helped us orient all phases of the business to a more customer-focused approach,” he says.
That approach extended to how the warehouse was organized. “First and foremost, cleanliness and organization are essentials. You can’t do anything well if it is not clean and organized,” he says, adding that he also made the will-call areas customer-friendly by offering cookies, refreshments, a comfortable sofa to sit on and other amenities while customers waited to have their inventory loaded.
When it comes to the processing side of the warehouse and the effectiveness of it, not only did Jones preach the straight-line concepts, but he also focused on the square footage.
“Most people think about square footage to store the equipment. The key square footage in any warehouse is where you process inbound and outbound product. That is the key,” he says.
Jones also shared his ideas during different seminars over the years at The ARA Show™.
“I did a seminar on barcoding, truck tracking and how it ultimately progressed through the years. One of the hardest things has been job profitability and how do you know when to take on a job. It is a very fluid business and a business that has a high degree of operating leverage in natural terms, not unlike an airline. The rental industry, because it is more of a B2B [business-to-business] industry, we have struggled over the years. Job profitability tools have popped up. I have created my share as well, but it is one of those challenges that is hard to get your hands around as it is a fluid decision about when is it right to take on the last job and at what price should you take it on,” he says.
The ideas Jones has spread have been adopted and improved upon by others in the industry. “It is so amazing how ideas get better and improved upon to the point where I visit showrooms and I am in awe. Bridget Doherty recently built a new facility. It is drop-dead beautiful. Most of us don’t put in a lot of lighting like you might see in a furniture showroom, but Bridget has done that. It is really effective. You are creating vignettes and lighting the vignette to showcase your products in the best possible light. She has taken all these ideas to another level. John Bibbo has taken it to another level as has Dan Hooks [CERP, president, Party Reflections, Charlotte, N.C.], also a member of the peer advisory group, just moved into a new building. It is so great to see how ideas have progressed over the years,” Jones says.
Improving your business
Join an ARA Peer Advisory Group
Bick Jones, who has been in the industry for more than 36 years, is just one of many American Rental Association (ARA) members who have benefited from being part of a peer advisory group.
So what is a peer advisory group? It is comprised of eight to 12 members, primarily owners, of noncompeting rental stores of similar size, volume and inventory mix. These moderated groups meet throughout the year — virtually and in person — to:
Review key performance indicators, financial results and trends, marketing strategies and more.
Benchmark your company’s financial performance against rental industry data.
Discuss common challenges and get advice from your peers.
Dan Crowley, who manages Peer Executive Groups, Coopersburg, Pa., handles several peer groups for ARA members.
“It’s more than great advice. You will get support and peer-driven accountability for you to achieve your goals,” Crowley said in “Event Rental Insider: Kickstart your business into overdrive,” in the May 2022 issue of Rental Management.
“There are no shortcuts to success, but we like to say, ‘Shared experience brings individual success.’ An owner can feel ‘pulled at’ or ‘picked on’ at times by employees, vendors and customers. When peer groups gather, they have the chance to set all that aside and be focused on themselves and their businesses, unlike their day-to-day work life,” Crowley said.
To qualify, group members must be a member of ARA and complete the Financial Planning and Analysis survey. Additional requirements include a minimum of 10 full-time equivalent employees during your peak season and gross business volume of more than $500,000. Participants must be willing to share current financial statements.
More information is available online by visiting ARArental.org/peer-advisory-groups or by calling ARA member services at 800-334-2177.