Moving through the succession process: F & B Rentals’ Alberto Pianelli shares his experience
By Connie Lannan
April 17, 2023
Alberto Pianelli grew up in his family’s rental operation, F & B Rentals in Santa Ana, Calif., but he knew he had to take a different route for a while. He went to school and became a drug and alcohol counselor for adolescents in Los Angeles. At age 27, after receiving a call from his father, he returned to the business ready to eventually “take over.”
Pianelli remembered that fateful call from his father, Robert Shipley, inquiring about his interest in coming back to the business.
“He said, ‘Hey, what interest do you have in taking over the business? Do you want to come back and do this?’ I saw it as an opportunity to keep our family legacy going. I felt comfortable with the rental industry. I felt like the experience that I had working in mental health and going to school really helped me understand people a lot more. That helped transition me to come back,” Pianelli said during an interview that aired in the “Peer Talk Podcast” with Dan Crowley, president, Peer Executive Groups, Philadelphia, who conducts many of the American Rental Association’s (ARA) Peer Advisory Groups.
That was in 2013. Starting as a salesperson, he moved to assistant manager and then manager. He kept learning all aspects of the business.
That education has primarily been through being part of different experiences, Pianelli notes. “I am taking an active role in learning these areas of the business. I am given the opportunity to look at a situation, study it and see what is best for the company at the time. A lot of things I have learned have come from a situation happening in front of us. I got involved in helping deal with it,” he says.
Today, Pianelli is the general manager, handling the day-to-day operation of the business. “My dad has pretty much retired. He is more of a CFO [chief financial officer] who helps me with the financials, sharing the budget and how much I can spend. My mom, Jessica, still does the administrative HR duties,” he says.
Pianelli understands that an important part of growing into his future role is demonstrating his leadership skills to all involved, especially his employees. “If I showed that I just didn’t care about my employees’ well-being, I wouldn’t be taken seriously. It is important for people to see that. I am interested in my employees’ well-being and health. That shows I am serious and proves to people that I am ready to go, which makes them willing to work behind me,” he says.
“I am a third-generation rental operator. I take a lot of pride in that. There are fewer and fewer industries that have generational owners.”
— Alberto Pianelli, F & B Rentals
One of Pianelli’s biggest strengths is “my management skills when it comes down to employees,” he said on the podcast. “I feel confident in my ability to lead a team and to communicate my needs to my team. Understanding who is on my team and trying to elevate people is essential. And I learned a long time ago that if I micromanage, then people are going to constantly wait around for me to come in and tell them how to do their job. I train people up to a point and allow them to make some mistakes. The goal is not to allow them to make mistakes, but I want everyone who works for me to be assertive.”
That leadership also must be shown in his interactions with his parents, Pianelli says, especially during times when he and his parents may not agree on a certain approach.
He has worked through those situations by “not taking something seriously and being willing to pause when I am agitated. To me there is no complicated answer. I have learned to not try to come back and one-up people. I stay quiet if we are around employees, customers or other people. I calm down and be professional. I do feel I can talk about anything upfront right away, though. If others aren’t around, I will say what I need to say,” he says.
Having worked for different bosses outside his family has been helpful in this regard.
“It helped me realize that there is no easy street. When working in treatment, your reputation is everything,” Pianelli says. “You develop a reputation when working with families and other professionals. You have to work with doctors and other treatment teams. If you are not good at your job, it spreads. People say they don’t want to work with you or say, ‘Yes I want to work with this person.’ My reputation took me to working with professional NHL and NFL players and their children because I worked for the head psychiatrist for the NHL and the National Soccer League. He would give the nod that I was good. That afforded me the chance to work with others. I worked with kids whose family was in the music and TV industries. It is about your reputation. It taught me that you have to mind your P’s and Q’s. There is a level of professionalism that people expect.”
What also has helped is that Pianelli and his parents meet weekly at board meetings. During the meetings, “we catch up on the week and what happened, highlight the week that is coming up and make sure the tasks we have to do are taken care of. Having a board allows everyone to be on the same page,” Pianelli says.
Additional assistance has come through his involvement with ARA. He joined the ARA of California board in 2017, first serving as Legislative Chair and then president from 2019-2021. Since 2022, he has been serving as ARA Region Nine director. He also is involved in an ARA Peer Advisory Group.
As he said on the podcast about his peer group: “I am constantly picking other owners’ brains. It is filled with other rental operators who are just taking over their family businesses and their stories about the transition and the similar struggles. There is nothing like having people, I don’t want to say validated, but, you know, they have empathy for the same experiences, and we get to kind of feed off each other and be, ‘OK, how do you handle this situation? And what is your experience with it?’”
While the family does not have a written succession plan with a definitive time frame for completion, they have consulted on an informal basis with Crowley, who has helped many rental operations navigate the process.
“We have an outside mediator in Dan. We haven’t fully said OK to come in yet. It has been at the forefront of our minds, but it hasn’t been brought up yet. It is comforting, though, that if we are ready to be more specific, we know there is someone out there who can help us. That will make the process a lot easier,” Pianelli says.
Looking back, Pianelli is so glad he decided to return to the family business. “I always thought coming back to the business was a possibility. At the time I wanted to try a different career. I am happy I was able to do that. [When my father called,] I was thinking about this opportunity of being in this business, knowing this business and growing this business. This business has provided so much for us. It felt good to jump in and continually learn and grow with this business. It is such a unique industry and once you start getting involved it is a really fun industry to be a part of. Our business is supporting my current family, my parents and the families of my employees. We are allowing ourselves to have a larger ripple effect. It feels good to be a part of that,” he says.
For Pianelli, it is also about extending his family’s legacy. “I am a third-generation rental operator. I take a lot of pride in that. There are fewer and fewer industries that have generational owners. I think being involved with that is so special. That is what is so special about our industry. This is an industry we can continue to pass onto our sons and daughters. I love that aspect of it. My ultimate end goal is to have full ownership of the business and surround the company with my family — my wife and kid(s). I hope to have my kid or kids be in a position someday to be available to run the business,” he says.