Rugby influences how Wisconsin rental operator runs his business
By Connie Lannan
August 8, 2023
Rugby and rental. At first you might not think there is any common denominator between the two. But then you probably haven’t met Mike Landry, owner, Area Rental & Sales Co., in New Berlin and Delafield, Wis.
A rugby player for the past 38 years, he has used key traits of the game to influence how he runs his rental business. “The value of the sport I bring to the business is my energy, passion, enthusiasm and sense of team,” he says.
Landry began playing rugby at age 23 and just retired a few years ago at 61. “I was a member of the Milwaukee Rugby Club, which was the only team in the Midwest to ever win a national championship in 1985. I also was selected to the Midwest Allstar team. I am an athlete, competitive by nature and I love to win. My sports background has taught me the power of the team. The inscription on our shirts at Area Rental & Sales Co. is: ‘We do it with passion.’ I am a man of passion. I love people with passion, whatever that passion might be. If you are setting up a tent at a festival, do it with passion and pride. That is how we run our business,” he says.
While rugby had always been an inspiration for Landry, rental was not on his radar until 1975.
“I was working for IBM, repairing computers. At that time there was a gas shortage and rationing of gas. Gas stations were closing. I saw there was a lease sign at a gas station. I wanted to lease one of these gas stations to put in a self-service car wash,” he says, thinking the car wash would supplement his work at IBM.
When he called about the property, the owner said he was planning on opening the gas station again and asked Landry if he would be interested in becoming a dealer, which would mean quitting IBM. “At age 23, I said I guess I could do that,” he says.
The gas station ushered in the rental business when he began renting U-Haul trucks and trailers. “Then I got rid of U-Haul and started renting my own trucks and trailers. After that I expanded, renting pop-up campers, motor homes and later on even rented cars,” he says, adding that those later additions were more short-lived.
Soon after, he saw a newspaper ad about a rental store going out of business, so he went to check it out and ended up buying quite a bit of equipment.
“I started renting tools — water pumps, tillers, wallpaper steamers, floor sanders and such — just the small stuff. I rented this all out of my gas station,” Landry says.
Another boost to his fledging rental/gas station operation was becoming involved with the ARA of Wisconsin in 1978 and attending The ARA Show™. That is also when he moved into the special event business. “George Latek from GL Supply in Chicago [who later was president of Latek Insurance Agency in Wheaton, Ill., and served as an ARA Insurance preferred agent for many years before his retirement], was a great help with setting up my inventory,” he says.
By this time “it dawned on me that this was a very good business. I enjoyed the excitement and stimulation from rental, and I realized there were a lot of areas that had a need for rental operations,” Landry says.
The passion he felt for rugby was now in full gear with his new career in rental. Ready to take the industry by storm, he started expanding his operation, first adding onto the gas station. As business kept growing and he continued adding onto his construction, general tool and event inventory, he knew this initial expansion was not enough.
“I started to look around for possible locations in other areas. I looked in Brookfield, Wis. I then bought property there in 1987 and built a 3,500-sq.-ft. building. In 1990, I bought land in Greenfield, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. I built a 7,000-sq.-ft building there, occupying 3,500 sq. ft. and leasing the other 3,500 sq. ft. In 1995, I went to Delafield, Wis., bought property there and built a 7,000-sq.-ft. building. In 1998, I bought an existing 3,500-sq.-ft. building in Wakasha, Wis. Then in 1999, I bought a 23,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in New Berlin, Wis.,” Landry says, adding that he also bought land in Mequon, Wis, but never opened a store there.
With the New Berlin operation close to the Brookfield store, he decided to merge the two with his new warehouse in New Berlin, giving him five stores in Wisconsin, each offering a mix of all his inventory.
During the early 2000s, “the lucrative small tool and equipment rentals declined. The big box stores also were selling the smaller equipment at reasonable prices,” he says. Not able to compete, he closed three of his five stores, leaving the New Berlin and Delafield stores to stay in operation. He also expanded into larger construction and event equipment.
In 2020, he moved out of the 23,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in New Berlin to a new 53,000-sq.-ft. facility nearby. “We have everything — construction, general tool and event all under one roof. Delafield is our satellite store. It has all the contractor equipment and over-the-counter special event items. All our deliveries are generated out of our New Berlin warehouse,” Landry says.
During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, “my equipment side spiked with the increase of homeowners working on home projects. At first we had to lay off my event rental team, but then we got a lot of long-term tent rentals and were able to bring them back. One contract for GE Medical was for more than a quarter of a million dollars. That really helped,” Landry says, adding that he is grateful his event rental business rebounded “above what it was in the past.”
Like other rental operations, he has suffered through supply chain issues. “It is not unusual to have a 12- to 15-month lead time,” he says, noting that finding parts is also still a problem.
Even with these challenges, he is so glad he ended up in equipment and event rental. “On the event side, we are dealing with customers who are happy and excited about their upcoming event. It is fun to share their excitement. On the equipment side, you are dealing with doers — hardworking people who I like dealing with. That brings me a lot of enjoyment. I like working with all my customers,” he says.
Now with 38 full-time employees, many of whom have been with him for 15 years or longer, and his son, Benny — also a rugby player who represented the United States in 2019 at the World Cup in Japan — at his side, Landry feels set for the future.
His extensive inventory allows him to cater to nearly everyone’s needs. “With all our inventory combined, we are the largest tents, events and contractor equipment rental business in the state of Wisconsin. On the event side, we cater to the corporate, festival, bridal, wedding and event planners, and nonprofit markets. On the equipment side, we serve more homeowners and small contractors, with our construction equipment going all the way up to big manlifts and backhoes,” Landry says.
Like with any good sports team, Landry knows that what really makes his business stand out is “we have people who care,” he says. “Our operation is a family-style business and not corporate. When you call here, you find someone who cares. If there is a problem, you know the owner will be involved. I do all the hiring because I want to hire nice people. That is my philosophy. I could be interviewing a great mechanic, but if he is ornery, I won’t hire him.”
It’s the team effort that makes running a rental business so satisfying. “Getting back to sports, you know you will have failures, but you need those failures to relish your accomplishments. When you win, you feel that great sense of accomplishment that comes with hard work and great devotion. Here we do it as a group and develop that camaraderie, like sports. It is a great feeling,” he says.
As for the future, “we will continue to move forward, which means growth. Staying engaged and charging forward is part of my competitive nature,” Landry says, adding that it will be accomplished as a team with passion and enthusiasm — just like what happens with a good rugby team.