Member profile: Serving hometown and family were big draws for California rental operator
By Connie Lannan
Matt Crawford grew up in Lincoln, Calif., a primarily rural town about 30 miles from Sacramento. While he didn’t come from a rental family, a good family friend who owned Far West Rents & Ready Mix in his hometown provided a strong rental foundation that made an indelible impression. It not only molded his future career path but also brought him full circle — back home and to the rental operation that started it all.
“I started working at Far West Rents & Ready Mix the summer after my junior year of high school,” he says. “The business was family-owned by a good family friend. I went to school with the owner’s kids. I was like family, but I wasn’t related.”
He left to attend college and study to be a history teacher. “During college, I started working for another family-owned rental company in Chico, Calif. When I was getting ready to graduate, I realized I really knew and liked rental as I had worked in rental for quite a while already. When Herc Rentals came to recruit, I went to work for them for a few years,” he says.
Through Herc, he ended up in sales and did a lot of traveling. After a while, Crawford grew weary of the constant travel and felt sales was not his calling. “I was doing outside sales and becoming really tired of being on the road. I realized that I wasn’t very good at sales either. Operational-wise, I could do a good job, but I always struggled with the sales part,” says Crawford, who serves as treasurer on the ARA of California board.
At about that time, he received a call from the owner of Far West Rents & Ready Mix — the family friend for whom Crawford had worked all those years ago. “He told me he decided that after opening the business in 1984 it was time to retire, so my wife and I decided to purchase it,” he says.
The year was 2009. “The timing was kind of crazy, being that the country was still dealing with the recession,” Crawford admits. Yet he saw so many positives. “I grew up in Lincoln. I knew the customer base really well from when I worked there before. Plus the operation is just two miles from my house. My wife, Sylvia, and I wanted to start a family. I knew I wanted to be around to coach Little League, soccer, wrestling and whatever the kids were involved in. I felt it was a good opportunity,” he says.
It was a difficult start. “Things were very slow in the construction world, but a lot of homeowners/do-it-yourselfers (DIYers) were still doing a lot of work. It was a pretty rough start. I questioned my decision about a year into it as not much money was coming in, but we stuck it out and made it work, and it’s been doing better every year,” he says.
The operation serves a mix between contractors and homeowners. “We started out primarily serving homeowners and were open seven days a week, trying to cater to those working on DIY projects on the weekends. Our contractor business has increased a lot over the last 13 years. We do a lot of concrete sales, which a lot of contractors come in for. We cater to the smaller general contractors, landscape contractors and concrete contractors — those who need the basic skid steers to mini excavators. Our equipment doesn’t go above 8,000 lbs. as we do a lot of will-call rentals. People can tow that behind a three-quarter-ton pickup and get it to their job,” Crawford says.
There have been other challenges too, including the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. “I was a little confused on what to do in the beginning when it first started. I cut hours back dramatically and I worked every day. We did all the safety protocols. But for us it got so busy I couldn’t handle it. We ended up getting very busy and I had to bring everyone back full time, which is a good thing for us. I know a lot of businesses and other people were really struggling. We were very fortunate,” he says.
The aftermath issue of labor shortages hasn’t hit Crawford as hard as some other rental operators. “I have a great team right now of six core employees. I couldn’t do it without them,” he says.
He also has had a pretty steady pipeline of workers, thanks to the local high school. “The school has a large working school farm. A couple of years ago they built an awesome facility, including a welding and mechanic shop. We get a lot of good kids out of that high school. They come with a little bit of knowledge, which has been helpful,” he says.
Teaching these young students is a very rewarding aspect of running his own rental operation — allowing him to use the skills he learned in college. “I enjoy teaching these kids. They don’t know a lot of stuff as far as equipment. We work with all different types of equipment and service trailers. They are learning a trade. I like that part. It is very satisfying,” he says.
On the flip side, the supply chain issues and increasing prices continue to be daunting. “We are running equipment longer and making sure our service is up to par. The price of equipment also has gone up so quickly. Customers know about the price increases, but when they are coming in to pay for that, you get an earful. That has been difficult. We sell a lot of concrete and a lot of propane. I try to keep the price as consistent for as long as I can. That has been quite the challenge,” he says.
As California moves toward the implementation of more battery-powered equipment, Crawford is slowly adding pieces to his fleet. “I have brought in some battery-powered saws and hand tools, pole pruners and hedge trimmers — the small stuff,” he says. “Manufacturers are coming out with many more tools, especially landscaping tools. I have a feeling demand will come, but manufacturers need time to work out the kinks. I have had good feedback on my battery-powered cut-off saws and some of that type of equipment. Not having to deal with the gas, the mixed gas and two-stroke engines is actually much nicer. It helps us on the service end. I know we will be moving more into this area.”
Crawford is proud that he was able to come back to his hometown and offer a valuable service to his customers. The success of his operation has boiled down to his staff. “Our operation stands out because of our people. We strive for great customer service and go above and beyond to make their rental experience as easy as possible. We also love to be involved in our community, like helping out with school functions, youth sports and downtown events,” he says.
Being the owner of Far West Rents & Ready Mix also offers Crawford the work/family balance that he so craves. “I love the rental industry, and I also love being involved with my kids’ sports and going to all of their activities, whether a school function or game. I am in a position now where I am able to do that. I think about it often. If I was working for someone else, how could I get any of this done? I would miss a lot. I am very fortunate and satisfied that I get to participate in those things,” he says.
Crawford is grateful he is back at the rental operation that sparked his love of rental. Since taking over as owner, he has seen steady growth and is positive about the future. “I think we will continue to grow. We have seen the hill kind of flatten out, but I don’t see huge drops coming in our area. We have a ton of growth going on in our area as far as homes and businesses. In 10 to 20 years, I don’t see this area slowing down. I am really looking forward to being part of it and seeing our business continue to grow,” he says.
ARA has become an important part of the journey
Matt Crawford, owner, Far West Rents & Ready Mix, Lincoln, Calif., learned about the American Rental Association (ARA) when he purchased the rental operation from the previous owner.
“I learned from him as I had been more involved in the California Rental Association (CRA),” Crawford says. “Then, Tony Wright, who was president of Celebrations! Party Rentals and Tents in Roseville, Calif., came to me about joining the ARA of California board. I grew up knowing Tony, who was the previous owner’s brother-in-law. Tony had just concluded his term as chair of the ARA of California board and asked whether I would be interested in being part of the board. I said yes. That is when I really learned about all that ARA has to offer.”
Since joining the board in 2016, Crawford has served in many roles. Today he is the board treasurer. In recognition of his contribution, he will be awarded the Region Nine Leadership Impact Award at The ARA Show™ in Orlando.
Board service is important to Crawford. “I enjoy serving on the board because of all of the great people I have met, the networking opportunities, learning more about what ARA has to offer and being able to show other members what ARA has to offer them,” he says.
That involvement, the resources and networking have helped his business too, he notes. “I have learned about and used ARA’s driver’s training, which has been very helpful, the templates, the checklists and the trailer service resources among others. I just recently signed up one of our employees for the ARA Certified Service course and another one for the ARA Certified Sales course,” Crawford says, adding that the resources all benefit his team and his business.