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Using knowledge from equipment world to build event rental business

By Connie Lannan

May 16, 2023

Kim and Chris Clarke with their two sons in front of one of their trucks. Photo courtesy of Amy-Thompson-Photography.

Kim and Chris Clarke with their two sons in front of one of their trucks. Photo courtesy of Amy-Thompson-Photography.

For years Chris Clarke built a successful career in the equipment rental world. In May 2019, he and his wife, Kim, decided to switch gears and join forces to start an event rental operation — Celebrations of Marin in Novato, Calif. Now they are using knowledge gained from the equipment world to slowly build their new event rental business.

“I started in the industry in 2006 for a company called TBC Safety in Santa Rosa, Calif., which was a steel road plate rental company,” Chris says. “I worked there for 10 years, from outside sales to branch manager. From there I worked for Blue Line Rentals, a Platinum Equity Co. I was part of the Volvo Rentals and Blue Line Rentals merger and part of the sale to United Rentals. I then went to United Rentals as a national accounts manager for one of the largest accounts in the oil and gas industry. Throughout this time, I learned so much about how to run a rental business.”

So how did someone so steeped in equipment rental start an event rental operation?

Chris and Kim had dreamed of beginning a business together. In 2018, Chris was on a sales call talking with a customer about equipment. “On the call, someone said they rented all their equipment from Grand Central Station in San Francisco. I had not heard of them, so I went over and met the owner. He said he was going to sell off parts of his business. He had lots of party rental equipment — tables, chairs, catering equipment and concessions equipment. I thought this could be an interesting business with a lower original equipment cost to get us in the game. I had been in the construction equipment rental business, which costs millions of dollars to get into. This was a low-cost buy-in for Kim and me, so we bought all this equipment at the end of 2018, brought it to our home, then got a storage unit and said, ‘Let’s build it,’” he says.

Kim researched trucks, setting up the business license, etc. In the evenings the two would discuss which way to proceed, and Kim took the reins, setting up all the administrative things, sales and delivery while Chris kept his day job at United Rentals.

The transition wasn’t that difficult for the couple. “I was in equipment rental. The operational policies and procedures really translate — from how to lay out a warehouse, set up your computer programs and dispatch center, how to safely load and offload trucks, how to keep your inventory trackable, etc. Instead of steel plates and shoring equipment, we were dealing with tables and chairs and dishware. It all has to be safely inventoried, safely stored and safely delivered. What I learned at Blue Line and United Rentals is the understanding of original equipment costs, market opportunity with rental rates and time utilization. It is a formula we are using today of estimated market opportunity and time utilization of a table and chair. So, we are using the same operational metrics we used at Blue Line and United Rentals, just inserting a different product,” he says.

Chris and Kim Clarke unload chairs. Photo courtesy of Any-Thompson-Photography.

Chris and Kim Clarke unload chairs. Photo courtesy of Amy-Thompson-Photography.

They were just getting their business off the ground when the coronavirus (COVID-19) hit. “I was still at United Rentals. For us to keep our new business afloat, we pivoted,” Chris says.

“We started doing more balloon garlands and garbage can rentals for outdoor parties. We would haul away your garbage for an extra fee, so people could have a small gathering in their front or backyards. We would haul the garbage container, with no mess left behind. Both became very popular, with the balloons getting us through the pandemic. Kim took it to the next level and we were billing upward of high six-figures for just the balloons,” he adds.

Once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, their business started taking off. They were making connections with wedding and party planners, venues, corporate entities, etc. Chris knew it would soon be necessary for him to leave his position at United Rentals and work in his new business full time.

In preparation, he gave his bosses at United Rentals a two-year notice. “I sat down with the senior vice president of sales and said I will need to step out and manage this business full time soon, as all of our business metrics and forecasting models showed great growth through 2021, 2022 and into 2023. I gave him two years’ notice and then stayed on another six months as a consultant. I officially stepped away Jan. 1, 2023,” Chris says.

They have already made great strides. In 2022, they found a 2,000 sq.-ft. warehouse attached to a 1,200-sq.-ft. office and showroom to rent. “At that time, we invested a lot of money into a lot more equipment, more trucks and everything. It is still Kim and me, but now we have one guy helping us on a part-time basis and had about 15 temporary workers to help in the busy season,” he says.

They also have developed partnerships with other businesses to round out their services. For instance, “for our dishware, we are using a third-party kitchen that we rent that is right around the corner from us. We also have teamed up with two partners in the linen industry. We purchased a large selection of linens from a linen distributor and rental company. We own a core set of linens and then we subrent the rest from them. We also have a strategic alliance with another linen company. We are also not touching tents yet due to liability reasons. We are referring them to another rental company. We have a list of strategic partners who we know do a good job,” Chris says.

Their business “has been growing exponentially,” Chris says. That growth has generated buzz in their community. They recently won the Marin Independent Journal’s Readers’ Choice award for the “Best Party Rentals in Marin.” They also were featured in the April issue of Marin Living magazine.

Business has gone so well that they plan to open a second location in southern Marin County to serve as an additional will-call location. “We are planning that for Q1 of 2024. At that point we will double our inventory,” Chris says.

The biggest challenge so far, besides the pandemic, has been scaling up the business. “Scaling up to the next level while still upholding the level of service I am accustomed to has been a challenge. We want to take on more and more. Thanksgiving was our biggest three-day stretch with 52 deliveries and 31 will-calls. That is the volume we want to handle. We found the challenge was getting people who wanted to do that work. You always have to focus on safety and PPE [personal protective equipment]. Scaling to that next level — how many trucks and people do we need? — is challenging,” Chris says.

While it’s not easy, Chris and Kim both realize it’s all part of growing the business. As they scale up, they will continue to concentrate on building their business by providing quality equipment and the best customer service possible.

“What will separate us is our service. A table is a table. We are renting a commodity, but our service will help us step up to the next level,” Chris says.