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Veteran event rental operators: Always learning, embracing new technologies, adapting to change

By Connie Lannan

March 4, 2024

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a periodic series of stories exploring the reasons why new equipment and event rental operators are called to be part of the industry, their challenges and wins and why veteran rental operators have stayed, plus how this industry has offered them success as well as valuable lessons and advice they gladly share.

While their paths into the event rental market might have been different, American Rental Association (ARA) 2021 Rental Hall of Fame recipient Tim Maloney Sr., CERP, president, Canton Chair Rental, Canton, Ohio; John Clarke, president, Ace Party & Tent Rental, Port Washington, N.Y.; and Jason Campisi, CEO, South Jersey Party Rentals, Pennsauken, N.J., all share similar traits.

Besides their passion and dedication to the industry, each is driven to keep learning and improving no matter what level of success they have achieved. Each embraces new technologies and continually adapts to change. They also gladly share what they have learned over the years — valuable insights that can help all in the industry.

Different paths converge in event rental. Maloney’s father opened a Taylor Rental franchise in 1971. Maloney joined in 1977 after graduating from college. Their big transition came in 1985 when the father-son duo took a deeper dive into event rental, purchasing the rental division of Canton Chair and Table. That purchase became Canton Chair Rental at a separate location from the tool rental. When his father decided to retire, they sold the tool portion in 1985, with Maloney focusing solely on the event rental business.

Jason Campisi (left)

Campisi, who was starting college to become a doctor, took a job at a family friend’s United Rent-All tool and Parties Plus operation during the summer. He started in the yard and quickly moved into helping with the company’s computer system. When the owner decided to retire in 1997, Campisi and his father, who was an accountant and had been doing the books for the rental operation, decided to purchase the business. That transaction established South Jersey Party Rentals, with Campisi working on weekends as he continued school and his father holding down two jobs, working in the rental operation and running his accounting firm. As soon as Campisi finished his business management degree, he joined the business full time.

Clarke entered rental through catering. In 1986, he was doing off-premises catering with his aunt and cousin. He had trouble receiving rental items on time. Identifying a need, they decided to purchase their own tables, chairs and other basic rental items they needed. Within a few years, they were in a giant warehouse. Over the years, the business grew and they got out of the catering business. Now, Clarke notes that they have become one of the bigger companies in the New York City metro area.

Challenges abound. All say challenges have been a regular part of their businesses, whether learning how to expand and scale up their operations, putting in the right systems or finding good people, etc. The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges, which they are still dealing with today, particularly in the areas of supply chain, labor and inflation.

Tim Maloney, CERP

“Finding good people always has been a challenge, but we could always find them. Now that is a different ballpark,” Maloney says. “Now when people call, we have to worry if we will have the staffing to meet the demand of a nice-size wedding or whatever in September of 2024. A lot of that is very hard to determine. We just have to accept the people challenge. What has been tough is acknowledging that this is the new normal. It’s maybe a generational change. We need to quit whining about it and confront it,” he adds.

Labor impacts long-term capabilities, Maloney says. “We have had customers calling saying that other rental companies can’t make the delivery. I don’t want to do that. We have to watch what we are booking way out. We spend a lot of time on that to try to figure out how to get all the moving parts to work. We need a lot more flexibility from everybody,” he says.

Campisi, who has been a strong systems proponent since opening his rental operation, agrees. “If you don’t have the capacity and understand the capacity that your business has, then you will have problems. Anyone can book themselves into a pickle in May and June, especially in the Northeast when it is time for parties. And no one will ever have enough gear. Realizing where you hit your limits and then trying to make sure you are doing it in a manner that will maintain your ability to deliver the services to the people in your area with the products and the trucks is key,” he says.

Making sure employees understand those systems and processes is another aspect. Campisi has always taken “data to understand how long it took to accomplish things. I saw where communications broke down and readjusted systems to go from college-educated people to those who may not have graduated high school, to every walk of life and socio-economic standpoint and culture standpoint. We are managing many cultures here and trying to make it blend,” he says.

John Clarke

On the labor front, finding drivers is a continual challenge “because typically we are a non-CDL class truck operation,” Campisi adds. “With that you are looking for drivers and not lose them to Amazon, etc. Our job is more demanding. So you have to raise the rate of pay and raise your prices so you don’t put yourself out of business,” he says.

Supply chain issues are still impacting business. That means all are planning way ahead on what to buy. Inflation is another concern. “We have to set our rental rates to cover our labor and plan on increased costs for equipment, which could be significant, and fuel and truck repairs and new roofs on buildings — what we just did,” Maloney says.

That means being prepared, ordering early, ensuring the quality of products and performing a balancing act between inflation, product costs and insurance costs. That usually means increasing prices, but it also demands increasing efficiencies. If you do one without the other, “someone will beat you,” Campisi says.

The bottom line, he adds, is that “we are a glorified moving company. We own expensive assets that take time to pay for, and we move product. The better we move that product the more money we make. The better you take care of that product the longer it lasts. To the root of it, it is that simple, but it isn’t that simple,” he says.

Another big challenge that lingers today is “trying to keep up with the changing times — from technology to dealing with younger clients and different trends,” Clarke adds. “We receive web requests from people in Iowa and California. [As a New York City area company,] we have to call them and say we are not Amazon. We can’t deliver. We have to retrain ourselves to match the expectations of the future and current clients. We take a lot of advice and understanding from our children and their peers who work for us. They have a different way of thinking and doing. You have to adapt or else you are left behind,” he says.

For instance, Clarke and his team are changing how they present their information online. “Forget photos. We are doing videos now. You just have to adapt with the times,” he adds.

Growing pains are real. Moving to the next level of growth can be difficult, but implementing solid steps can help, all three rental operators say.

“We first stayed on top of new trends, be it product lines we should carry/enhance, or moving into totally new industry segments (i.e., when we went full on into party rentals),” Maloney says. “Planning and communication within our company led to growth. It was not always easy, or on target, but we pressed forward and were not afraid to cut our losses when we made mistakes. Given the labor shortages that are prevalent today, the planning process is more important.”

Photo courtesy of Canton Chair Rental

Growth requires the right infrastructure, according to Campisi. “That means you have to build some of that team and it will have a cost. With that cost, you stick your neck out because you are on the hook for that cost. Then you will have to acquire gear to support that next level of growth so you can make money to pay the people around you and your bills. That will require some risk — whether self-funded or leasing equipment. All the while you have to be lining up clients. To me the special sauce is the timing of those three things: acquisition of a client who can and will help you pay for the purchase of the new equipment, how you acquire that equipment and how you staff your company. The timing of that is the most frightening and exhilarating part of the next level of growth. All those things have to happen. Hope is not a strategy. You have to have people lined up. You have to have done your homework so you are ready to execute,” he says.

Campisi remembers “when I made my first jump over a million, a competitor in the market strategically made an offer to my righthand salesperson and operations assistant. Both of my people left. It was horrible. What I thought was the worst time led me to the incredible people who are still here to this day. There is hope, but there is a lot of pain. While there is still pain [as you transition to next levels], it isn’t quite as frightening. The balance of those three things and the timing of it are key. There is no perfect formula, but those are the three things that push you over the hump. About every $1 million in sales, you visit that scary position again. I have found that to be true,” he says.

Clarke puts it very matter-of-factly: “We just worked. What we did was listen to our clients and our salespeople. We wanted to make sure we weren’t missing the boat. We continue to listen. We collaborate a lot. I haven’t missed The ARA Show™ since we joined. I have flown down for one day and back if that is all we are able to do. I love to go the seminars. We do it all the time. You always learn something and then you collaborate with other people. We visit other rental operations. We share information. You have to learn to share and collaborate with other competitors and vendors. The most important thing is to know your peers. We all are in the same boat and have the same interest in making the industry professional and meeting the needs
of our customers,” he says.

Advice sets business strategies. All say key rental advice has been words to live by. For instance, Maloney’s father, who was an accountant, “always said, ‘Cash flow is king.’ That stuck with me. Until you get experience — initially the amount of dollars you think you need will double what you think you need or have on hand. I remember recessions like 2008. We are always planning for a rainy day. Now my wife, who is a CPA, watches the impulse items I like to buy,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Ace Party and Tent Rental

Another valuable piece of advice he received was to keep adopting new technology. “We were one of the first to go with a turnkey rental system in 1979 or early 1980s. Now the big talk is artificial intelligence. When that gets worked out and affordable, I think it would really help us out on the party rental,” Maloney says.

Campisi says a fellow rental operator told him, “As an owner, if you are looking for your key people to be just like you, you will find yourself disappointed 100 percent of the time. If you find someone who can make you 90 percent happy, you are winning.

“Often we fail because we expect people to be like us,” he says. “We need someone to be good for us and for us but also not be exactly like us. You need a little bit of ying to your yang. Another good one was to never be afraid to hire people smarter than you.”

For Clarke, foundational advice was “not to give up. Just keep marching ahead. Watch where you have gone and where you are going, just don’t do it aimlessly,” he says.

Cultivate customers. All three rental operators highlighted the biggest draw for attracting and retaining customers is their reputations. “A lot of it is word of mouth. We do a lot to maintain the good customers we have. We had our website rewritten to make it more user-friendly. I think we could go farther. You have to get out there and make sure that you stay on top of your social media or anything that is contacting your customer,” Maloney says.

Clarke’s operation also receives a majority of its clients through referrals. “We give very good personalized service and make sure they are taken care of. We try to figure out in advance what their needs are and try to attack those needs. We also give that person who referred us a call to thank them,” he says.

Campisi notes that “for me, it is being present and staying involved in associations. You don’t just show up and people give you business. You need to get involved and get to know people — not just a few people like the big caterer but what about the photographer? Or the lighting people who see opportunities for you? Working with those people and sending opportunities to them is important. Networking, having lunches and dinners with others are the key times you make a connection,” he says.

Work leadership/retention strategies. For Maloney it is about “establishing a company culture earIy on and instilling that culture in the minds of existing team members,” he says. “Hiring and training processes must ensure that new hires are likely to embrace your culture (discovered in the interview process) and are then trained to embrace your culture through action. People tend to stay at companies who embrace a strong culture and communicate those ideals to new hires. Moving forward, the old ways of handling human resources no longer apply, and one needs to first adapt to the new normal and embrace change and adapt. We lean on ARA for guidance and tap into local resources to obtain guidance on how to best change our methods to attract and keep the current generation of workers.”

Photo courtesy of South Jersey Party Rentals

Campisi agrees and adds that having strong systems is just as critical. “That means having job descriptions, performance reviews and ways for people to offer feedback. “Make sure you are touching base with people and coaching. Even from a discipline standpoint, it helps to take the time to say this is bothering us and correct it before the house is on fire and there is no saving it. We are unafraid to evolve and know how to understand and filter feedback,” he says.

Clarke has implemented a very competitive pay structure and benefits package. “We give our employees medical, vision, dental and life insurance benefits as well as a 401(k) retirement plan. You have to do that so people can raise a family and pay rent. You can’t run a business on part-time people. It is about understanding their expectations.”

Experience provides long-lasting advice. Maloney stresses the importance of “learning about your industry from your peers and association. Don’t necessarily think of your competition as your enemy. We have a lot of great relationships with a lot of other rental stores. We work together,” he says.

In addition, “be willing to change to meet what current personnel want and therefore what the customer wants,” he adds. “Doing things differently is not going away from your core values of treating people right. You have to treat people right by the definition of what your customer thinks is right — within reason. You have to adapt to the times — what customers and your team members want. Make your people happy to meet the goal of making your customer happy.”

The others agree. “Be a sponge,” Campisi says. “Find people, whether through the ARA Mentorship Program or people in your region. A lot of us are willing to teach. So many are happy to share our journey because we are proud of it. If you really listen and filter it out for your situation, there is a wealth of knowledge.”

“Many times, what I have seen with new people in the industry is that they don’t realize it is not a race,” Clarke says. “You should be here for the long haul. If you think you will have everything you need in five years according to your business plan, it won’t always work that way. You must work it and go for it. Life is work.”