Posted August 17, 2021

Rental Center -- Equipment Evolution

In nearly seven decades of equipment rental, A to Z RentAll & Sales has changed as rental trends drive demand.

A to Z Rentall & Sales, Madison, Wisconsin

by Clair Urbain

Towable aerial lifts are extremely popular with customers, says Jason Hoffmann (left), customer service manager. That’s Kevin Hoffman, owner, on the right.

Compact track loaders are a popular rental item. They are popular with subcontractors, especially those just starting out and building their business.

Customers appreciate that A to Z Rentall & Sales has the variety of equipment they need, it is newer and it works.

Photos: Todd Garrett

What started as a general tool and equipment rental store in 1954, A to Z RentAll & Sales in Madison, Wisconsin, has morphed into two divisions, says Kevin Hoffman, second-generation owner.

Today, the company is divided into two locations; the equipment rental business located on the east side of Madison, and Event Essentials, the event and party side of the business, located in Windsor, Wisconsin.

“This started out as one business by my parents, Rex and Enid Hoffman. We had one location and we handled equipment and event rentals out of the same building. In 1980, we had a fire at that location and the building owner didn’t want to rebuild. It was already too small for us, so we moved A to Z RentAll & Sales to our new location on Stoughton Road on the east side of Madison into a new business park. We were one of the first businesses to build there,” says Kevin.

Over the years, it became apparent that it made more sense to split it into two locations. The customers, the salespeople and the rental inventories were becoming more distinct, so they moved the event rental business, Event Essentials, to Windsor, about 15 minutes northwest of the A to Z RentAll & Sales facility.

“Our trade area is almost exclusively Dane County, but we do have some customers from as far a Green Bay,” says Jason Hoffmann, customer service manager. “One unique item we have that no one to our knowledge rents is a Paintshaver Pro that strips paint off wood siding. We get requests from all over for that tool.”

Rental shift
While the equipment rental business started out with small, powered landscape equipment such as rototillers, sodcutters, aerators, dethatchers and a wide variety of small power tools, these power tool rentals have dropped off as tool prices have gone down and the quality of those tools in chain stores has improved.

Instead of smaller tool rentals, Jason says A to Z Rentall and Sales’ customer base, which is made up of smaller general and subcontractors and DIYers, are increasingly requesting towable aerial lifts and compact track loaders. “That’s where the fleet has grown in the last 13 years. We started out with three towable aerial lifts, and now we are up to 10 in the fleet and have had as many as 13 in the fleet, but we recently sold three,” Jason says.

“Having equipment out on rent is our best form of advertising,” says Kevin, “However we do invest in radio, TV and social media advertising to increase awareness. My father was a believer in advertising, and so am I.”

Business hours change
Kevin remembers back in the day when weekends were the busiest times of the week, with landscaping equipment getting several turns each weekend. That has dropped off considerably, which created an interesting turn of its store hours. “I think we’ve turned the corner on the do-it-yourself market; more and more, especially baby boomers, prefer ‘do-it-for-me’ instead of ‘do-it-yourself.’ We have smaller contractors who line up several jobs in a weekend, a stump grinder is the best example, and then go from job to job and do well with the rental. Renting dethatchers, rototillers and that type of equipment is a very small part of our business.”

As Kevin and Jason pushed the numbers a few years ago, it became clear to them that by going with a five-day week, they could reduce their staff and streamline scheduling. Today, they have 10 employees on the equipment rental side of the business, of which seven are sales and service personnel.

“We have found that we do better by offering a single-day rental rate for weekends. They can pick the equipment up after 3 p.m. on Friday and return it by 8 a.m. Monday morning for a one-day rate. On bigger equipment with hour meters, we consider a one-day rate as eight hours of runtime. If it’s over eight hours, they are charged, but we find that few customers exceed eight-hours in a weekend,” Kevin says.

Using Point of Rental’s Inspection module, the staff takes pictures of every piece of equipment when it goes out and again when it comes back in. “We’ve found customers are a little more careful when they know the machine’s condition was documented before they rent it,” Jason says.

After-hours support is available 24/7, Jason adds. “Either the service manager or I am on call to take any after-hours calls. We might get three a weekend and almost all of them can be handled over the phone.”

Point of difference:customer service
Jason asks customers why they keep coming back to A to Z RentAll & Sales. “They immediately respond we have the equipment they need, it’s newer and it works. They appreciate that and that we can respond to after-hours needs that come up. We handle our own equipment delivery so we can accommodate the customer’s timing needs and show them how to safely operate the equipment.

“We want them to be successful, and they are often our best customers for used equipment. They start out with rental equipment and when they get established, they buy the used models from us. We like to see new contractors be successful and grow,” Jason says. “We are a small, local community-based business just like many of our customers. We want them to have a reliable and welcoming partner who understands, recognizes and appreciates their needs and challenges. The smaller contractors and DIYers are our bread and butter.”

Jason says the equipment typically gets turned over about every three years. 

COVID concerns
Last year’s bout with COVID was a game-changer in the rental industry, and for Kevin’s two rental divisions, the party/event side had a significant drop in business. They were able to pivot some business by concentrating on supplying temporary structures and services – tents mainly – to factories, hospitals and health departments for vaccination clinics and work-outside facilities. “Still, the event side was down significantly in rentals, but the equipment rental actually improved as the year went on,” says Kevin, “On the equipment side of the business, our rentals were up 15 percent in 2020 over 2019.”

“We could tell exactly when the stimulus checks hit the bank accounts. Equipment rentals increased as contractors and DIYers alike came in to rent equipment,” says Jason.

To safely handle the influx of customers, they applied ARA’s Clean. Safe. Essential. guidelines to minimize the opportunities COVID could be spread between staff and customers.

“We displayed the equipment in the showrooms to create aisles to funnel traffic and placed spots on the floor to cue where people should stand in line. We placed tables in front of the rental counter to increase the distance between customers and counter people and installed plexiglass screens to further separate the customers and staff. We also asked customers to enter one door and exit through another. It worked out well,” says Jason.

Equipment was also sprayed with disinfectant once it was power-washed by the service team and placed back into service with a florescent green tag noting that it was disinfected, adds Jason. “We have a 55-gallon drum of disinfectant in the shop.”

“We still have some customers who prefer to complete paperwork over the phone and have the equipment placed in their truck or truck bed for curbside service,” adds Jason. “We really didn’t get any pushback from our customers about COVID precautions.”

As the delta variant of the infection begins to spread at the time of this writing, Kevin reports that Dane County, at this point, has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, topping 70 percent. “We’re hopeful that it stays under control, but we’re ready to do what we need to do to protect our employees and customers,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the September-October issue of Pro Contractor Rentals magazine. ©2021 Urbain Communications LLC. All rights reserved.