*Tour De Service

Sept. 1, 2002
It's more like walking into a home than a place of business. Soft, comfortable chairs situate. Smells of brewing coffee emanate. Portraits and photographs

It's more like walking into a home than a place of business. Soft, comfortable chairs situate. Smells of brewing coffee emanate. Portraits and photographs decorate. Family members congregate. And if one stays long enough, the friendly proprietors may even offer a piece of homemade coffee cake. It's not just a rentable item at a fair price. Located in northeast Kansas, Anderson Rentals, Lawrence, combines this “feel-at-home” atmosphere with experience and a deep concern for satisfying customer needs to produce nothing but service, service, service.

“We really try to earn our customers' trust,” says Bill Anderson, president of Anderson Rentals. “I feel we will always try to expand on that. The decisions we make we do for the community and for our coworkers to try to make sure that we are reputable and consistent.”

The community, which the Anderson's describe as rare, well educated and transient, sits between the capital city Topeka and metropolitan Kansas City. It has been home to the family-run operation since it opened in 1946. “Lawrence is very cosmopolitan and liberal for Kansas, but it's still very conservative for the rest of the country, so that's kind of our climate here,” Anderson explains.

Lawrence is also a college town, and the company often does business with the University of Kansas and all its entities, which in hard economic times serve as buffers. Recently, the company provided equipment to an apartment complex with a main water line break. The police department, the civil defense and the university all have employees' home phone numbers to reach them in emergencies. So, when the Natural History Museum on KU's campus lost power, Anderson Rentals provided service through a window at 3 in the morning. The museum preserves specimens, which would have otherwise been destroyed if the company hadn't worked so diligently.

“We had to move all the freezers close to the windows,” Anderson recalls. “We had to get them close enough, so that there wouldn't be a voltage problem from the generators, but we couldn't bring the generators inside because they were diesel. We had to do this all with flashlights and were walking through the Natural History Museum, which is kind of scary during the day. That was really like an adventure.”

Mainly a general rental center that rents to homeowners and small contractors, Anderson Rentals also has a special event sector and even rents unique items such as bottle cappers and ice cream freezers, “a lot of really vague equipment that might not be true of a metropolitan store,” Anderson says. Its market requires the company provide a variety of items, so whether it's a punch bowl and cups for a sorority or a tiller for a gardener, Anderson rents it. “We really do think there's a lot of strength in the general rental companies,” says Mary Anderson, secretary/treasurer.

“That's what I enjoy is the diversity,” says Bob Anderson, vice president. “If we just had one section like lift or aerial, I'd be bored to tears. One day I might be in party. One day I might be in industrial.”

Raising five children was anything but boring for Hazel and Andy Anderson who initially rented chairs and other items. While the operation expanded and merged into a growing industry, the two brought up Bill, Bob, Mary, Jane and Gayle. Jane and Gayle are not involved in the business. Hazel works alongside the three. Andy died in 1996.

“They started out with folding chairs and evolved into the appliance dollies and extension ladders,” Bill says. “As people would request equipment, they'd make lists and fill their inventory because it wasn't an industry then. It was just whatever people were starting to ask for. That's how the need was met in those early days.”

“We had a friend, a very close friend,” Hazel recounts. “One day over coffee he said, ‘Why don't you folks take my chairs?’ We did, and it went from there.” There to here in more than 55 years has produced more equipment, more knowledge and more competition. Because the economy has turned discretionary dollars into necessity dollars, Anderson says right now its biggest competitors are grocery stores.

However, being in the Midwest has allowed the company to foresee the downturn and prepare accordingly. “We're about two years behind both coasts, and we kind of have an opportunity to see what's coming up, and what's working out well before it hits the Midwest,” Bob says. “That's the advantage for us in this region.”

With the maturing industry and the saturated market, Anderson recognizes working with other rental firms becomes increasingly important. National players, other local stores and stores from nearby communities all have a presence in Lawrence, and as soon as a new company moves in, Anderson begins building the relationship. Offering unlimited service means if they don't have it, they'll find someone who does. Therefore, the company has a long list of resources and refers to it as the Yellow Pages of Lawrence. “Our service is that we care about job completion,” Bill says. “We want you to be satisfied and complete your job in a timely manner.”

Long before job completion occurs Anderson has a presence with its portable sanitation rental, usually the first items to arrive at a jobsite. Without an outside sales staff, the company uses this rental as a way to be at the jobsite without being obtrusive. Field manager, Mark Dale Thompson represents the company by delivering these and other equipment. While there he ensures the restrooms are in working order and informs contractors of available equipment and sometimes even takes orders. It actually helps business by not having a salesperson there, distracting workers. “There's a limited amount of business, and there's a lot of players in the field vying for that business,” Bill says. “The customers are having trouble getting their jobs done because of the interruptions and have told us of the irritation and have actually thanked us for staying back and only coming when we're invited. So, I guess that's the philosophy of promotion.” “You want to be there when they want you,” Bob inserts.

Whether in the field or out, knowing costs and customers are important elements of any business, especially rental. Anderson knows it can't cut rates, but also knows appreciative customers create better business for everyone. “We do have an emphasis on promoting service rather than price,” Bill says. “We try to be an employer of people who are living in this community, and our dollars go back into it. We try to buy and shop locally.”

Once the financial exchange ceases the instructional begins with services such as a video that provides training to those less familiar with the equipment. Bob has worked directly with the ARA improving this and says it's important for the customer to learn how to be safe, preventing injury to self and the equipment. Safety is so important the company will even state in the contract when customers refuse the extra instruction.

Some won't need any direction, instruction or otherwise. “Kansans aren't necessarily looking for suggestions,” Bill says. “A predominant amount of our customers come through the door and know exactly what they want.”

Throughout the years, Anderson has hardly sat down while giving them what they want. From maintaining a written up inventory list to enhancing a Web site, the company's seen an abundance of changes in every aspect of its business and the industry. “You remember one of the sayings your dad said, ‘If you're doing business as you were doing it five years ago, you might as well quit,’” Hazel says.

What is unlikely to change is hands. Approached by nine firms, as a family and company, Anderson has decided it won't sell. Bill says they're going to “die at their desks” because they don't want to let their customers down, and also it's too important to have a job to go to each morning, “especially one you like,” Hazel interjects. Which, Bill says, is a benefit to the community, society, themselves and the company's employees. It's an industry the Anderson's love, one that, as Hazel puts it, “leads to a wonderful and interesting existence.”