An Attitude Adjustment

Feb. 1, 1999
You couldn't tell it today, but a few years ago, Doyle Sheffield hit the wall.Having founded Action Rent All in Cartersville, Ga., in 1983 and grown it

You couldn't tell it today, but a few years ago, Doyle Sheffield hit the wall.

Having founded Action Rent All in Cartersville, Ga., in 1983 and grown it into a well-respected general rental company, Sheffield could feel himself burning out.

"When I was first thinking about getting into this business, I visited a lot of rental stores," says Sheffield. "Some of them really didn't have a very good attitude. Instead of being glad to see a customer, they just hated it each time one walked in.

"I told my wife, 'If I ever feel that way, I want to get out of it.' A few years ago, I realized I was starting to get that way myself."

Sheffield knew he had to do something.

The first step was detaching himself from the daily grind of the counter, which, after about 10 years of putting out fires, was no longer challenging or rewarding. Fortunately, Sheffield had someone with impeccable references to step in and manage Action's counter: his son Steve.

"Now, I enjoy the business more than I did three years ago," says Sheffield, who is able to focus more on managing the overall business. "Sometimes I still end up working the counter, and I find I enjoy it because of the fact I don't do it all the time."

The move off the front lines was a big step for someone who grew his company based on continuous customer feedback at the counter.

When Sheffield opened Action, his rental outfit was the only one serving Cartersville, about 45 miles northwest of Atlanta. The inventory grew based on customer needs and wants, which explains how someone can rent a punch bowl, a pump or a work platform with one call to Action.

Not everything that was added stuck, however. When the company moved to its current 10,000-square-foot facility, Sheffield was tempted by the large showroom area to make a run at small equipment sales.

"We were getting into sales of items like lawnmowers, tillers and chain saws, and found that just didn't work out," he says. "What we found out was that it just wasn't worth our time to sell that kind of equipment."

The showroom didn't go unused for long. Ann Sheffield, Doyle's wife, soon began using the space for a new party and special event division. Steady growth in Cartersville helped the general tool, construction and industrial segments, and Action exceeded revenue projections for each of its first 10 years in business, according to Sheffield.

The company is still doing a good business serving the party, general tool, construction and industrial rental markets - even in the face of increased competition.

A former customer of Sheffield's opened a rental business in town about 10 years ago, and several of the major consolidators, including Hertz Equipment Rental Corp. and Rental Service Corp., attempt to service Cartersville accounts from north Georgia locations.

"The big companies are active here, because Cartersville is growing," says Sheffield, who expects it is only a matter of time before a consolidator opens a branch in town.

"We have several carpet mills, but there is also other industry. Being as close as we are to Atlanta and to the interstate has put us in a real growth mode for the past few years. We expect that to continue."

That growth will drive Action's general tool and construction equipment, which are the bulk of its business. Sheffield also expects industrial rentals and party goods, which each makes up about 20 percent of its annual revenue, to contribute.

Of course, Sheffield doesn't bother battling with the big boys on price alone. Echoing the battle cry of independents everywhere, Action competes by having what customers want when they need it.

"One of my favorite stories comes from a time when my son stopped in to see a contractor who hadn't rented from us in awhile," Sheffield says. "The contractor had several pieces of equipment from another company and told Steve that he couldn't afford not to rent from the other company because they were so much cheaper.

"Later that day, my son told a customer of ours what the other guy had said. Our customer said, 'Yeah, he had a forklift break down last week, and it sat there for three days because the rental company didn't do anything about it. I've rented from them too, but I would rather rent from you because if a forklift breaks down, I know I'm not going to sit for three days waiting for you to do something about it.'"

While consolidation has created more competition for the 63-year-old Sheffield, it also has provided a benefit by creating a market for businesses such as his, should he choose to sell out. Sheffield has talked to a few consolidators about selling, but hasn't seriously considered it.

Why should he? With Sheffield's new-found freedom from the counter grind, the rental business is fun again.

Cartersville, Ga. Owner: Doyle Sheffield.

Founded: 1983.

Locations: One.

Employees: 12.

Annual revenue: Less than $3 million.

Customer breakdown: Primarily contractor/industrial equipment with some hand tools and a full party inventory.