The Flexibility of Being Irv

Dec. 1, 2002
Irv Levine's dream wasn't to be CEO of a $250 million corporation. It was to be a stand-up comic. Those who attended Multiquip's comedy nights at American

Irv Levine's dream wasn't to be CEO of a $250 million corporation. It was to be a stand-up comic. Those who attended Multiquip's comedy nights at American Rental Association conventions, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity, know he may not be Robin Williams (or Milton Berle), but he can tell a joke pretty well.

Though he's not a bad comic, Levine's true genius, it would seem, is in the sale and marketing of construction equipment and in that area he has few peers. After a 30-year career with Carson, Calif.-based Multiquip, Levine is finally calling it quits. Still youthful at 68, Irv is retiring at the end of the year. RER recently visited him at his Carson office.

RER: Was it really your dream to be a stand-up comic?

Levine: Absolutely. My Uncle Sam was a vaudevillian and he used to come over to the house and tap dance and tell jokes. When I was in the first grade, I used to get up in front of the class and do Jimmy Durante and James Cagney impersonations. I tried to emulate my Uncle Sam and I was always the class comedian as a kid.

But my father was a lot smarter than me, he was an immigrant from Poland and it would have been over his dead body and my dead body if I wouldn't have gone to college and got an education, so he made sure I did that. Thankfully I had enough fear of my father that I got that education. I performed all through college at parties, and at a few nightclubs.

How did you get into the construction equipment business?

It was a fluke. When I went to college, I didn't know what I wanted to do and Northeastern University was basically an engineering school, so I decided to take civil engineering. By the time I graduated college I knew that's what I didn't want to do.

When I was in the army, I wanted to make a few bucks on weekends, so I was picking up a few standup jobs at Bolling Air Force Base. One night there were a couple of guys from Worthington Corp. in the audience. We were talking, I told them I was a civil engineer and they said if I decided to get out of show business and wanted to sell construction equipment, to call them. For some reason I kept their business card.

About a year later, after I decided it was not good starving and eating two meals a day, I decided I had to get a real job, so I called them and they remembered me. That was my entry into the construction equipment business, selling air compressors in L.A.

I started Feb. 3, 1961, I remember the date because it was my birthday and it was 82 degrees in Los Angeles and I said “this is it.”

How did you go from there to Multiquip?

In a respect, I've had one job. In 1969, I talked Worthington into getting into the rental business. They bought A-1 Machinery Rentals, Bob Irving's company. Bernie Sims, who owned Rent Right, and three or four others and I started Leasing Enterprises, and I transferred from Worthington and became vice president of that company. Leasing Enterprises was the start of U.S. Rentals and of course turned into United Rentals.

In late 1971, Sims was on vacation in Australia and found a rental company there that had more than 300 Mikasa rammers in its rental fleet. Their maintenance was running about 10 percent of the maintenance we were having on our fleet, so we got a few sample units and put them in our rental fleet and they didn't break down. A light bulb went off in our heads and we said, “We got to distribute this product.” That was really the start of Multiquip.

I remember we were doing about $1.5 million dollars that year in sales and our dream was to build a $5 million company and of course the second year we did $3.5 million and the third year we did $6 million so that shattered our $5 million dream.

You started selling direct to rental companies?

Yes. In those days, distribution was through the AED distributor. And being in the rental business, it was obvious to me that the rental industry was the future of distribution and had bigger potential. I couldn't understand why the rental company, which really had great potential, had to buy through a small dealer that didn't have the great potential. So I started selling direct to rental companies.

How did you recognize the potential of rental?

It was a combination of being brilliant and dumb luck. The dumb luck is that in those days the AED guys really had no confidence in Japanese product and it was very difficult to get an audience. They weren't in the rental business in those days, they pretty much sold product. And I just got frustrated and I went out and started demonstrating product to rental people, they saw the value and I started selling direct. Actually that same thing happened in the early 60s when I was selling Worthington air compressors prior to starting with Multiquip. There were only so many equipment dealers and there were too many manufacturers and you'd get a fourth or fifth-rated distributor to handle your product or none at all. And being a guy who likes to have a meal every once in a while, I said, “Hell, I got to sell, I can't wait for a dealer” and I started selling direct to rental companies.

I think the first major rental company I sold to was Aero Rentals in Tucson, I sold Mitch Hoxie about a dozen air compressors and a dozen air tools and that woke me up. I started selling direct to most of the founders of the rental industry like Sam Greenberg, Bob Irving, the Grasse brothers. They liked dealing direct with me and, of course, I appreciated their business.

You pioneered a lot of the special financing that is now so common.

Bob Irving, who owned 80 percent of Multiquip when we started it, was a guru of the rental industry and he knew that the most important thing to any rental company was cash flow, and you had to have good financing and price wasn't really that important. We started working on a lot of long-term leases and financing and specialized deals. The flexibility of Multiquip probably was the biggest key to our success.

When I started people wanted rules, “We got to have policies and rules,” people said. I said “OK, our first policy is not to have any policies, because what's good for New York may not be good for L.A., and what's good for L.A. may not be good in Chicago or Houston or wherever you go in the country.” So we sort of tailored our philosophy to fit each rental company in each area rather than just make blanket policies. I've always hated bureaucracy and I think that was why we were always a flexible company that took care of the customer.

To me business is easy. I never had a course in business or marketing, because I truly believe the key to success in business is how well you take care of your customers and your people. If you take better care of the customer than the competitor, he's going to deal with you.

You had to trust the salespeople you put in the field to use good sense?

The salesmen, almost without exception in that first group, were all entrepreneurs, they knew how to wheel and deal. They were always on the phone. They'd say, “I got a deal, but this is what the guy needs, can I do this?” We did a lot of flexible terms and people really appreciated them and they kept coming back. We helped put a lot of guys in business and helped people when things were tough, and we built a lot of loyalty, and I think that was a big key to our success.

Now that the company is bigger, mustn't policies be more defined?

Certainly there are policies, but everybody is trained that they're not etched in stone and that every policy can be adjusted because today's policy may not be good tomorrow. You have to empower people, you have to have people who are willing to think and risk rather than just follow rules. You can't run a company strictly by numbers.

How has product evolved over the years and where do you see it going in the future?

In the '60s and '70s, almost without exception, every manufacturer of construction equipment really manufactured one product, maybe two that weren't related. It dawned on me that I had a very good relationship with rental companies and if I had another product, they'd buy that from me too. So we got into pumps and that was an immediate success because they saw that we did a good job on compaction equipment, took good care of them, gave good service, so they bought pumps. Then I got into generators and the same thing occurred. So the supermarket concept was good for us and for customers because they didn't have to see 10 different salesmen to buy 10 different products.

Do you expect to see more manufacturer consolidation?

Yes I think manufacturers have to consolidate, there are a lot fewer customers. A lot of companies that have been around for a lot of years don't have the customer base they did before. So they are hurting and many have to sell. We have people contacting us all the time asking if we are interested in acquiring them. We just don't want to overdo it, we're not in the market to consolidate our industry, we're in the market to be the best we can be.

What will you miss about coming to work every day?

A good friend of mine said “Irv, you're not going to enjoy retirement, because you're no longer the king.” And he's right, and that's probably a very smart analysis of retirement when you go from being CEO and chairman of a good-sized company to just another guy. But I'll probably sit on various boards and I know some people will ask me to consult and I plan on even going back to college and learning things I know nothing about. There's an awful lot to learn and my last 40 years have been strictly business. There are a lot of other areas to keep me alert.

Will you have a defined term on the board?

It's indefinite. I want to take three months off then I'll make some decisions. Right now I have absolutely no plans. After 41 years of being in this industry, I'm going to take a breather. I got a new Ferrari that I love, I bought a Great Dane harlequin puppy that's now six months old and 105 pounds. My daughter just moved from Maryland with her family to about four or five miles from where I live, I got a two-year-old grandson, a great little guy to hang out with and he'll keep me young and I'll teach him all about business. I'll have another grandkid at the end of March and I've got two granddaughters in Florida. So I'll stay busy, that's for sure. And one of the main reasons for retirement is my wonderful wife. We'll finally have an opportunity to do whatever we want or just hang out together.

I'll see where life leads me. Physically and mentally I'm in great shape, there's a lot I can do.