Blue-Collar Niche Marketers

Feb. 1, 1999
Bob and Don Bruner don't seem like Madison Avenue marketers - and they're not. These blue-collar rentalmen have worked most of their lives for Cincy Tool

Bob and Don Bruner don't seem like Madison Avenue marketers - and they're not. These blue-collar rentalmen have worked most of their lives for Cincy Tool Rentals since their father, George, founded the company in 1971 and have run the company completely since their father's retirement seven years ago. A steady buildup of customers and strong niche-filling to Cincinnati's industrial plants have enabled Cincy Tool to be one of the city's cornerstone rental players.

Adapting to changing times, the Bruner brothers have embraced the new electronic age with a shrewd Internet marketing campaign. One of the first rental companies in the country to have an Internet presence, Cincy Tool's site on the World Wide Web ( offers detailed instructions on a dozen or more home-improvement projects and a rental discount coupon in exchange for filling out a four-question marketing survey. The Web site also offers a "Netcash" coupon that site visitors can print out and redeem as part of their payment on a rental.

With clever cartoon graphics that make the Web site visually appealing, Cincy Tool also offers seasonal specials, announcements of new products, credit applications, a full price list and catalog, and links to other businesses that can help homeowners, who make up about 65 percent of its clientele.

Cincy Tool also advertises on Home & Garden Television (HGTV), which instructs homeowners on home-improvement and outdoor garden projects and promotes the rental concept as a solution to their tool requirements.

Cincy Tool has also made effective use of ads on sports-talk radio shows, and has had a positive return on coupons offered in Supershopper, which offers ads and shopping discounts.

"We'll keep looking for more and more niches," says Bob Bruner. "Anybody can rent items like an electric jackhammer because they're real low-maintenance. But if you get into items like airless paint sprayers, you have to know what you're doing when you service them. [Big box] stores might be able to get started with those, but when it comes to keeping them running, they won't be able to keep up."

Cincy Tool offers a wide variety of general equipment for homeowners and contractors. It does a strong propane business and has about 50 storage containers on rent to customers. It keeps careful track of requested items not in stock and continually adds items to the inventory. And it has developed a regular industrial clientele by offering niche tools such as large air-impact socket wrenches, high-capacity torque wrenches and a variety of electric hoists.

"We try to have good sources so if an account needs something we don't have, we can get it quick," says Bob. "If it's oddball stuff, we need to have contacts with the suppliers that handle it. A lot of times a customer says he needs it for just a day, and you wonder if you should bother, but that day turns into a week or a month."

Cincy Tool is also planning to enter the scissorlift market, not to become a major high-reach player but to be a more complete one-stop shop for its customers. "The long-term lift rentals are pretty well taken by [the bigger companies], but to keep our customers who want them happy, we'll pick up a few," Bob says.

The Bruners own the property at all three of their branches and are looking for a fourth location. Don says owning the property for Cincy Tool's branches is in itself an important investment in the company's future. Still, getting bigger for its own sake is not a major goal. "Right now, the company is a manageable size," Bob says.

Whether Cincy Tool adds more branches and no matter what types of equipment it adds or marketing it does, ultimately the key to its continued success will be incidents like that on a recent weekend. Bob went into the office in the middle of the night to do an upgrade on the company's computer system.

"I'm here at 3 o'clock in the morning and I get a call from the Cincinnati Public Library," Bob recalls. "They had just built this beautiful addition and they had an open house for the contractors, after which they had a major sewage backup. The place was totally flooded and the next day was the open house for the general public. The guy says, 'I need every wet vac, every carpet dryer, every fan,' on and on. So they sent a truck at 3:30 in the morning, and I filled it with every piece we had."

No matter what kind of strategy large rental companies employ, as long as the independents can offer this kind of service, they'll be in business for a long time.

Owners: Bob and Don Bruner.

Founded: 1971

Locations: Three.

Employees: 22 to 25, depending on the season.

Annual revenue: %1.5 million-plus, about 90 percent rental.

Customer breakdown: About 60 percent homeowner, 40 percent light contractor, industrial and new