Supplying The CRUMBS

June 1, 1999
Not many owners of rental companies would want their name to conjure up the image of a portable toilet. The Edwards family certainly didn't plan on that

Not many owners of rental companies would want their name to conjure up the image of a portable toilet. The Edwards family certainly didn't plan on that when it changed its company's name to Kit-Mo.

When Gene Edwards moved from St. Louis to Paducah, Ky., in 1963, he brought a pickup truck full of barricades and a company called Warning Lights. After separating from his

St. Louis-based partner in 1970, he changed the company's name to Kit-Mo Rental & Supply Co., named for the four-state area - Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee and Missouri - that the company serves.

Around the same time, Edwards started renting portable chemical toilets, the first company in the area to do so. Since many customers were seeing the toilets and the name Kit-Mo for the first time, they tended to associate the company moniker as a brand name for the toilet.

"Even today, people call the toilets 'Kit-Mos,' " says David Edwards, Gene's son and current Kit-Mo president. "Construction workers who had never seen them before working in this area would go somewhere else to work and call them 'Kit-Mos.' And, of course, people didn't know what they were talking about. To this day, some people call our competitors and ask if they have 'Kit-Mos.'"

Kit-Mo's outside salesmen - Curt Roberts and Richard Dummer - see the company's reputation as a provider of portable toilets as a challenge. "Sometimes I'll arrive on a jobsite and somebody will say, 'We've already got one,' " says Roberts. "I'll say, 'Wait a minute! We handle safety items and concrete saws and hand tools and so many other things. If it has to do with construction and we don't have it, I'm sure we can get it.' "

The name association doesn't hurt Kit-Mo as long as it brings people in its door. Once there, customers can discover that the company is about far more than toilets, which represent less than 10 percent of its business.

Kit-Mo's strength is in its diversity. Its staff takes pride in its ability to supply almost everything a small contractor would need on the light end of a construction site - what founder and CEO Edwards calls "the crumbs of a construction project." Leaving heavier construction equipment to its larger competitors, Kit-Mo specializes on the small end. In addition to small equipment rentals, Kit-Mo has a large supply sales business.

Because of this, the Kit-Mo staff - mechanics and inside and outside salespeople - has to be knowledgeable about a lot of different kinds of equipment. "It takes a long time to really train people," says Kirk Edwards, David's brother and company vice president of sales and purchasing, pointing to several shelves of thick manuals and catalogs. "Look at all these books from different manufacturers. In the rental business, you have to know something about all the pieces of equipment - what they're used for, why they're used, what accessories you use with them, and what to do in different situations. If I'm a Hilty salesman or an Ingersoll-Rand rep, I just have to know what they do, and those are big books. But in the rental business, I've got to know all these books. You can study and study, but experience is the best teacher, and it takes time."

As for the Edwards brothers, they've had experience in abundance. David and Kirk have worked in the business virtually all their adult lives, working part time and summers since they were young children. They nostalgically recall setting up assembly lines to construct barricades before the company branched out into other equipment. They grew up learning about the different types of equipment lines the company added, absorbing information about the features of concrete mixers and chain saws just as they studied reading, writing and arithmetic. While they can never completely transfer that knowledge and familiarity with equipment to all their employees, they can take the lead and set the example in how to go about satisfying their customers' needs.

Doing business in a town such as Paducah, with a population of about 30,000 - the county seat of McCracken County, close to 50,000 - it is necessary to be able to spread out through a large region.

When Gene Edwards, now semi-retired, came to Paducah in the '60s to establish the barricade and traffic-control equipment business, he, by the very nature of that business, covered a wide territory. When the company eventually began to sell and rent equipment, it had a spread-out customer base. At that time, however, there wasn't a lot of competition.

"Back in the early '70s, I don't remember any other rental companies between here and St. Louis," says Kirk. "That's not to say that there weren't any, but as a kid working here in the summers, I remember people driving from Marion, Ill.; Carbondale, Ill.; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Hopkinsville, Ky.; and Union City and Paris in northwest Tennessee just to pick up an air compressor and a jackhammer. They wouldn't need to do that today, so we don't cover those areas as much. But we still spread out a good way."

As the trading area was narrowed by the arrival of other businesses, Kit-Mo expanded by going more into supplies. "So our revenue never declined," says Kirk. "We were always growing, and have continued that way."

Kit-Mo has grown steadily, usually about 10 percent a year. Even during the early 1990s, when most of the country was in a recession, the company performed well, enduring only a mild, short-lived slowdown.

Kit-Mo's philosophy is to try to supply the whole job on the light end. "We've always catered to the construction industry with everything from hand drills and power tools to air compressors, mortar mixers, mini-backhoes, light plants, welders and concrete saws," says Kirk. The company's showroom is filled with supply items for sale, such as drills, hose, wire, cutters, measuring tapes, lubricants, sealants, adhesives, wheels and disks. Kit-Mo's 200-page catalog even has a jobsite check list that includes hundreds of items a contractor is likely to need to get a job started. By providing a check list, Kit-Mo helps the contractor to organize his approach to the job and at the same time reminds him that Kit-Mo can take care of virtually all of his light equipment and supply needs.

Understanding the needs of contractors has come naturally for Kit-Mo. Gene Edwards was a civil engineer who worked for a contractor before getting involved in the rental business. He had a strong feel for the small consumable items as well as the larger tools and equipment needed.

Part of Kit-Mo's service is to source items for its customers. "We've gotten a lot of calls over the years from local general contractors who know us and call us because they can't find a product," says David. "They know we'll find it for them. They know we'll go the extra mile, that we'll get the Swings Catalog, the Thomas Registry. We'll find where we can get it and we'll make the call to see if we can buy it directly from the source. Or we might just turn the information over to them and say, 'Here's where you can get it.' We haven't charged them anything for that, but we've given them a little extra service, and a lot of times they appreciate that."

Customer loyalty is particularly important in a small market. With a smaller potential customer base from which to seek new customers, repeat business takes on added importance. Unlike large metropolitan areas with more transient population bases and business communities, the long-term relationship is the key to business in a small town. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night to help a customer when necessary has also always been part of the Edwards creed. Kit-Mo publishes its after-hours numbers in its catalog and on its business cards, which ensures that customers understand it is willing to take that commitment seriously. Although Kit-Mo values its relationships with out-of-town contractors that come to work in the area, repeat business is its core strength.

"Our bread and butter has always been the local general contractor, the ones that are here day in and day out, year in and year out," says David.

"We've grown up with them, we played Little League with them, we see them at our churches and schools," adds Kirk. "They are our friends as much as customers. It's not just a business relationship. We see them everywhere and we feel that makes a difference."

Concrete contractors make up a particularly large portion of Kit-Mo's clientele, and the company is strongly geared toward their needs. It has an inclusive inventory of trowels, screeds, concrete saws, mixers, ties and other accessories used in concrete forming and packing.

Kit-Mo also does a healthy business with contractors involved in industrial maintenance. Paducah has a large industrial base for a relatively small city, and Calvert City, 15 miles away, is, essentially, a town built around industrial plants.

The company also has a scaffolding business, Paducah Scaffolding, which operates out of the same location under a separate name. Primarily rental and rent-to-sell, it accounts for about 20 percent of the company's volume.

"A lot of rental centers have scaffolding, but we took it a bit further than most and put together a big inventory," says Kirk. "It's a big investment because there are a lot of intricate pieces. But we've grown it into a major company in this part of the country." The Kit-Mo/Paducah Scaffolding staff also devotes the effort to attend seminars on scaffolding safety and remain up to speed on changing OSHA safety regulations.

Here come the competitors For many years, there were only two rental centers in Paducah. That number has tripled over the past few years. Among Kit-Mo's competitors are the headquarters for the National Equipment Services subsidiary Falconite Inc., the Caterpillar-owned Americon and Brambles, a multi-regional chain. As its market became more crowded, the Edwards family became more serious about expanding to other cities. To help with that effort, they recruited older brother Robert, a civil engineer, to return to the family business.

"When we looked into expanding, we knew it would be really hard to find somebody to put his effort into a business like we would," says Kirk. "When you hire somebody, they'll work for you from 7 to 5, but they've got a life, too. Our life has always been this business."

Fortunately for the Edwards family, Robert was ready for a new challenge and eager to return to the Paducah area after long stints in Washington, D.C., and Raleigh, N.C. Robert returned to the company earlier this year as vice president of operations and has played a leading role in the development of its new branch.

After considering a number of communities within 100 miles, the Edwardses settled on Hopkinsville, about 50 miles east, and Kit-Mo opened its second location in March. A growing town, Hopkinsville is close to the Fort Campbell Army base. Kit-Mo had a strong customer base at Fort Campbell, and the Edwardses knew that having a facility close to the base could grow that business and give Kit-Mo additional opportunities in Clarksville, a city in northern Tennessee that also borders the military installation.

Robert drew upon his engineering background to help redesign the physical facility itself, and is currently spending three days a week there. "We had to do some modifications with the building that we bought in Hopkinsville," Robert says. "So my experience with construction engineering came in handy, moving some interior masonry walls, [solving] problems with columns and supports and a beam - little things like that we didn't have to seek outside help on."

Robert's engineering background helps the Kit-Mo staff - he also did some extensive re-designing and interior construction on the company's main branch - and helps contractor customers, since he was involved in the design of airports and bridges and other major infrastructure projects.

With expansion taking hold in Hopkinsville, the Edwardses are considering extending their reach and bringing their personal brand of service along with them. And although it will represent only a small portion of their business, they'll bring portable toilets along as well.

Kit-Mo Rental & Supply Co. History: In 1957, Gene Edwards, a civil engineer in St. Louis, began a barricade rental company called Warning Lights. He and his partner, Jack Grinstead, decided to expand. Since Grinstead had been raised in western Kentucky, he suggested Paducah. Edwards moved to Paducah in 1963. In 1970, he and Grinstead dissolved their partnership and Edwards changed the name of the company to Kit-Mo Rental & Supply Co., after its four-state marketing area - western Kentucky, southern Illinois, northwest Tennessee and southeast Missouri. Kit-Mo then evolved into the portable chemical toilet and equipment rental and sales businesses. The company founded Paducah Scaffolding in 1978, a separate corporation run from the same facility.

Edwards reduced his involvement to part time in 1992, and sons David and Kirk, already working full time with the company for many years, took over its day-to-day operation. Kit-Mo opened a second location in Hopkinsville, Ky., in March 1999. Gene's son Robert, a civil engineer, returned to Kit-Mo earlier this year.

Officers: Gene Edwards, although semi-retired, is CEO; David Edwards, president; Kirk Edwards, vice president of sales and purchasing; Robert Edwards, vice president of operations; Gene's wife, Ann Edwards, secretary-treasurer.

Revenues: Close to $2 million in total annual revenue, usually increasing about 10 percent per year.

Revenue breakdown: About 40 percent rental, 60 percent sales.

Inventory: The vast majority of Kit-Mo's clientele are small contractors working on construction sites and in industrial maintenance. The company specializes on the light end of equipment such as trowels, concrete-forming equipment, chain saws, concrete mixers, light towers, welders, skid-steer loaders and mini-backhoes. Kit-Mo also has a large inventory of construction supply items for sale, as well as portable toilets and a large scaffolding inventory.

Philosophy: "Out on a construction job, if you're talking to a superintendent, he knows what he wants most of the time, so don't try to pull the wool over his eyes. If you don't know the answer, be honest with him. Tell him you need time to get back to him. ... Everybody is entitled to a fair profit, and you want to treat everybody as fair as you possibly can. That's the key to any business. If you tell them something, do what you tell them you're going to do." - Gene Edwards