Rental Without Keyboards

Sept. 1, 2002
Like a two-year-old who can read proficiently, Kansas Rental, Topeka, Kan., is a phenomenon. You wouldn't think it possible. Then you witness it and marvel

Like a two-year-old who can read proficiently, Kansas Rental, Topeka, Kan., is a phenomenon. You wouldn't think it possible. Then you witness it and marvel at how much talent and dedication it must have taken the parent to teach and how much effort and intelligence the child to learn. As unimaginable as it is for some businesses, Bob Wanamaker, president, runs his without computers. Only a cash register maintains the daily expenses. “It's all paper,” he says. It's no matter though. He learned enough from his dad, Gene, to operate a full-functioning rental center successfully minus many of the technological advances of today.

Wanamaker began working at age 12 when his dad opened Sunflower Rents in 1951. He earned 50 cents a day and eventually worked up to $10 a day by the time he was in high school. In 1963 he opened Kansas Rental and now owns another Kansas Rental location and A to Z Rental, which he bought in 1992, both in Topeka. His son, Bruce, manages A to Z, while his daughter, Heather, handles the bookkeeping for the stores.

There is one computer, which is in use at the other Kansas Rental location that Todd May manages. Bruce and May have tried to persuade Wanamaker to computerize, but he's not convinced. “I've been getting a lot of heat from my son and Todd both about how we need to get a computer system,” he says. “I went to the ARA show, and I talked to a couple of different guys. ‘This is the stuff you put on your computer, and it can tell you everything.’ And I said, ‘How are we going to make money?’ I couldn't find the value in the system.”

Where the company lacks in technology it makes up for in longevity. Wanamaker asserts there aren't many in Topeka who haven't at least heard of his rental center. “The best way to develop long term relationships is be in business for half a century,” he says.

Wanamaker realizes his customer base is strong enough that when a competitor offers a less expensive rate he doesn't have to worry. Others may lower a price, but this isn't how Wanamaker chooses to operate. “Now, is it 10 percent better when you have to pay to get there and back, and you have to pay a $10-an-hour man to do it?” he asks. “Therefore, I don't let somebody scare me with a couple bucks under pricing. There is no economy in my being a dollar cheaper because I'm not going to get him to come across town. I might as well be a dollar higher because it's only a fool who would drive that far.

“The bigger guys believe in being right at the minimum on pricing, which is the philosophy of all those big guys,” he says. “In my estimation, it's a mistake because the service business is not retail business as they're thinking like selling cigarettes.”

The only similarity is sometimes rental centers have to card, too. Of course, most customers can be trusted, but, unfortunately, there are the few who literally wreck everything, and Kansas Rental wouldn't be able to provide full service without some of the methods it's used to prevent eyesores present in any company. During the day, Wanamaker qualifies his customers and requires a credit card in order to rent certain items, such as generators. At night, when darkness and silence entice thieves, Wanamaker applies his old fashioned but extremely effective security system — dogs.

There are three German Shepherds at his location and two each at the other stores. Twenty years ago Wanamaker implemented this furry yet fierce technique. The fence alone wasn't enough. He tried two different gauges of wire, nine and 11, which he says only slowed them down. Thieves cut 11 with diagonal side cutters and then the more difficult nine with bolt cutters. Wanamaker still has the fence, but now if someone gets too close they might be the ones missing some pieces. “They [the dogs] won't tell us what fingers taste like or who did it,” he says with a smile.

Kansas Rental proves it can be done. Service is just as prevalent as any rental center with computerization. Although the former won't change, the latter may with the next generation. Wanamaker predicts the industry will continue to prosper and encourages his kids to stay in it.

“The rental business, as everybody in the rental business knows, is seven days a week,” he says. “It's a good business. It will provide well for you, but you do have to provide a lot for it. My dad of course worked the seven days a week, and I followed him, and we have profited.”