A Strong Will

Jan. 1, 1999
WillRent had been a name familiar to Chicago rental center customers for years, so when it closed in 1989, an industrious entrepreneur grabbed the name

WillRent had been a name familiar to Chicago rental center customers for years, so when it closed in 1989, an industrious entrepreneur grabbed the name and placed it on the rental center she was about to open.

The move paid off.

Customers have reported being drawn to the store after seeing the yard and the sign from the train by the Stevenson Expressway; others were brought in by the familiarity of the name.

Creative marketing is only one of many reasons WillRent has continued to steadily grow. Effective customer and community service and networking have helped too. And at the helm of the operation is the drive and determination of the company's savvy, assertive owner.

Eight years ago, at the age of 24, Julie Martines set out against the odds to start her own rental center.

She could not get a loan to save her soul.

When she made the decision to go out on her own to grow a business from the ground up, not only was Martines young, but some bankers, she says, doubted that a woman could effectively start her own business in the construction equipment indutry. Although she offered to put in her own savings, not even that was enough to secure a bank loan.

When she received an SBA federally guaranteed loan, WillRent was born. After researching potentially profitable industries, she had decided equipment rental would be the most prosperous. "That was eight years ago when rentals were getting really hot and really popular," Martines says. "Being aware of the industry and where it was going, I decided to start my own business."

The initial years were rough. "When I first started, being a woman and a minority was a challenge," she says. "It was difficult sometimes with the contractors because, for a while, the only employees were myself and a mechanic, so I was dealing with contractors all the time. I definitely had a few people try to test me when I first started out."

But equipment rental was in her blood. Martines grew up following the rental industry through her father's two SES Inc. stores in West Chicago, Ill., and Gary, Ind., and had even worked for him in all of the departments at one time or another. She decided she wanted to focus on rentals more than her father's business, which was primarily sales-based. "He had been a distributor for manufacturers for a while, and after seeing the hassles he went through," she says, "I decided I wanted to be in the equipment industry. but I did not want to be tied to manufacturers' every whim."

Despite her father's 30 years in the industry making contacts, Martines took steps to distance herself from finding customers through her father. "Like any other industry, you've got to establish yourself on your own," she says. "That is why I have established myself entirely separate, and there is no shared ownership."

Martines tirelessly attended contractors' meetings and receptions and participated in builders' associations - all in the name of networking and attracting customers on her own, which, she says, are essential to doing business in the Chicago area.

"This is a very political town and definitely a town of contacts; I don't even know half the people I should," she says. "But all that work definitely paid off. It helped to really meet people and get my name out there."

Playing by the rules is what has helped her get ahead. More than participating in meetings, business owners who want to be successful must expect to donate their time, money and support to the community, she says. Martines has focused much of her time on construction associations that cater to issues related to female- and minority-owned businesses.

>From what she has seen, the Chicago area is one of the fairest cities as >far as providing opportunities for minorities and women, she says. Small >businesses also get a fair shake in the metropolitan city because of >efforts made by Mayor Richard Daley to break down some of the politics >that exist in business in most big cities. This is good news for a >single-location independent rental center like WillRent.

The city of Chicago and the state of Illinois have programs that set goals for projects, requiring inclusion of female- and minority-owned businesses. "Som etimes it is a chance to get my foot in the door on jobs that would otherwise prefer to work with the companies they've been dealing with for 30 years," she says. "But I don't like to build my business around it. I am in business to be in business, not because of these goals. We have to perform and deliver the equipment on time, and it has to work when it gets there, and if it does break down, you have to get a mechanic there immediately. It's not what everyone thinks it is - [the programs aren't] just a giveaway."

Individualized service Martines is confident about the strength of her company. So when the conglomerates began penetrating the Chicago market nine months ago, she says she didn't lose any sleep.

With an established customer base in place, WillRent, she believes, will survive on its devotion to being customer-driven and to providing individualized service. "That is how we differentiate ourselves - it's the main factor we have going for us," she says. "In so many other places, the customer is not treated appropriately, but we pride ourselves on not being like that."

Martines' keen understanding of Chicago's business world has helped her develop a manner with which customers and employees should be treated. Large companies just entering the area need to be aware of how business is conducted there, or they will fail, she believes. Staff members who have made contacts throughout the city are essential to retain in any takeover, she says.

Enjoying the customers cannot hurt either.

"These are honest people in this industry," she says. "I have gotten to meet a lot of successful people. You meet a lot of characters, a lot of great people. They are definitely not corporate people you're dealing with; they're people-type people."

Future plans Martines admits she would like to open a second store, but in light of industry consolidation, she's not sure that now is the time to expand. And with her business still being young, she has goals yet to be accomplished.

Goals for 1999 include improving customer service and addressing safety and liability issues, including creating a damage waiver and providing insurance for customers.

But is selling unfathomable? No, there are always other industries to look to next.

"I don't want to be in the rental business forever - it is a tough business," she says. "If I was ever to start another business, there are definitely certain things that would be attractive to me in another part of my life, but I certainly want to stay in rental for a while. The thing that I enjoy is that it is really difficult and has given me confidence that if I can do this, I can be confident in whatever I try in the future."

WillRent Inc. Chicago Locations: one.

Annual volume: $3.7 million.

Customer base: Contractor 65%, municipal 34%, industrial 1%.

Company focus: Rent-to-rent, some sales; Stone Construction Equipment and Sullivan Industries equipment dealer.

Key employees: Julie Martines, president; John Mierzwa, sales; Patti Cash, operations manager; 8 employees total.

Company philosophy: To provide the best services and products so that our customers' uptime is maximized and overall costs are minimized.

Mentor: Steve Martines, SES Inc., West Chicago, Ill., father. "He doesn't participate in running my business at all. A lot of problems people have with their businesses they think are unique to themselves, but 90 percent of the time, that isn't so. People with experience who have gone through these problems before can be very knowledgeable, so he has been very helpful to me along that avenue. When I have a problem, I can always pick up the phone and call him for advice."