The Wild Side

Oct. 1, 2003
If you're looking for something dangerous to do in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., chances are you'll find one of the Chief Equipment Rental employees doing it. Mark

If you're looking for something dangerous to do in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., chances are you'll find one of the Chief Equipment Rental employees doing it. Mark Harrington, owner of the company, and Nathan Fuller, its service manager, ride motorcycles, 4-wheelers and sky dive. Brian Wargo, its store manager, plays rugby.

“One of our rules is, a couple of us ride dirt bikes or 4-wheelers, that's fine, but we can't all ride at the same time because we can't all be hurt at the same time,” Harrington says.

Somebody has to be healthy enough to run the store, so the three have an understanding to schedule their activities and events accordingly. Harrington says their hardcore, extremist personalities sometimes make it hard to find employees that are compatible. “We are notorious for working people so hard that they don't come back the next day,” Harrington says, referring specifically to employees hired to help set up tents. “Sometimes they don't even come pick up their paychecks.”

The Chief Rental team has always worked hard no matter how much time it took to get the job done, even when they were hurt or sick. All of them can wake up at 6 a.m., and work straight through to 10 p.m. without missing a beat and then get up and do it again the next day. “That's just what we do,” Harrington says. It's that “if you're going to go, go big” mentality that has brought success to the business.

Harrington started the company in March 1997, fresh from graduating college in December. No stranger to the industry, Harrington learned the ropes working at Villa Brothers Rental in Cookeville his last two years of school.

“They basically opened up the books to me to teach me how to run it and what all went on behind the scenes,” Harrington says. And after about a year working in all areas of the business, he was hooked. From that point on the plan was set into place for him to start his own rental equipment company immediately after graduation.

But Harrington's background in rental didn't exactly begin at Villa Brothers. He and his brothers grew up around rental yards and remember going to American Rental Association trade shows as kids. His dad, Billy “Chief” Harrington, worked for Homelite for 25 years, selling equipment to rental companies in the southeast. His oldest brother, David “Ace” Harrington, owned a rental center for about 10 years before starting what became MTA Distributors out of a tent in 1980. His middle brother, John, works in the freight industry and also runs his own business as a trained blacksmith. Entrepreneurship is in the Harrington blood.

Harrington himself has always enjoyed going out to construction sites and is fascinated by the things being built. To him it's like a huge puzzle being put together piece by piece. He's also found that he meshes well with contractors and enjoys working with them. Making a career in construction equipment rental seemed a logical choice and growing up around the construction business provided him the background he needed to take the leap. “I didn't want to do something I was going to be bored with everyday,” Harrington says. “Every single phone call is something different it seems like; I like the fast pace.”

But Mt. Juliet wasn't his first city of choice to drop anchor. Harrington and his father traveled by motorcycle throughout Kentucky and Tennessee searching for the perfect location for a rental center. After their first choice for a building in Bowling Green, Ky., turned out to be taken, the two headed for home through Mt. Juliet and discovered how much the small town, where Harrington had spent much of his childhood, had grown. By morning, the two had decided it was the place. They found a 4,000-square-foot building, secured the lease and Harrington began preparing for a March 1997 opening. Needing a place to live, but consumed by the tasks of opening a business, Harrington built a 12 by 12 room with a shower inside the building to serve as his apartment.

Shortly after opening in the third week of March, a rainstorm stalled over the area and lasted for six weeks. Business slowed to a snail's pace because contractors couldn't work. Harrington was forced to draw on his line of credit just to stay afloat. When the rains subsided, however, rentals quickly picked up and haven't slowed down since. “On our equipment side, we have grown so fast that it's been a whirlwind for six years now,” Harrington says.

Knowing he would soon need help, Harrington hired Brian Wargo as store manager in May 1997. The two grew up together and met up again at Lowe's when Harrington was buying materials to gear up his store. Wargo, also a recent college graduate, was biding his time at the home improvement store while looking for a career where he wouldn't have to sit behind a desk all day.

The two of them worked long days and spent late nights out on the town. Their early days were spent taking turns napping on the couch while the other worked up front at the counter, Harrington says.

Eventually, equipment started breaking down and required more maintenance than Harrington and Wargo could handle between them. Nathan Fuller heard about the opening and delivered his resume in person. Harrington was not only impressed with the detail of his resume, but also by the fact that he holds the world land speed record, at 90 mph, in a vehicle with alternative fuel. Fuller modified a Corvette with a combine diesel motor to run on soy diesel. Harrington hired him as the full-time service manager in May 1998.

Business doubled at Chief Rental every year for the first three years and by the fifth year, the company moved into a new building next door to allow for the continued growth. Harrington purchased the property, which included 3,500 square feet of showroom and office space, an 8,000-square-foot shop area and a 2,500-square-foot loft accessible with a tow motor and perfect for storing party goods. The loft also provided space to build another apartment for Harrington. The two-and-a-half acre yard is fenced and has an area in the back where Harrington plans to build a warehouse to exclusively house the party inventory to keep it clean and away from the construction equipment.

According to Harrington, the business is currently about 65 percent contractor rental, 30 percent homeowner and five percent party goods. Immediate plans for growth are focused on the party side of the business, with plans to build the warehouse sometime in the next two and a half years. The equipment side of the business is at the level Harrington would like it to be and the plan right now is to mature it. At this point the business is experiencing moderate growth of five to 10 percent annually.


Like most of the decisions Harrington makes, introducing party supplies to the inventory was strategic. He needed to generate more revenue to pay for the new building. Party supplies were the logical choice.

After handling party rentals himself for the first few months, Harrington decided he needed full time support to keep up with the growing demand. Shanna Ray joined the company as party goods coordinator in June 2002, allowing Mark to return his concentration to the traditional rental fleet.

Marketing the new side of the business was going well. “When we first started on party goods, the thought was, ‘why don't we target the wives and kids of the guys who come in and rent the jackhammers from us.’” Harrington explains. The relationships with those customers were already established and no other rental companies in the immediate area were filling that niche. Customers had previously been renting party goods out of Nashville, 16 miles west.

The company also markets the party side of the business to local schools and churches. Each January, it holds its Chief Rental lottery, inviting every non-profit organization that has rented one time at regular price in the past year to put their name in the hat. Ten names are drawn and those winners get $300 worth of free rental for the year.

Harrington plans to step up the party inventory another level in 2004, doubling the number of tents.

Adding the party inventory had a dual effect on business. Getting more female customers into the store to rent party materials was also introducing them to the world of do-it-yourself rentals, and growing the company's already strong female clientele.

To secure its reputation with women, Harrington insists that the showroom be kept clean, that he and his employees always say “yes ma'am” and “no ma'am,” and that the equipment be maintained so that it cranks on the first pull.

Employees ask questions to learn the details of a customer's project and then recommend the appropriate piece of equipment. It's not unusual for a female customer to come in, rent a piece of equipment, and then have it delivered, set-up and cranked for her so that she can immediately begin work on a project. “One of my big sayings is: ‘If a customer calls us up one morning and says that he can't get his boots tied to go to work, then we need to go over there and tie his boots. ‘Cause if he can't go to work, he's not going to rent anything.’”

Beyond party, Harrington found other ways to expand the business and generate additional revenue. At a recent ARA show, he was introduced to a towable concrete buggy that hauls one yard of concrete. From the show, he called the three concrete suppliers in and around Mt. Juliet and learned that they would supply such a small amount of concrete if a customer wanted it, but they hated to. All three suppliers told him they would send him more business than he could handle. After investing $30,000 in the miniature concrete plant and trailers, Harrington soon began fielding call after call from customers needing three yards of concrete or less. He estimates that they move two to three yards a day and have sold up to 15 yards in one day.

Another revenue generating idea came to Harrington when he was frustrated with trying to find a place to get hydraulic hoses fixed and then having to wait a day for them to be done. “What was happening was we were out of that piece of equipment so our utilization was down because we had to switch it out instead of being able to fix the hose,” Harrington says. He decided to add a full hydraulic hose dealership to the business, allowing a broken hose to be fixed in 10 to 15 minutes. It produces more revenue for Chief and helps them get their rental fleet fixed quicker and cheaper than they could do it before.

“There are very few things we have to rely on anybody for,” Harrington says. “We do 90 percent of everything in house, including repair on our own trucks, welding and fabricating. The hydraulic hoses kind of rounded that off.”

Because home construction is booming in Wilson County, Wargo suggested adding a basic hardware section to the showroom as a convenience for the contractor customers and an additional way to increase sales. Chief carries 30 SKUs — items that construction contractors use everyday such as duct tape, caulk, silicone, nails, drywall screws and anchor bolts. “We don't intend or want to be a full hardware store, but we try to match stuff up with what we're renting,” Harrington says.

Because the service department in the new building was so much larger than in the original building, Chief was able to open up its service department, making it a profit center. Fuller does more than just maintain the rental fleet. He is a trained fabricator so he does most of their welding and customers trust him to do the mechanic work on all kinds of things, including 4-wheelers, motorcycles and boats, knowing that maintenance of the rental fleet comes first.


Chief Rental competes with several rental businesses in the surrounding area. Right up the street is Garr's Rental and Feed, a combination hardware, rental and feed store in business for more than 28 years. “Even though on the front end it's competition, in reality it's apples and oranges,” says Harrington. “We tend to favor contractors, especially out-of-town contractors, which we get a lot of in this area particularly because of the growth pattern.”

In addition, NationsRent operates a branch six miles up the road. Home Depot and Lowe's each operate stores with rental departments six miles west of Chief and another of each will be open 15 miles east of the store by December.

Harrington stays competitive by offering a discounted rate on Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. through to Monday morning. “That counteracts some of the Home Depot-type situations where they're open all weekend,” he says.

When the big chain competitors first came into the area Harrington asked himself what he could do to stay competitive and diversified. He realized that the rental departments at both Home Depot and Lowe's were overwhelmed with customers and couldn't possibly meet all the demand. He made it a point to go meet the employees in their rental departments and asked them to refer customers to him whenever they couldn't meet a need or handle the demand. His strategy has worked well so far. Both NationsRent and Home Depot call Chief two or three times a day. “We just try to capitalize on it instead of worry about it,” Harrington says.

Another factor that helps Chief stay competitive is that the company doesn't take deposits on rentals. “If you pay cash, check or credit card up front, then you can take a piece of equipment for whatever the rental rate is,” Harrington says. “And that's pretty risky. But it has opened up more customers than you can imagine and the risk is more than well worth it on our end.” Not requiring deposits allows Chief to serve the customers who don't have a credit card and NationsRent often refers to Chief its customers who can't make a deposit.

Chief also has something none of its competition can boast — Zed. Zed is the 150-pound gray and black Great Dane who lives in the store. Customers stop by regularly simply to check on him and children frequently ask their parents if they can stop in to play with him on Saturdays. He's a regular canine celebrity.

Harrington, too, is a bit of a celebrity in town. He serves as president of the Mt. Juliet Chamber of Commerce. As president, he attends the monthly luncheon, schedules business after-hours social events, participates in fundraisers and heads up meetings. He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term on the Chamber's board.


Delivery service is one more thing that sets Chief Equipment Rental apart from its competition. Most of the other rental centers in the county do make deliveries, but at a very high price. Harrington's philosophy is to provide delivery at a reasonable rate, offering a convenience to customers and saving his equipment from the abuse of loading and unloading by inexperienced users. It also cut down on the number of trailers the company needs in its fleet.

“I could see early on that delivery was one of our big assets,” Harrington says. “Delivering equipment can be quite nice if it's done correctly. It can be a profit center. And especially the way we do it. We generate enough to pay for an employee and pay for the truck and trailer that he uses and then that employee, since he's cross-trained, can help out at the counter if he's not driving. And he can help out changing the oil and bearings.”

In November 2001, Harrington hired Paul Ricketts as the company's full-time driver. Ricketts is from Mt. Juliet so he knows the roads and the surrounding areas well.

Rates are preset for deliveries to neighboring towns. Lebanon is 16 miles east of Mt. Juliet and Gallatin is 20 miles north. Fuller, who lives near Gallatin, frequently makes deliveries to Gallatin on his way home in the evenings. He'll drop off a piece of equipment one night and then pick it up to return to the store the next night. Wargo does the same thing for deliveries to Madison, which is about 15 miles northwest of Mt. Juliet.

“We would rather give a decent delivery rate instead of having that cost of putting a store over there,” Harrington says. “Operating multiple stores doesn't interest me at all. In my opinion, and through the research I've done on it, the extra money made is not worth the extra headache.”

Always with his mind on ways to drive sales, Harrington encourages his employees to find someone at each job site they visit who they've never seen before and give them a business card. Building relationships with people is important to Harrington and critical to how he runs the business.


Anyone who calls or comes into Chief Rental is likely to feel like they've been renting there for years. Harrington expects everyone to be addressed with sir and ma'am and if an employee can't answer common questions easily and quote rental rates, then that person won't be standing behind the counter or answering the phone.

“We like to be friends with people,” Harrington explains. “We know a lot of people in the first place since we basically all live around this area.”

Much of the time they know their customers by name and by the trucks they drive. If they recognize a truck pulling in and know what the customer needs they will get it prepped so they can get in and out of the store and back out on the job. As a result they have a loyal customer base.

“We're proof that the best price is not what everybody wants because our prices are higher than most people's — not necessarily on every single piece of equipment, but on most,” Harrington says. But those rates include everything you need to go with that rental. If you rent a jackhammer, the iron is included in that rate. A straightforward rate system has bred trust in Chief's customers.

“Image is a very big deal to us,” Harrington says. “And I think it kind of rolls over into our philosophy. We want to have a nice clean place to come into that people enjoy coming to. They're doing work for one thing, but if you can do work and have a good piece of equipment that runs correctly, it's a lot more pleasant.”


History: After graduating college in December 1996, Mark Harrington set out with his dad, Homelite sales veteran, Billy “Chief” Harrington, to find a location to start his rental equipment business. Settling on Mt. Juliet, Tenn., Harrington geared up the store quickly and opened for business in March 1997. Sales doubled each year for the first three years and in 2002, Harrington moved the store next door to a 3,500-square-foot showroom and office; 8,000-square-foot shop; and 2,500-square-foot loft, making room for sales to double again. Harrington now has plans to build a warehouse behind the current building to exclusively house party goods.

Key personnel: Owner Mark Harrington; store manager Brian Wargo; service manager Nathan Fuller; party goods coordinator Shanna Ray.

Key suppliers: John Deere loaders; Honda power equipment; Dolmar cut-off saws; Hobart welders; Little Beaver augers; Dri-Eaz dehumidifiers; Bosch hand tools; Bandit chippers; Atlas Copco air compressors; JLG and Snorkel lifts; Crusader wet/dry vacs; Terramite; Bachtold Bros.