Raise the Flag

Everybody knows the rental business is a capital-intensive one. You need capital to buy equipment; you have to spend money to be able to make it. Some would even say capital is a business owner's best friend. But if you own a small company without a lot of access to capital, then your next best friend has to be inventiveness.

Bill Brueneman, who recently took over Brueneman Rentals from his father, Len, wanted to include aerial work platforms in his equipment fleet, but couldn't afford the capital investment. So he developed a re-renting arrangement with another company that enables him to park the machines on his yard. He doesn't gross as much money on a rental, but he incurs none of the risk. And by parking the 60- and 80-foot booms on his yard, on a busy street a few feet from his showroom, he can show his customers - actual and potential - that the machines are available. If a customer rents them, he makes money. If one doesn't, he loses nothing.

The physical presence of the aerials serves Brueneman as a marketing tool.

"We get a lot of transient contractors around here, often working on projects right down the street, and these lifts attract them like a beacon," he says. "We usually have an 80-foot boom here and you can see it clearly from the highway. We could even put a flag on it. You can't miss it."

The presence of the lifts is part of a major effort Brueneman is making to expand his company and enhance its image. Last March, he hired an outside salesman, Larry Stegemiller, to market the company among construction and industrial clients. Stegemiller, who used to work for a construction company that was a Brueneman customer, says he liked to do business with Brueneman because of his "If I don't have it, I'll get it for you immediately" style of doing business.

Stegemiller is taking that attitude to Brueneman's clients. "I went to see a customer and he asked if we had sweeper bags," Stegemiller says. "I said, 'No, we don't, but I'll stop and pick some up for you.' I bought some, charged them to my own credit card and brought them in to him. He knew I'd mark it up, but he couldn't care less about that. He has 10,000 things to take care of, and I've just taken care of one of them for him to save him time. It's a small thing, but he'll remember those sweeper bags. And that's what it takes to do business today. It's hard to find people who will go a bit beyond for you."

Another part of Brueneman's image revitalization is its move last year to a lot adjoining its old property. Cramped for space, Brueneman bought a neighboring convenience store, painted it and, with long shelves and gondolas, now displays a greater variety of tools as well as merchandise, which the company has recently begun to emphasize. The move to the new building, which also houses the company's offices, allowed Brueneman to convert the entire old building into shop and storage space.

"We were so cramped and packed in before, there were times we could hardly close the garage doors," he says.

The building and new showroom have benefited the company in a public relations sense as well as a functional one. "We've had a lot of positive feedback from the neighborhood," Brueneman says. "This used to be a convenience store. A lot of people in the neighborhood were so glad when we bought this place because it got rid of people who were hanging out here.

"We got rid of the nuisance and now people are coming in and complimenting us on the store and telling us that we upgraded the neighborhood. Many of them have started renting from us, saying they like doing business with us for that reason."

Some of that business is commercial and some homeowner, which makes up about 15 percent to 20 percent of Brueneman's business. The rest is contractor and industrial clients, with the focus of the business going more toward the industrial. The nearby plants do a lot of business with Brueneman.

"They do shutdowns where they turn off all the power and they rent every generator we have in one fell swoop," he says. "They use vacuums to clean, lights, quite a few items."

Brueneman represents the third generation in the family business. His grandfather started in the coal business in 1938, evolving into tool and equipment rentals during the 1950s when the coal business declined. Although his children are too young for him to predict whether or not they'll carry on the family tradition, Bill Brueneman is bullish on the potential for expansion, with the Cincinnati economy fairly solid and the city growing and building out in several directions.

And he is optimistic that new projects revitalizing the riverfront area, such as light rail and new football and baseball stadiums, will keep the city's big players busy for some time, helping to free up other business for the smaller companies.

But most important are the aggressive measures Brueneman is leading the company to take, even without a truckload of capital.

Owner: Bill Brueneman.

Founded: 1938 as a coal business, evolving into rentals during the 1950s.

Locations: One.

Employees: Seven, increasing to 10 in the summer.

Revenue: About $530,000 in 1998.

Customer breakdown: 15 percent to 20 percent homeowner, the rest contractor and industrial.

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