Interview with Stephenson’s Rental Services’ Guy Manuel: Hand Sanitizer in Wine Bottles

Dec. 17, 2020
RER spoke with a number of rental companies to see how they fared during the pandemic and about their prospects for the year ahead. Among the most creative responses comes from Stephenson’s Rental Services, based in Toronto, Canada.

RER spoke with a number of rental companies to see how they fared during the pandemic and about their prospects for the year ahead. Among the most creative responses comes from Stephenson’s Rental Services, based in Toronto, Canada. RER speaks with its CEO Guy Manuel about how it continues to expand its fleet, ongoing infrastructure investment in Canada, new, creative ways SRS is supporting its customers, and why it’s putting hand sanitizer in wine bottles. Photos by Stephenson's Rental Services

How has business been for you in 2020? How has the pandemic affected your business?

2020 has been a tale of two opposites, so much is different and so much is the same. We remain focused on taking market share and becoming our customers preferred rental partner in the markets we serve. We have continued to expand our fleet offering, and invested in technology and process improvements, which have allowed us to improve our service levels to our customers. These priorities have remained the same.

Without question, our focus on the safety of our customers and team members has been heightened in 2020. As we saw segments of our markets completely shut down, we expanded our health & safety protocols so that we could continue to serve our customers as an essential service provider and our team members could continue to work and support their own families. This required us to install new cleaning and sanitization processes for our facilities and equipment as well as invest in additional PPE to keep everyone working in a safe manner. Overall, we lost some of the momentum we had built up going into 2020 but we are working hard at regaining that momentum as we turn the corner into 2021.

How do you expect the pandemic to affect business going forward into 2021?                                                           

Clearly, working in the current COVID environment is not going away anytime soon, and we expect to have new challenges in 2021, including events we didn’t expect. But what we do know is when we remain focused on how we can support our customers to help them meet their deadlines, in the safest and most efficient way possible, we will continue to win. We are seeing this focus pay off, and we will continue down this path. At a high level, total rental revenues in Canada are forecasted to close off 2020 down 15 percent from 2019. While we fared better than the average, we are also buoyed by the outlook for Canadian rental increases of 7 percent in 2021 and another 9.1 percent increase in 2022. The overall markets remain healthy and our goal is to continue to outpace the average.   

The outlook for Construction and Industrial rent revenue in Canada is being fueled by ongoing investments in infrastructure and an active housing market, markets we are well positioned to serve with a diverse and deep fleet of equipment and solutions. We are positioned to support the growth that will come, and we know pandemic response will continue into 2021.  We will remain vigilant, innovative and responsive so that we can operate in a safe and productive manner, continuing to help build Canada, despite these challenging times.

How has the pandemic affected and changed your company’s ability to meet with customers, go on jobsites and essentially conduct rental business as you always have?

The pandemic has required us to adjust how we connect with customers. Some customers and segments shut down completely for a period of time. We worked with them to accommodate for these interruptions and we were ready to support their safe return to work on their schedule. Other job sites and segments slowed but did not close. Regardless of where our customers fell on this spectrum, we kept our communication levels high and we continued to provide services to our industry that was deemed “essential” by our government. Our sales team felt we needed to increase connections with our customers who were working. Although we couldn’t always be on site, we relied on phone calls, emails, and even Zoom calls to a greater degree. Internally, we recognized our team members needed more robust PPE to stay safe and be on site where they could, so we responded by securing ample supplies of hand sanitizer, face coverings and gloves from vendor partners. We were happy to see new product options and a commitment from our vendors to prioritize our deliveries so we could keep our customers and team members working.

We also continued to welcome customers into our branches with adjusted protocols to stay safe. We installed a new Infectious Disease policy and remained focused on how we could continue to stay open and serve our customers and keep our team members working as safely as possible. No matter what new regulation came down, and sometimes that was daily, we remained focused on how we could continue to serve our customers while meeting and/or exceeding all safety requirements. Our customers appreciated it and acknowledged that it felt like we were one of the only rental providers who seemed to be open for business. So, in many ways, nothing changed…we stayed as close to our customer as possible (well at least 6 feet apart) and we kept showing up to do our jobs every day.

How have different areas been affected and how do you expect them to be affected going forward -- homeowner business, small contractors, residential construction, non-residential, industrial, petrochemical, oil and gas, power generation, etc.

Having a diverse customer base has allowed us to see different impacts to different segments.  We have high traffic branches inside select Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouses, we have our own network of standalone branches and we have an onsite sales and specialist team that serve a range of customers from Industrial facilities, to Canada’s largest general contractors, home builders and infrastructure companies, not to mention our local contractors and DIY customers. We have seen a spike in homeowner renovation activity as people make the time to take on more home projects for which they need the right equipment for. Our branch-based Sales Associates have been busy educating customers on how to complete new home projects on their own, when they previously would have paid someone else to do them.

Our largest customers who are building housing communities, high rise condos, hospitals and roads were and are our busiest segments. Unfortunately, we have small and medium sized customers who were more heavily impacted by the Commercial construction closures and have been slower to recover. Our overall business was affected from these delays and closures however, we are optimistic with returning activity levels that 2021 will see more segments regaining pre-pandemic momentum.

Have there been any good opportunities that have come out of the pandemic, i.e., more people doing home improvements or work renting to testing centers?

The pandemic has afforded many opportunities to support our customers in new ways. This crisis has motivated some homeowners to complete projects they might have been putting off and it has changed some of the demands from our larger customers. We have been involved in new requirements to meet safety protocols through increased hand washing stations and increased scaffolding and stair towers to accommodate social distancing. We have also supported the build of temporary structures for hospitals’ COVID response units and our team members have pulled together with community organizations on more local initiatives.

We are proud to have helped our customers do some amazing things during this pandemic. One of our branches in the Greater Toronto Area worked with a local Health Centre to set up a two-day outdoor Flu Shot Clinic. In addition, Stephenson’s has been called on for temporary lighting, power and heat for multiple pandemic response initiatives. One of our customers shifted their wine production lines to hand sanitizer lines supplying a local hospital with the donated product. We were happy to provide the trucking that delivered the hand sanitizer in wine bottles to Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto. We have been amazed by our customer ingenuity and proud to support their efforts with our time and equipment.

As the only rental provider shipping contractor supplies and consumables to customers across Canada through an eCommerce platform, we have also had new customers reach us online. In addition to our branches having the longest open hours in the industry, our customers can order supplies from us online 24/7. We have had new customers come our way to secure additional PPE and supplies to keep their operations running. We are shipping PPE and consumables across Canada from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia and as far north as the North West Territories. Our customers keep surprising us with how they reach us and their unique requests that allow us to be flexible and innovate on new offerings, including supporting a customer who needed specialized bits for an ice bridge build in the North West Territories.

The pandemic has also helped Stephenson’s Rental Services find our voice about the value of supporting local and choosing partners who have vested interests in the recovery of our local economies. We can all help sustain and invigorate our economies at local levels to lift one another up and keep our Canadian economy moving. We know we all have a role to play in preserving and growing our Canadian economy through our companies and our associations like the CRA (Canadian Rental Association).

This is a very uncertain time in the economy in regard to the pandemic and so many job cancelations. Does this uncertainty benefit rental in the sense that contractors would want to avoid capital expenditures on equipment and would therefore rent more?  

I want to be clear that there are no benefits that outweigh the challenges that this worldwide pandemic has created. We know it is always a good time to rent, but yes, we are seeing brand new customers who have never rented equipment or bought supplies from us come to us for help. We have also had special requests from some of our longest standing customers and new requests from people just discovering us for the first time online, in store and on site. Stephenson’s has always been able to be flexible with the unique needs of our customers and we are proud to be pushing our limits to service those requests in these unprecedented times.

Rental programs continue to provide options for customers to reduce the need for capital expenditures as it provides cost certainty and ensures optimal performance in terms of up-time, as well as safety. The cost-effectiveness, flexibility and outsourcing benefits of renting large and small equipment always makes sense especially when there is uncertainty in our markets.  We believe rental penetration will continue to rise, and we are seeing record levels of new project starts and permits in our markets, so we remain very optimistic about 2021 and beyond.