The year was 1954. Don E. Castling’s father and grandparents jumped on the relatively new rental bandwagon by establishing AAA U-Rent-It, a small business in Fort Smith, Ark. Sixty-eight years later, the equipment offerings have changed, but the operation is still going strong, continuing to serve as a vital resource for those in the greater Fort Smith area.
“My dad, Don H., and his parents, Gordon and Vivian, saw that rental was a trend that people were starting to look at, so they decided to be part of it,” Don E. says. “They started in a small building in Fort Smith and rented everything from lawnmowers to baby beds. The next year, we expanded and moved to a bigger building and got into the hospital/medical end and even expanded in the party part of it.”
They learned about the American Rental Association (ARA) and joined the association in 1958. “They felt like it was a community for them, offering camaraderie with everyone. At that time, they had the local association. They got together and learned from each other. It was a plus for everyone,” Don E. says.
As with those in most family-run rental operations, Don E. grew up in the business. “I worked there in the summertime in high school and in my attempt at college. I found out that I liked to work more than I liked to study. I came to work full time in 1967. I started in the back and worked my way up, then kept the books, which was all manual at the time. My expertise was in the cost end of the business. I knew that really well. I think that was one of the keys to our success then and now. You have to watch your costs.”
When his father passed away suddenly at the age of 47 in 1975, the running of the operation was turned to Don E., his brother, Russell, who had also joined the business, and their grandparents.
Another change came in 1989, when Don E. bought the business from his family. That year he also moved his operation to serve strictly the equipment market. “We sold the party and got out of the medical line. For either the party or the medical, we learned you had to be in it totally or out of it all the way — not halfway,” he says.
He also took on a partner, David Lamberth. “He was in the rental business in Jonesboro, Ark., and active in ARA. He and his wife, Mary, helped me out immensely. Together we opened a second, larger location in Fort Smith in 1993,” Don E. says.
That partnership lasted through 1996 when he bought out the other owner. “Not too many people buy their business two or three times, but I did,” Don E. says with a laugh.
It was during this time when the equipment rental side of the industry was undergoing major consolidations and national chains were expanding their footprint. The competition was stiff, he remembers.
“I had people who rented with me for 30 years or longer. They couldn’t understand why I couldn’t bow to the situation that was coming around with the big boys. It was a critical time, but we weathered it,” he says.
To gain more insight, Don E. joined an ARA peer advisory group. “I learned a lot from those in the group, particularly about the numbers end, how to purchase equipment and control costs and cash flow,” he adds.
He also became involved in the ARA of Arkansas, serving as president from 1995-1996, and then moved to the national service in 2015 when he was a member of the ARA Construction & Industrial Services Shared Interest Group. “Both were very beneficial. I have met a lot of sharp people in my lifetime. I learned a lot from them. I received a lot of value out of everything I have been involved in,” he says.
As the second location kept growing, Don E. decided to close his main location in 2017. “Those in my [peer] group kept telling me to shut it down, but that was where I grew up. We moved everything to our newer location, giving us two acres with the warehouse and offices in one building as well as yard space for more equipment and our U-Cart Concrete that we sell by the yard, which is popular with both our smaller contractors and homeowners,” Don E. says, adding that, looking back, it was the right step even though it was painful to do so.
Running a rental operation all these years hasn’t come without its share of challenges. “This is a perseverance business in a lot of ways. There are things you just have to deal with. We have learned to tighten our belts at the right time. We have gone through intense competition, recessions and such. You just have to watch your P’s and Q’s and your dollars. You watch that and tough it out,” he says.
He felt blessed that during the worst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, “we actually increased our homeowner and construction business, and it’s still going strong. And we have never had to lay anyone off, including through COVID,” he says gratefully.
The latest challenges — the lack of labor as well as supply chain issues — have had their impact. Luckily, the labor issue hasn’t been as difficult. “We have eight or nine employees, not including me, as I have stepped away from the day-to-day operations. Many of our employees have been with us a long time — 15 or 20 years. I also have my son, Gordon, who wanted to come into the business out of college, and my wife, Nancy. My daughter-in-law, Georgia, is thinking of coming in to take on some of the work my wife does. We have a good group. The only area we have had a harder time recruiting for is the washing and cleanup positions,” Don E. says.
|Left to right: Nancy, Don, Gordon and Georgia Castling
The supply chain issues are another matter. “It has been bad. We are still waiting for equipment, but it is slowly trickling in. Parts are hard to get, too,” he says.
But he has learned to look for ways to get through such challenges until things turn for the better. “When we started, rental wasn’t that big of an industry. It has been a hidden gem, so to speak. Everything has not been a piece of cake, but you just have to learn that challenging customers and problems are all part of the business. The thing about the rental business is that you get to work closely with your employees, have the ability to offer great service to and build a real camaraderie with your customers, see how your equipment has helped build things in your community and all of that. All of that is very satisfying. When you start looking at all the blessings you get from the industry, you see how fun rental is and what a good world it is to be in,” he says.
Just as the industry has changed and developed over the years, so have Don E. and his operation. Now, with his son taking over the day-to-day operations, he knows his operation is in good hands for the future growth of both the company and the industry.