64.8288° N, 147.7200° W. This is where, in Fairbanks, Alaska, you will find Independent Rental — pretty much the most northerly-situated member of the American Rental Association (ARA) there is.
“Fairbanks is in the interior of Alaska; the closest city is about 360 miles away,” says Lavinia Wilder, general manager of Independent Rental. “We are very remote in relation to other services, so we have a captive audience.”
Independent Rental, which is set to celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2023, started life in 1963 as strictly a lumber yard before adding equipment rental more than a decade later.
|Lavinia Wilder (R) with Independent Rental team members.
“It was well known for little plywood-framed house kits,” Wilder says of the business in its earliest years. “We bought Independent Rental from Howard Axtell, who was the second owner and who included equipment rental in 1974. When the oil pipeline was going up in the 1970s there were all sorts of people moving here who wanted to claim a piece of land and build a cabin. Mr. Axtell saw that people needed tools and he gradually just started adding rental to the mix.”
Wilder and her husband, Aron, a mechanically inclined maintenance employee of the state of Alaska, purchased the business from the semi-retired Axtell in 2014. Aron’s parents provided administrative support, making Independent Rental a true family-owned enterprise.
“Aron came to us and asked what we thought about [purchasing the business] because it was in our wheelhouse,” Wilder says. “He really loved the idea of this being a place where all of us could work together as a family. After we brainstormed and chatted, we all agreed that it really did seem like a good opportunity, and we took the leap.”
Today, Independent Rental offers a mix of equipment and event rentals plus small engine repair services. The company also maintains self-storage rental units.
On the equipment rental side, “We are maybe 70 percent homeowner and 30 percent contractor,” Wilder says. “We are the only ones in town that offer a variety. We’ve got appliance dollies, concrete equipment, yard equipment and smaller things like metal detectors up to a track skid steer, a scissor lift and mini excavator. We don’t have the heavy equipment like the bigger dozers, backhoes and large excavators. We are a mining town, and there are six to eight other providers for the big stuff who help Alyeska Pipeline, the Fort Knox gold mine and other miners.”
Wilder says that for their event rental clientele, “We try to be helpful to the whole spectrum: anniversaries, baby showers, weddings, some local corporate events and community events. When you think about what small-town America was like in the past — where everybody helps each other and there weren’t many resources to go to — that is how it still is up here in interior Alaska.”
The harsh extremes of the local climate play a big role in the kind of equipment Independent Rental offers its customers.
“In the winter in interior Alaska, it will regularly get down to 30-40 degrees below zero,” Wilder says, adding that it can even get as cold as 60 degrees below zero in the region. “Snake pipe thawers are big here because people’s pipes freeze and generators, if there’s an ice storm and the power goes out. We also have a setup for thawing out vehicles. It is a torpedo heater with what we call a ‘belly pan,’ which is an aluminum pan where the nose fits over the torpedo heater and directs heat to a flat sheet pan that can slide under your engine block. The heat comes straight up through an opening in the pan. That is a very popular rental in winter.”
Summers in the Fairbanks area tend to be warm but short, starting in May and ending by late September. The locals know the cycle well and plan accordingly, and indoor jobs keep Independent Rental busy through the long, cold winters.
“Fairbanksans are good at finishing interior work during the winter because the summer construction season is so concentrated on clearing and prepping land, getting foundations poured and walls in. In winter, there’s a lot of interior finishing and floor work. People will redo their wood floors and concrete staining is popular. So, people will come in and get concrete grinders and stuff they need to prep things of that nature,” Wilder says.
As it sits in such a remote part of Alaska’s center, Independent Rental often stretches the boundaries of its service area to accommodate as many customers as possible. It’s something the Wilders understand they have to do to help people with no access to nearby rental equipment.
“We have customers in Delta Junction and in Denali National Park. Both of those places are about 200 miles away. We also service our bush communities; those are the communities out there in the rest of the state — mostly northern. Some village councils rent things for renovations, and we’ll take [the equipment] to our small airport here. They’ll pay to have things flown out to them. We help as many people as we can,” Wilder says.
As a family-owned, Alaska-native business, with Fairbanks as its principals’ hometown, personalized service is at the top of the priority list for Independent Rental. “We take that very seriously. Because it is our family business, we are able to take into consideration special circumstances, like when a customer down in Delta, 200 miles away, has things that are due back at a certain time, we are able to say, ‘We will give you an extra hour to get back here.’ Just being a locally owned family business with the variety that we have is really why most people come to us for help,” Wilder says.
The Wilders’ passion for family-owned enterprises can be seen in a year-long project Independent Rental featured on its Facebook page in 2021 that spotlighted other local independent businesses.
“We called it our ‘52 weeks of supporting local,’” Wilder says. “We promoted other locally owned family businesses here in the Fairbanks community. I would do a brief video about a business that week, and each day, Monday through Friday, we would post a picture of what they do, and they would donate some gift certificates for us to do a drawing on Friday. We just tried to think of a fun way to get the word out about how important it is to support local, especially for us here in Fairbanks, Alaska, because we are by ourselves. We’re like an island in the middle of the state, and by supporting each other, independent businesses are able to not just survive but hopefully thrive.”
“It’s being the best example of a family business that we can be,” Wilder says about why she goes to such lengths to support all members of the local independent business community. “Let’s continue to recruit people who are interested in helping fellow community members with projects; let’s help you build that one thing; let’s help you modify this or rejuvenate that. The community is closest to my heart as far as how we want to grow and how we want to support those who are living here with us.”