Dan Hooks, CERP, president, Party Reflections, Charlotte, N.C., will become the American Rental Association’s (ARA) 59th president in February 2021.
Hooks is the second-generation leader of the company founded as Chair Rental Service in 1958 by his father, Wayne Hooks, with a small inventory of tables and chairs in a garage a few miles from the company’s current corporate headquarters in Charlotte.
Today, Party Reflections has four locations, including Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh, N.C., and Columbia, S.C., and has been an ARA member since 1985.
Hooks says he was raised in the country but attended private school. “I was able to see life through two separate visions. I was taught hard work while living in the country, but I was also taught to appreciate an education and to learn as much as I possibly could to give myself every opportunity for success. Nothing was handed to me without having earned it,” he says.
After high school, he graduated from Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1989 earning a degree in business administration.
Growing up, he says he initially wanted to be a doctor until he was in college. “My parents seemed to think I would have made a much better lawyer than a doctor. Apparently, I like to argue a lot,” he says, adding that he immediately went to work for the family business after college and has been there ever since.
Outside of work, Hooks enjoys golf, hunting and spending time with his family. He recently spoke with Rental Management about becoming ARA’s president, his business, the impact of the pandemic and more. An edited version of that conversation follows.
Rental Management: You have been involved in ARA leadership in a variety of ways over the years and Party Reflections has been an ARA member since 1985. Why is this important to you and to Party Reflections?
Dan Hooks: I believe involvement in our industry’s association is vital to keeping me and my business educated and informed. While I may know what is going on in our markets, I think it is important to know what is going on across the country and being a member of ARA helps me stay in touch with the trends and economic changes that may affect my business. Deciding to volunteer and participate with the leadership of ARA was a very simple decision for me. I love being included in any conversation relative to the industry, and if I have the opportunity to lend my voice to make the industry stronger, I am not going to miss it. I have been on ARA committees for Risk Management, CERP certification, The ARA Show Task Force, the Party and Event Shared Interest Group (SIG), and I am now a member of the Executive Committee. Each committee engagement was a new learning experience for me and I have no doubt my business has benefitted from the knowledge I have gained from these experiences. I also feel an obligation of sorts to share the knowledge and experience I have from being in the business for more than 30 years.
Rental Management: What have you learned about ARA during your year as president-elect?
Hooks: This year has certainly provided a number of challenges and decisions that I would not wish upon any leadership team in the future, but I think it was a great opportunity to see how committed, focused and energized our association is at overcoming such challenges. I learned a great deal about the relationships our legislative team has garnered over many years of political activism on the industry’s behalf and how these relationships can be invaluable in times of crisis. I also have learned that our industry is filled with strong-willed and determined entrepreneurs and businesspeople who face their challenges head on and refuse to back down in the face of one of the worst crises in our nation’s history. We pulled together to find a path forward and support one another through the uncertainty.
Rental Management: You are a second-generation owner of a rental store. What advice do you have for those working in a family business who want to become the owner someday?
Hooks: While I may not have understood the reasoning at the time, my father was determined to make sure I understood every facet of the business from the ground up. He never believed in skipping steps along the path to success or promotion. I went on my first delivery when I was 14 years old. The 8-ft. tables I lifted that day weighed almost as much as I did at the time, but it taught me from the very beginning, this was not a job for lazy individuals and hard work was necessary to be successful.
The family nature of the business can be a blessing and a curse depending on how each family approaches it. I truly believe the second generation or third generation needs to work in the business for a while before forming any opinion of how to improve it. Trust me, I was hard-headed and wanted to change everything as soon as I started, but I learned that many experiences had come before me and I needed to listen first and understand why things were done a certain way before trying to make adjustments. This was certainly difficult for me, but it paid off in the end. Of course, I made plenty of mistakes on my own, but they were just added to the experiences for the next generation so that hopefully they would not make the same mistakes.
Once you have spent a few years understanding the business the way your predecessor ran it, then perhaps you can appreciate the path that led the company to where it is. The next step is figuring out where you would like it to go if you had the helm and determining a path to get it there. The transition of power and control is always the hardest step. The old regime must acknowledge when the time is right for transfer of control and the new regime must be ready to accept the role and all that comes with it. The sooner both sides can start the transition process and make sure everyone is comfortable with the process, the sooner the other employees will support the transition and get on board with the new leadership. Regardless of how contentious or easy the transition is, you must never forget the perception of the rest of the employees. They are caught in the middle and need to know their new leadership has their best interests at heart. The fact that I had worked in literally every aspect of the business from delivery, to warehouse, to sales, prepared me to take the next step and manage the entire operation.
Rental Management: How would you describe Party Reflections?
Hooks: Party Reflections has evolved from a party rental warehouse into an event production company that is capable of handling any size event that finds its way into the Carolinas. We are a family-run team of event professionals who provide the highest quality event products and services to create innovative solutions for our partners and clients.
Rental Management: What do you see as the impact of the pandemic on your business and inventory moving forward into 2021 and beyond?
Hooks: While we will never recover the loss of more than $12 million in revenue as of October 2020 or the ability to service lost events like the 2020 Republican National Convention, the biggest impact on our business is going to be its effect on our staff. We have always referred to our employees as family, and it was devastating to me to watch so many “family” members and teammates walk out the door to an uncertain future. I had worked, sweated, laughed, cried and celebrated with these people for years and it felt like all of it was coming to an end. We wished them all well and hoped they would find other opportunities while also hoping they would want to come back when our situation changes and the cloud of this pandemic lifts. How long our future is still in limbo depends on how fast vaccines are distributed and when we have a broad solution to this global situation. If and when these restrictions are lifted, we will not be able to spring back immediately to where we were in 2019. It is going to take several years to build back up to that staff level. Our industry is going to be one of the last to come out of this crisis and it is too soon to see what the labor market will be then, but I believe it will still be difficult to find qualified labor that can be trained in a short amount of time to be effective in the short term of our seasonality.
Rental Management: Are there other challenges facing your business today?
Hooks: Labor and pricing are going to be the biggest challenges facing us in 2021 once the pandemic is behind us. In my opinion, our industry needs to raise the wages of our trained positions in order to find a better labor pool to draw from. The work we do is very similar to construction where wages have exploded and taken much of our workforce and prospects. As long as the economy continues to strengthen and construction projects are out there, we will be forced to pay higher wages to attract these workers. Increasing prices will ultimately have to follow these elevated wages. I believe the event industry has been undervalued for years and I believe this is our opportunity to reset the positioning of rental products and services in the overall budget for events. If we do not value ourselves and our businesses enough to ask for it from our clients, why should they value us any greater?
Rental Management: Party Reflections has acquired other businesses and expanded into related areas. What has that done for the company?
Hooks: While Charlotte may be in the top 20 cities in America, operating out of the Carolinas can be challenging to reach a great deal of population density. Our market basically includes North Carolina and half of South Carolina. The total population of this area is less than 12 million people spread out over a large span of territory. Growth by acquisition has given us the ability to reach markets that we would not have been able to service geographically from Charlotte. These acquisitions were very opportunistic and each one allowed us to either gain market share in the region or expand our region. This has allowed us to further invest in products that are more custom in nature because now we can utilize them across a much larger market.
The expanded region also has given us the opportunity to be involved in more of the major national events that make their way through our region from time to time. This has allowed us to showcase our capabilities to a national audience and reduce the need to bring in outside resources to service a particular client. Besides the acquisitions, we also have expanded our services beyond the usual event rental equipment to include convention products and services, furniture and audiovisual services. This has helped the company become a complete resource for our customer base. From a profitability side, the more we can bring to one site with our crew, the better our margins will be.
Rental Management: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the equipment rental industry as we move forward?
Hooks: I believe the greatest challenge for our industry continues to be awareness of who we are and the career possibilities that exist in our industry. ARA has done an amazing job of getting our name in the public spotlight, but we still do not have the numbers to be recognized on a national scale. This has never been more apparent than when the event side of the industry tried to call on Washington politicians to help them understand our pandemic situation. Our industry is just not large enough to make things happen for it in Washington, D.C. During the pandemic, airlines, restaurants, hotels and sporting entities were carved out for financial support, but the live events community barely had a voice regardless of how loud we yelled.
Awareness is also critical in the form of employment. We need a more robust message to reach potential hires in the marketplace. We need to reach this audience with a message regarding the career opportunities that exist in our industry both from an equipment side and from an event side. Our industry is competing for talent like never before, and we must do everything we can to be noticed.
Rental Management: What are the greatest challenges for ARA moving forward?
Hooks: The greatest challenges facing the ARA are also some of the biggest opportunities facing the association. The ARA Strategic Plan offers a great glimpse into the priorities and focus of the ARA in the next several years. We already are hard at work on initiatives in each of the five pillars of the plan: Education, Industry Workforce, Technology, Market Intelligence and Consumer Awareness. The new learning management system (LMS) used by ARA for education and training is a fantastic resource for all members to find helpful information from other members and it is a place to share your information as well. ARA is focusing on industry workforce initiatives with national trade organizations to build awareness of rental equipment programs. We just completed our first technology summit held virtually due to the pandemic with great response and we are committed to furthering this focus on technology in the future. Hand in hand with the technology pillar, we are striving to gain more and more market intelligence from our membership to help our members understand the metrics of our industry better. Lastly, we are embarking on a national awareness campaign to reach more clientele with a message of the value of renting.
Rental Management: When you complete your year as ARA president, what do you hope to have accomplished? What, in your mind, will make it a successful year?
Hooks: To be honest, my main goal right now is to survive the year and be able to hand over the gavel to the 60th president of the ARA. Seriously though, I would love to see many of the initiatives that we have started come to fruition. I am personally working on a Safe Tent Initiative to give our members a valuable resource to share with their local authorities regarding the safe installation practices of our industry. We want to be proactive in our dealings with fire marshals and code officials all over the country, so that we drive the safety conversation before these officials put codes in place that hinder the growth of our industry.
I will consider it a successful year if we can regain a sense of normalcy for our event members, so their futures are more secure and give our equipment members a stronger industry partner who better understands how to provide the resources they need to be more successful.
We have a fantastic association and a wonderful staff to back it up. Continuing down the path we created two years ago with the ARA Strategic Plan, I have no doubt our members will find an increased value in their ARA membership. With this increased value, I hope that more volunteers come forward to help ARA build even better resources for the membership in the future. We all need to get involved to help the association improve in the future.
Rental Management: Why, in your opinion, should people attend The ARA Show?
Hooks: The most difficult decision that I have been a part of during my time on the ARA board has been the decision to postpone The ARA Show 2021 in New Orleans and shift it to Las Vegas in October. No one was fighting harder for it than me. Not because I wanted to give a speech on the stage, but because I look forward to the show every year as an opportunity to network with other rental dealers, talk to the manufacturers about their new products, touch and feel new pieces of equipment to put on our wish list, and the list goes on. It is truly better than Walt Disney World® to me. I don’t know if there is one reason that overshadows the others as the main reason to attend. I am sure it is different for different people, but whatever the reason, it only takes one to make it worth the trip every time. It is an invaluable time to spend among other industry professionals and recharge your batteries about your business. I have only missed one in the last two decades and I regret it to this day. If you are in the rental industry, event or equipment, I can think of no better investment than the time spent at The ARA Show.
Rental Management: What ARA products and services do you use?
Hooks: Someone in our operation is always taking advantage of a webinar or education component offered by ARA. We plan to use the LMS extensively to onboard and train new employees coming out of the pandemic. We also use several of the metrics created by the association to make sure we are on track with our compensation and benefits and our profitability measurements.
Rental Management: As the incoming president, what do you want to say to your peers?
Hooks: I would like to challenge everyone to get involved with the association and volunteer as much time as you can to the organization. You will always get more out of it than you put in. I have never left a conversation, webinar, committee meeting, show or any other engagement with the association that I did not learn something that I could apply to my business. There are more ways to contribute now than there have ever been. You can assist others by simply joining in the conversations on Facebook or other social media outlets to share your experiences. All these efforts help to build our event and equipment shared experience and further our industry. Get involved and remember how important others’ help was to you when you may have been struggling. Pay it forward.
I also would like to encourage everyone from the event side of our industry to focus on your business during this down time so that you can come out of this crisis stronger for the experience. All those things that have annoyed you about the business, the customers or the employees need to be reevaluated so that you can gain a better perspective of how you want to rebuild. I fear if we go back to our old patterns of doing business, we will not learn anything from the experience and find ourselves wishing we had used this opportunity to build a better business. I want more for my staff and for my customers, and I know it will take leadership by us to ignore those players in our industry who refuse to see the value of what our industry brings to the table. I certainly have learned that if we are not profitable it should be because we failed to deliver efficiently and not that we failed to price our equipment and labor correctly. We must set ourselves up for success and encourage our teams to produce excellent work that is valued by our customers. This also means “firing” those customers who do not value what we do.
Surviving the pandemic
Many in the party and event segment of the equipment and event rental industry were devastated by the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19), which resulted in canceled or postponed events and steep declines in expected revenue.
Dan Hooks, CERP, president, Party Reflections, Charlotte, N.C., says his company reacted quickly to the new realities of the marketplace and the economy, but that the experience has been difficult.
“The 60-year history of the company has not come without its share of setbacks and challenges, so we have learned how to adapt to changing economic conditions. Having survived five recessions, several wars and one of the most tragic events to directly affect our industry — 9/11 — we learned from the mistakes we made during these crises,” Hooks says.
“We reacted much quicker to adapt to the new landscape in front of us. Unfortunately, that meant immediate cuts to our workforce to prepare for the loss in revenue we knew would be coming. However, we did not realize how deep these cuts would need to go until we saw our entire spring season disappearing in front of our eyes. We were forced to drop to a personnel level that we had not seen in decades going from 240 employees preparing for the spring season to 55 employees across four locations,” he says, adding that staff members now number 94.
“We knew it would be tough to even pay for the employees we kept, but we also knew we could not rebuild our company if we dropped below a certain level. We made some of the toughest decisions our company has ever had to make. Employees that had been with us for more than 20 years were laid off because we had no choice if we were going to survive,” he says.
Hooks also credits the company’s relationship with its local bank to helping the company deal with the pandemic’s impact on the business.
“Our bank immediately began to discuss options with us regarding deferred payments, interest-only payments and refinancing options to give us breathing room. We had already negotiated a healthy credit line that was supposed to be used for new equipment for growth. Now it was going to be the key to our survival,” he says.
“The timing could not have been worse from a financial standpoint because we had just purchased two new buildings. We were moving our Charlotte operation from our 115,000-sq.-ft. home of 15 years to a new 185,000-sq.-ft. facility across town and after a December acquisition in our Greensboro market we were moving our operation from a rented 22,000-sq.-ft. building into a 40,000-sq.-ft. facility nearby that we purchased and renovated. Carrying the weight of two new buildings with increased rent and two new acquisitions on top of new personnel and expenses, we could not have had a tighter situation for March. Little did we know this was the least of our problems for the spring,” he says.
“After we realized the situation we were facing, we attempted to pivot by taking on many new tenting opportunities for hospitals, testing centers, and businesses for employee monitoring and break rooms. It was a drop in the bucket, but it was work. I think what kept our sanity was making the decision to go ahead and make our moves in both locations instead of a slow transition with the big move in the summer. The months of April and May were roughly 10 to 15 percent of normal revenue so we had plenty of time to focus on our move even though we had a quarter of the number of people we usually had,” he says.
“As an answer to our prayers, we were thrown a lifeline at the end of April when we were approved for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan that would be critical to our survival and our ability to hang on to the employees still with us. We worked closely with our bank to provide them a new updated budget through 2021 and we showed them and us we had a path to get through the crisis. With the Lord’s help, and many answered prayers, we have exceeded our new budget through 2020, but we are still hoping for another round of PPP to solidify our ability to continue if our spring business is shutdown yet again by the government restrictions,” he says.
History: Party Reflections was founded in 1958 by Wayne Hooks as Chair Rental Service, operating out of a garage with a small inventory of tables and chairs until moving into its first storefront in Charlotte, N.C., later that year. Wayne’s wife, Sue, joined the business, answering phones, helping customers, loading trucks, paying bills and more. After outgrowing four additional locations, the company purchased its newest facility in Charlotte just before the pandemic hit. This building serves as the company’s corporate headquarters and has 25,000 sq. ft. of showroom, meeting and office space in addition to a 160,000-sq.-ft. warehouse. Dan Hooks, CERP, is the second-generation company president with his sister, Maurisa Beaver, serving as chief culture officer. In addition, Dan’s wife, Margaret, has served the company in various capacities and their two sons, Dallas and Brandon, are two of the company’s lead project managers. Dallas’s wife also handles roles in accounting and logistics.
“I would like to thank my parents for having the courage to start the company in the first place. I told them many times, I was much better suited for taking their idea and running with it. While my father passed away 10 years ago, his legacy and leadership of the company will never be forgotten. My mother continues to visit the store and celebrate our victories with us,” Dan says.
“I would also like to thank my wife, Margaret, for putting up with my crazy hours building this company while she managed to raise our two sons,” he says.
Hooks hopes his sons will continue the family legacy as they have grown up in the business and “found the same joy and fulfillment from creating some amazing events that I have. I hope they will continue to grow in the business and take it to levels that I have not even dreamed of at this point,” Dan says.
Locations: Four, including Charlotte, where the company was founded, and includes the company’s PR Pro A/V division. Other locations include Greensboro, where the company expanded in 2017 with the acquisition of Southern Event Rental; Raleigh, N.C., to serve the Triangle Market; and Columbia, S.C., where the company expanded in 2013. The building also houses PRX Exposition, A Party Reflections Co.
Inventory: Chairs, chargers, china, convention, dance floor, décor, flatware, food-service equipment, furniture, glassware, lighting, linen, staging, tables and tents.
94. Prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Party Reflections had 240 employees.