Scott Irwin, president, Delux Rental, Ypsilanti, Mich., will become the American Rental Association’s (ARA) 60th president in March.
Irwin is the second-generation owner of the business founded by his father, William (Bill) Irwin, and his mother, Donna Irwin, in 1966. He and his wife, Sue, purchased the business in 2014.
Delux Rental has been at the same location in Ypsilanti since May 6, 1978. The company has evolved from being a general rental store to at one time adding canopies, tables and chairs. Today, the company is focused mostly on renting earthmoving equipment to contractors.
“I started washing equipment at Delux Rental when I was 12. I spent Saturdays and a lot of my summers cleaning equipment. The rental industry just gets in your blood,” Irwin says.
“The No. 1 thing that keeps me in the equipment rental industry is that ability to help solve problems. It’s awesome when someone comes in with a job to complete and we get to show them how to use a piece of equipment they have never used before. I’ll do a site visit if the job is close enough and if there is a problem, we’ll jump in one of the trucks and go help them out. It’s a little bit different every day and it gives me the opportunity to really make a difference,” he says.
Growing up, he says he had the typical dreams kids have of being a professional baseball player or golfer.
“As you grow a little bit older, you realize you don’t have that talent you need to be a pro. At 5 ft. 6 in., you are not going to be a pro at many things. I enjoy cooking, so I looked at that as a career option, but the hours were goofy. In the end, the rental industry kept calling me back,” he says.
Irwin recently spoke with Rental Management about becoming ARA’s 60th president, how his family business has evolved, the impact of the pandemic and more. An edited version of that conversation follows.
Rental Management: You have been involved in ARA leadership for several years and Delux Rental has been an ARA member since 1972. Why is this important to you and your company?
Scott Irwin: We saw a need to band together as a rental industry. It was kind of a fledgling industry in the state of Michigan. The ability to attend The ARA Show™ was probably the No. 1 driver in our business joining in 1972, but since then, we have experienced the other benefits ARA offers in education, training and social gatherings. We find that to be just as critical as attending the show. As far as getting involved, we had an initiative going through the state legislature for removal of personal property tax. That was in about 1995. I started looking into the issue then and 25 years later we’re still working on that. We have a bill in Michigan right now that hopefully will pass and get signed by the governor. We’re knocking on wood this time. That’s when I started getting involved in ARA. I started seeing all the good things that ARA was doing at the state level. I began meeting people on the national board and thought it would be fun to be a volunteer leader at that level and I’m glad I did. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a lot of rental stores and talk to a lot of people. That is the heart of the rental industry — the owners, operators and key employees who keep the rental industry going. I enjoy meeting with them and talking about rental as often as I can.
Rental Management: What have you learned in this last year as ARA’s president-elect?
Irwin: I’ve learned how many volunteer opportunties there are with ARA. There are so many people doing so many things, giving time to coordinate conferences, social events and education at the state and national level. I’ve learned how hard the ARA staff works to make sure that all the educational things are done. Show planning is an incredible amount of work to give attendees the best experience. I am amazed at the amount of work that gets done between the volunteers and ARA staff. The show in Las Vegas had a reduced window for planning. It is incredible how much had to be completed in six to seven months just to have a show, let alone have it be as spectacular as it was.
Rental Management: How would you describe Delux Rental?
Irwin: Delux Rental was founded in 1966 by my father and mother. We started in Ypsilanti in a very small spot. They moved to a bigger place about a mile away in the early 1970s and then we moved to our current location in 1978. The business has evolved since the beginning. They would run home to grab stuff they owned to bring in to rent. Then it went into kind of a general rental store with do-it-yourselfers comprising most of the customers. We are near Detroit, the Motor City, so automotive tools were big at the time. Then the business branched into hospitality and event and had canopies, tables and chairs. Last, was serving contractors with a building for light equipment. Now, we’re focused on contractors and that business makes up 65 to 70 percent of our revenue. Most of that inventory is in earthmoving equipment. That is big for us. It was a natural transition. Do-it-yourselfers are still coming in, but the economics for us in terms of pricing and fixed expenses makes it hard to rent the smaller stuff when it can’t pay the bills. You must have the bigger equipment that generates cash flow and a little more money to sustain the cost of doing business. We’ve focused on compact loaders and smaller excavators, and they go out on a regular basis. What we’ve found, with compact and full-size loaders and excavators, you can add attachments so that they can be jackhammers or rototillers. We have 15 to 18 attachments available for our compact loaders and that keeps them going out on rent.
Rental Management: What sets Delux Rental apart from other rental stores in the area. What is your secret sauce?
Irwin: Our secret sauce, No. 1, is our employees. We are a family-owned-and-operated business, and the majority of our employees are family. Everybody chips in and does what needs to be done. We also get to know our customers’ names. We know what they rent. We know where they live because we talk to them, and we find out what is important to them. We are a dog-friendly business. If a customer has a dog in the car, we invite them in. We also keep treats on hand for kids, like animal crackers and Rice Krispies Treats™. We treat them like our own children and our own dogs. We are customer- and community-focused. We donate to three main charities, including Habitat for Humanity, the Ypsilanti Little League and a rehabilitation center called Dawn Farm for recovering addicts. We’ve received awards from all of them for being prime and key drivers for some of the projects they do. We also donate equipment to anyone trying to earn the Eagle Scout rank. We really care about our customers and that sets us apart. We know their success is what makes us successful. If they are losing money on a job, we try to work with them to figure something out. If they don’t succeed, we don’t succeed. I think they know we care about them and how they are doing, and that is why they continue to do business with us.
Rental Management: How have you been able to get so many family members to work in the business?
Irwin: They just gravitated the same way. Greg, my older brother, and I worked here with my father. We both left for a little while and something just drew us back. I came back and Sue, my wife, and I bought the business from my father. After Greg came back, he brought on his son, Paul, and he has worked here for 10 years. When people ask, “What’s the best part of your job?” I say I work with family. If they ask, “What is the worst part of the job?” I say working with family. It is a double-edged sword. In the end, we realize we sit across the table at Thanksgiving, Christmas and parties for the kids and we work everything out.
Rental Management: How did the pandemic impact your business? Some tool rental businesses did great.
Irwin: That did not happen at first here in Michigan. We were on a strict lockdown. We were open four hours a day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and that was for emergency items. For example, if someone could not afford to hire a plumber, they would rent a snake. Or perhaps someone needed an excavator to repair a sewer. However, we could be here for four hours and on what is usually a very busy street only see five or six cars in that time. Once things reopened and people could work, it was a boom. We saw an incredible increase in rentals that led to large revenue increases after that. We also learned what we were good at and could see what drives our revenue and where we are spending the most time and attention. I think 2022 will be another great year. We do have supply chain issues, though, that may hamper our growth. When we looked at buying a new excavator, we were told if we were to order it now, we might get it by November 2022. We’re still waiting on the delivery of an excavator we ordered at The ARA Show 2020 in Orlando. That will be one of our biggest challenges, but in the period before the pandemic, we purchased heavily and there is no shortage in terms of people needing work done. Some of our contractor customers already are booking jobs into the fall of 2022. The work is there and the demand for rental equipment will definitely be there. It’s just a matter of whether we will have the equipment available to meet that demand.
Rental Management: What other key challenges do you see for your business in 2022?
Irwin: Workforce will be a challenge. We’ve been a couple people short on what is a relatively small crew, so we are seeing fatigue in our workforce. Also, there are government regulations that we have to keep our eye on. There are bigger pushes to stop greenhouse gases and we will look to our suppliers to provide more electric-powered equipment in the future.
We have been exploring those at the show. We stick with diesel because that is what people are asking for. The University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University are starting to increase their demand for battery-powered equipment as work goes inside. They do not want to do demolition jobs by hand, so demand for battery-powered equipment will grow.
Rental Management: What do you see as the challenges facing the association moving forward?
Irwin: Government regulations are probably the toughest challenges on a national level. If you look at the hospitality and event segment, they are looking to make people who put up tents for smaller parties have permits and inspections even though the inspectors may not understand how to set up and anchor a tent correctly. California has a law to limit the use of gasoline engines under 25 hp by the year 2024 or 2025. That means rental operators will have to update their fleet. If we had to change everything under 25 hp, that would be a majority of our fleet and that would be a significant challenge. We need our government affairs team working on things like that. That will be one of the biggest challenges facing ARA and our industry in the future.
Rental Management: You were the ARA Region Five director. Now you’ve had a year as president-elect. Next year, when you look back on your year as president, what will make you feel that you had a successful year?
Irwin: If we can keep all the initiatives rolling that are in progress. Women in Rental is a fantastic program with a lot of support and engagement and the ARA Young Professional Network is really strong as well, but we need to continue growing these groups. We are coming out with rental certifications for the equipment segment, so we’ll need to promote those heavily in order for them to become industry standards. We need to continue to expand the association’s efforts in workforce development, too. There are so many things going on that are in their infancy. If I can help guide those through 2022 and build those programs up, I will consider that a big success. We need to have the courage to keep pushing, even if it is a challenging year.
Rental Management: As the incoming ARA president, what message would you like to give to your peers?
Irwin: ARA and the experience I have had has enriched my entire rental career and rental knowledge. How can you sit in a room of 20 people who are as excited about rental as you are and not learn something every time you do that? Make the time to get involved at the state and local level. Some of these initiatives being worked on are game changers. If we can get this personal property tax bill passed in Michigan, that will save every operator in the state a great deal of money. It’s that important, but only 15 to 20 percent of the stores in Michigan are engaged. ARA is a member-driven organization and we are ARA people. The more you explore what ARA has to offer, the more you understand that membership is a critical investment for your business. If I could tell my rental peers anything, I would say explore the landscape and see where you have time and get involved. In the end, it will just make your store stronger.
History: Delux Rental was founded in 1966 by William (Bill) and Donna Irwin, Scott Irwin’s parents. The company joined the American Rental Association in 1972. Scott and his wife, Sue, purchased the business in 2014.
Facility: The business sits on 0.7 acres with 13,000 sq. ft. under a roof including a showroom, a building for equipment preparation and maintenance, a workshop and storage buildings for equipment when not on rent.
Employees: Six, including Greg Irwin, Scott’s older brother, and Paul Irwin, his nephew.
Trucks: Three trucks and trailers for delivery that can haul up to 42,000 lbs.
Inventory: Focused mostly on earthmoving equipment such as compact and full-size loaders and smaller excavators with a variety of attachments available; some scissor lifts; general tools.
Diving into rental
There’s more to Scott Irwin than initially meets the eye. In high school, he joined the swim team as a diver, competing on the one-meter springboard.
“I like to twist and flip. They call them ‘twisters’ and those were my moves. It came naturally,” Irwin says, adding that he then became a collegiate diver in the one-meter and three-meter springboard on an athletic scholarship to Western Kentucky University.
“However, you do peak as a natural athlete and then you have to work on it. There is more pain involved in diving than people might think. If you make a mistake, the water is like being slapped with a board. Pain can teach you something quick, but I had good coaches and I enjoyed the discipline,” he says.
He studied business administration at Western Kentucky but returned to work at Delux Rental after four years of swimming and before he graduated. Twenty years later, he received his degree from Cleary College in Ypsilanti.
“I finished and I’m proud of that. It was a long time coming. It didn’t teach me anything that I necessarily needed for working in the equipment rental industry, but it taught me discipline. You have to commit to something to be good at it,” he says.
While he no longer dives competitively, Irwin loves to swim and takes any opportunity he can to snorkel when on vacation.
“I’ll almost be gone all day. I’ll take the snorkel and go out for three hours in the morning and then go back out for at least two more hours in the afternoon,” he says.
Another not-so-secret talent is cooking. “I have more than 100 different spices in the refrigerator door and cooking is something I really enjoy,” he says.
Irwin says he may be most partial to barbecue, considering pulled pork or smoked ribs as his specialties, but when asked what he considered to be his best dish, his wife, Sue, says, “all of them. He makes everything.”
Supporting the community
For several years now, Delux Rental has carried private-label hot sauce, something Scott Irwin says works as a great advertisement. Since the hot sauce usually is stored in the refrigerator, people will see the Delux Rental name whenever they open the fridge.
All the sales from the hot sauce are donated to charity and Delux Rental makes sure to support three key organizations each year including Habitat for Humanity, the Ypsilanti Little League and Dawn Farm, a local rehabilitation center for recovering addicts.
Irwin says the company also will contribute equipment to any Eagle Scout that needs something to earn the distinction.
In addition, Irwin is proud that the company is dog-friendly and keeps animal crackers and Rice Krispies Treats™ ready for any children that might come in with their parents.
“We are customer- and community-focused,” Irwin says.