The Wohnoutka brothers can’t sit still.
Steve and Dan Wohnoutka built speculative houses every spare moment, when they weren’t at their full-time jobs as Missouri highway patrolmen. About a year after Steve Wohnoutka took a job flying helicopters for Mercy, the two founded Superior Rents & Sales Inc. in Bolivar – with one employee who ran the store while they were at work.
They had no official business training in 2005, when they opened the storefront to rent tools and light construction equipment to contractors and do-it-yourself homeowners.
“When I got my first financial report, it was the first time I had ever seen one,” Steve Wohnoutka says. “And I didn’t really know what it meant, right away. In the beginning, there was a lot of learning.”
Wohnoutka read a lot of business books, and after six months had the confidence to not only quit his job but also grow the company as fast as possible.
About 18 months after launching in Bolivar, a Springfield presence was established at 3500 E. Kearney Ave. The Bolivar branch later moved to 5617 S. Campbell Ave. in south Springfield.
The multimillion-dollar sales budget for the rental stores was many times larger than the home-building business Wohnoutka had funded out of his paycheck. And the more Superior Rents grew, the more inventory it required.
“We had to sign all those loan documents for all this new equipment. It was a little daunting,” Wohnoutka says, noting he worked up to 110 hours per week in the early years.
His brother still works for the highway patrol and performs assets evaluation for the rental business on the side.
Crossing state lines
Superior Rents opened a store in Joplin in 2010, just nine months before an EF5 tornado caused an estimated $3 billion in damage to the town.
“I’m glad we moved the year before and not the year after. Because we would have looked like opportunists if that had happened,” Wohnoutka says.
Now, the company is looking across state lines for the next phase.
In April, Wohnoutka jumped at an opportunity for a fourth branch when a longtime rental business in Wichita, Kansas, changed hands multiple times. Independently owned R-Quip sold to Volvo Rents-Wichita and then was purchased by BlueLine Rental before it shut down operations.
Not only did that site have a well-established presence in the market and employees that knew the business, but it also offered the chance to prove a new model of expansion. He was in talks to lease the vacant property by the next day and – after investing $2.7 million in inventory and hiring many of the laid off employees – had the new store open in six weeks.
“It forced us to do two things: To operate in another state and to operate a branch that is not located close enough to our existing branches to share assets and resources. It had to stand alone as an independent operation,” he says.
Wohnoutka always had worked as manager in each new store for up to a year, until he identified someone who could handle it without him. But Wichita symbolizes a bridge crossed in how Superior Rents could run in the future.
“Rental companies always seem to be buying each other out and consolidating, and then leaving behind a facility that had been a rental store and is now vacant,” he says.
Once his team finalizes this method, Wohnoutka says they could repeat the process in any city – swooping into another market as another company exits.
The rental market
Superior Rents has 28 employees and generated $3.5 million last year, with about 70 percent of clients being commercial light-construction contractors.
The headquarters on East Kearney Avenue has a 9,000-square-foot showroom for such items as floor sanders and power tools, a shop where equipment may be stored and serviced, plus a large gravel-covered parking lot where the largest units such as backhoes and aerial lift equipment can wait for customers.
Wohnoutka plans to phase out the rental of small items such as tile saws since discount retailers, like Harbor Freight Tools, are making purchases affordable for average do-it-yourselfers. He’s now targeting more diggers and other larger construction equipment for the company’s fleet, currently comprising roughly 20 excavators, 30 forklifts, 40 boom lifts and 100 scissor lifts.
The American Rental Association says U.S. equipment rental revenue is expected to grow 4.5 percent to reach $49.4 billion in 2017.
Michael Nesbitt, president of Nesbitt Construction Inc., uses rental equipment – primarily from Superior Rents – to avoid storage and maintenance on equipment only needed sporadically. He recently rented scissor lifts for projects at Missouri State University, Springfield Art Museum and the future site of Scooter’s Coffee.
“It feels like we always have something rented,” he says. “I just had dehumidifiers out at another project for a couple weeks.”
Items are rented by the day, week or month, with eight hours of operation counted as a day, says Superior Rents branch manager Matt Lindsay. For example, a 6,000-pound excavator is $225 per day, $675 per week and $2,025 per month.
“You can rent one for two days, and you’re almost at the week [price],” Lindsay says.
Superior Rents has had offers in the constant acquisitions of rental companies, but Wohnoutka says he’d be bored without the business.
“You’re never done. We’re always looking to move forward,” he says.
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