Most party rental companies offer a rich mix of products. Jim Lisi, president and CEO of Ventura, Calif.-based EventRents, brings a rich mix of experience to his business.
Lisi bought EventRents, which now has three outlets and 30 employees, in 1997. Unlike some party rental success stories who didn't finish college, Lisi earned a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering and a master's degree in business administration. Prior to buying EventRents, his career included work in marketing, materials management and industrial engineering for both privately held and Fortune 100 companies.
Looking to exit corporate America and run his own business, Lisi was drawn to party rental. "I liked what I saw in the broad array of things that rental companies do," he says. "I could see the business potential of expanding the product line and upgrading the operations. I liked the technical nature, from building tents to dispatching trucks and designing warehouse operations. And I liked the creative potential of helping design events."
But, "I don't think that I understood the event business per se until I was in it," Lisi admits. "What caught me by surprise was the very personal nature of the business and being 'the owner,' especially in a smaller market."
He also learned what he calls the "MBA disconnect" with small business. Despite his careful research before buying the company, "After sitting in the driver's seat after the acquisition, I found that the profit wasn't what it was supposed to be," he says.
As owner, Lisi learned the ins and outs of the operation, including how much of his own time would be required. "Now, I know exactly what to look for, but it didn't come through schooling," he says, "only through the irreplaceable experience of taking a shot of my own and managing the details of my own finances. And it was key in putting me in the position to weather the recent downturn."
As it did for many event rental companies, 2010 hit EventRents with a brutal economy and ruthless discounting by the competition. Lisi and his team fought back by cutting operating expenses to the bone, including renegotiating leases, trimming the workforce and even switching telephone companies and Internet providers.
The result: a lean and mean EventRents ready for 2011, which Lisi forecasts will bring growing business in social events, steady work in nonprofits, a decline in the government/university/festival market, and the corporate market "a wild card."
For his own company in 2011, "We have been described locally as producing big events at the best price," Lisi says. "Our new year's resolution is to start work on the finer details of the business to be very best at what we do. We want the customer to know that we care and to move from being a good company where an error here or there is acceptable to one where errors don't happen."
EventRents Inc. 2221 Eastman Ave., Oxnard, CA 93030; 805/981-9890; eventrents.com
- READY, SET, LEARN
Thanks to Lisi's MBA, “I was prepared to handle numbers, financing, organization and planning issues. But building the small-business skill set took several years. The biggest set of skills to grow were people skills — how to connect well with your employees and communicate objectives, and how to make people feel valuable. I was terrible at the beginning, and hopefully am at least competent now.”
- BITS AND PIECES
“We have four or five competitors where we used to have two. Competition is healthy, but building a quality company becomes harder when the market is split into so many small chunks.”
- BUY RIGHT
“I think that smart party rental operators focus on costs and expanding their core competencies by picking up some product line extensions. I would be more willing to borrow a little bit to bring in some good, long-term products.”