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The last word

It all started with a vintage humidifier. John Jakob, president of Abbey Party Rents in Dallas, had a 1920s humidifier on his desk, one of the many eclectic objets decorating his office. One day, a client came in and asked to rent the antique for a commercial. Soon after, a booming prop rental division was born, and Jakob had established a solid niche in the Dallas event rental market.

Jakob's niche in the rental industry, however, began more than 20 years ago when he purchased a United Rent-All store in 1976. From there, he went on to work in United's corporate office, opening new franchises across the country. After several years with United, Jakob joined Taylor Rental and worked in its business management department, traveling around the country overseeing its franchises. After seven years of constant travel, Jakob, who had a wife and growing family, was given the opportunity to run the California operation of Taylor's company-owned stores. He did that until Stanley bought out the stores. After working in Stanley's corporate office for several years, Jakob was again approached by Taylor officials, who wanted him to check out a then-ailing Abbey Party Rents in Los Angeles. Jakob agreed to work for Abbey, which was then owned by Glendale Federal bank, under one condition: They allow him to run the company his way, which meant cleaning it up and selling off unprofitable stores.

Many of the stores were bought internally, Jakob says, including the Dallas store, which he purchased in 1990. In 1992, Jakob brought in Robert Slavik as operations manager. Eventually, Slavik was made a partner with Jakob and wife, Sylvia. From the start, Jakob positioned his company differently, adding prop rental to his inventory almost immediately.

About a year and a half ago, Jakob expanded his prop division by buying Props of Texas, a prop house that caters to Texas' film industry, a local market that Abbey also has cornered. Much of Abbey's existing prop inventory has been incorporated into the new warehouse, which adds an additional 30,000 square feet to Abbey's 38,000 square-foot rental warehouse. The Arlington, Texas, store, which Jakob also owns, occupies 20,000 square feet.

"All this started from nothing," Jakob says of his Abbey empire. " We have built something that we are very proud of."

VIVE LA DIFFERENCE "We are different, but we are different for a specific reason. When we started, I didn't want to compete with Ducky Bob's (a large, Dallas-based rental company). So I decided to be different. When I was in Los Angeles, I had a lot of prop companies that I worked with. There was nothing like that here in Dallas. Prop rental was a natural progression. Now, we are changing. Abbey has grown. This year we'll pull some decor out of the [rental] warehouse and give it to our prop house to accommodate our growth."

WAKE UP CALL "If you don't wake up, the world passes you by. There is a danger of that happening in the rental industry. [The rental industry] needs to wake up and move forward, or it's going to lose business. The prop rental business and specialty rental will show up more. The wave of the future for rental is in the decorative aspect of events."

NO CONSOLIDATION BLUES "Rental is a different business. It's very individual. So I don't think consolidation is the way to run it. Based on what I've seen, I think [consolidation] is a fad that will pass. It's not the first time it's come around. It won't take over the industry. And I don't think we'll see great things from these [consolidated] companies. They won't be the trendsetters, or the Gala Award winners. It's the movers and shakers who will make a difference, and movers and shakers typically won't conform to any corporate umbrella."

THE NIKE CONNECTION "I believe in 'Just do it.' When I traveled around the country looking at rental companies, I saw a lot of people who sat around and thought about doing things. I don't have the time or money to sit around and think. I'm an impatient person. I jump off cliffs. If a client asks 'Can you do this?' I say 'Yes,' jump off that cliff and figure out how to do it as I go down. It's dangerous, but when you're different, you have to do that. It gets boring if there's no cliff to jump off. It's the thrill of being on the edge. It's the way we have always done business and, more importantly, it's the way we enjoy doing business."

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