What do you do after a 43-year career in special events? For Steve Kohn, the answer is simple—you stay in events, of course. You just shift your focus.
Kohn started working in his family's event rental business in 1972—Miller's Rentals in Edison, N.J.—doing everything from washing dishes to installing tents. "I’m probably the only person that learned to drive with a permit on a 16-foot delivery box truck," he says, "and who broke down and set up my own graduation chairs when I completed high school in 1977."
After earning his degree in business management, he committed himself to the family business. "In the 1990s, I took over as president of the company and worked with a dedicated staff to make Millers a highly regarded and renowned operation," he says. "We never were afraid to try new products or services, and we set the pace for others to follow."
While heading Millers, which handles high-end events in central New Jersey and New York City, Kohn also made time to support both local and national activities of the American Rental Association. He notes that many ARA leaders over the years, "who shaped the industry and paved the path," he says, "not only for me, but for many generations to come."
Though his love for events hasn't changed, Kohn has changed his role in the industry. Last summer, he sold his interest in Millers to his brother, Stuart, and launched CAD My Event, which offers two- and three-dimensional renderings of event setups. "I have seen too many family members and friends work themselves until they had nothing left. I decided this wasn’t going to happen to me," he says. Always a fan of computers and technology, Kohn has a career workload that is "now manageable," he says. "I also continue to serve on several special event company boards, and continue to edit and publish the newsletter for ARA of New Jersey and write for trade publications."
His extensive background gives him the long view of the rental industry and the ongoing challenge of change. "You will continuously have to gear your company to fit the needs of your target market, whether it’s a high-end event or a backyard barbecue," he says. "Only the companies that continue to evolve will survive."
Surviving in rental todays means juggling plenty of issues. "Health insurance, competitive wages, long hours required and strict safety issues will all have to be balanced," Kohn says. "The successful companies manage to tackle these issues. The cost associated with providing equipment to clients will have to be reviewed constantly. The price for delivery vehicles with new fuel-efficiency and emissions standards are now astronomical. Fuel rates fluctuate daily, and repairs to keep the fleet running are mounting. These issues have to be taken into account when job costing."
And the No. 1 task: Finding and keeping good employees, he says. "Our industry is based on service. This can't be done without good labor."
Kohn has long been an industry leader, but he credits his team with his success.
"I have had my share of popes, presidents, celebrities, universities, politicians, Broadway openings, groundbreakings, red-carpet award ceremonies and pampered brides," he says. "But without the dedication, hard work and commitment of the entire company, I never would be in the position I am in today."
HOW I GOT MY START
"Beginning at 'below' the bottom of the ladder as a dishwasher in 1972, I got a true feel--and smell--of the event industry. The fast pace of this growing industry really made an impression on me. Even though my days were long and back-breaking, it was just something about watching the entire operation flow that I knew I would get hooked. Working that summer helped develop the work ethic that would stay with me until this day: 'Work hard and it will be rewarded' and 'Never ask anybody to do something that you would not do yourself.'"
THE FUTURE: COMPUTERS
"I was fortunate to enter the industry full time at a point when technology was starting to be a key factor in the operation and efficiencies of event rental store operations. I developed a passion for computers and how they could be beneficial in our industry. It wasn’t easy being a pioneer in an area where nobody had even ventured before."
WORK THAT NETWORK
"When I was coming up in the industry, networking events such as local rental meetings and social events--where one had the opportunity to meet with competitors and peers--were a 'must attend.' At these functions, I learned and had the opportunities to meet and see people, places and things that changed my company for the better. It seems today, people’s busy lives keep them from attending these functions, or they just don’t participate in them to make them worthwhile. Networking is so important in this industry, I wish this next generation will eventually understand that."
WE NEED A PARTY
"The economy will always drive our industry, but like a haircut, everyone will always need a party. It’s our job as rental entrepreneurs to find ways to fill that need effectively and efficiently within everyone’s budget constraints."