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WHEN JIM “SMITTY” Smith says he'll be on the golf course, he doesn't mean working the kinks out of his swing. “I spend probably 60 percent of my days out of the office on site at events,” says the man who shares leadership of Orlando, Fla.-based Kirby Rental Service with vice president and fellow tent expert Paul Weidner. Smith notes that Kirby supplies tents, chairs, linen and other rental items to 18 major golf tournaments, 16 NASCAR events and multiple projects for three local theme parks.

It's not the life of leisure, but it suits Smith just fine. “This is a very hands-on business,” he says. “I wouldn't expect an employee to do anything I haven't done myself.” That lead-by-example approach has led Smith into some unexpected challenges, including an event at Atlantis Resort in tropical Nassau, Bahamas, that taught him and his tent crew an important lesson. “When you're thinking about putting clear tops on a tent and then trying to build a floor and put carpet in — put the tops on last,” he cautions, good humor intact. The wedding tent his team installed in the resort's sultry Versailles Garden “became a solarium,” Smith says. “In the evening, once the event was happening and the shade trees took over, it cooled down, and it was beautiful. But getting that set up … We lost people. It was hot.”

Learning from experience is just one way Kirby, with a 2002 rental volume of $15 million, continues to hone its strength in a market that encompasses just about “anyplace you can ship to,” Smith says. Another is knowing when and how to grow business — especially in today's fickle economy. Explaining why the company has chosen to decline invitations to bid on multiple events for some of its high-profile sports clients, he says, “We couldn't grow the company quickly enough, and we were uncomfortable taking on all that business at once.”

Also, he adds, “I will not sacrifice a regular yearly job to take on the glory.” As an example, he points to an opportunity to bid on the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. “When it came to actually putting a bid together, we would have had to sacrifice local business in order to take that on, and that's a one-shot deal,” he explains. Despite passing on the Olympics, though, “We came out ahead of the game. We supported other companies, and we wound up with a lot of peripheral business [generated by the Olympics].”

“We have what we call controlled growth, and it has worked for us,” Smith sums up. “Every year we grow. We have a tendency to be a little cautious, but we have not had a failure.”

Kirby Rental Service 411 Hames Ave., Orlando, FL 32805; 407/422-1001;


“What we're seeing is a lot of demand for glass-enclosed tents. They're heavy, they're bulky, they're cost-prohibitive. But the finished product by far outshines anything [else] we've ever done.”


“It's important that when I or any of my sales people send a job in, we're on site with the crew. It can't be done any other way. You can't send a crew out cold and expect them to install a job that you've been working on for seven or eight months a year.”


“Be proud of what you do, and charge for what you do. I see a trend toward giving the house away to stay in business or get business. I've never seen anybody successful who was always the low bid. We're in a great industry, and the only way to keep it great is to charge for what you do. That allows you to build the next project.”

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