|Photos courtesy of Alpine Equipment and Party Rentals
Kelli Thomas, owner, Alpine Equipment and Party Rentals, Alpine, Calif., has learned to adapt to whatever comes her way.
It all began when she married Scott Thomas, who started the rental operation in 1991. Scott came from a family of rental operators. His father, Harold, owned B & H Rentals in the Los Angeles area. His brother, Brad, owned BJ’s Rentals in San Diego, which grew to 12 locations before he sold the operation.
Kelli, who did not have any rental experience before marrying her husband, quickly learned the business.
“I didn’t know anything when I started working for him. It was quite the learning curve, but I did it. That learning never stops. In this business you learn something all the time,” she says.
When she started in the business, her husband had three locations — all catering to the homeowner, contractor and special occasion markets.
All was going well and then, in 2015, a most unusual event occurred. An estimated 123-ton boulder smashed into the back side of their building.
“I remember that we received a call from a friend on a Sunday, the day we are not at the rental operation. He said that he drove by our shop and said it looked really weird — that the building looked crooked,” Kelli remembers.
She and Scott immediately drove to the business. “You couldn’t see the boulder at first as it was in the back. We came in and it smelled like gas. We called the authorities and discovered this boulder that weighed nearly 300,000 lbs. of hard blue granite. At 11 ft. wide and taller than a single-story home, it crashed into the back of our building and broke a gas line in the process. It took out my office, which was on the second floor,” Kelli says.
“It happened in February, which is usually a rainy month, but that February wasn’t rainy. We later discovered that the boulder let loose from Sumac tree roots, squirrels and gravity,” she says.
Even though their building was unusable, the Thomases never thought about shutting down the business.
“We never closed. We got an RV, parked it in our lot and started doing business Monday morning. We then got a mobile office trailer. We ended up working in that trailer for two years,” Kelli says, noting that the boulder was very difficult to remove. A crane operator told the Thomases he would not be able to get the rock out until it was pared down to 8.5 ft. wide and 8.5 ft. high.
A large boulder doesn’t crash into a business every day, so news crews came from all over to cover the incredible incident. The family tried to make the most of a very challenging situation.
“My younger daughter named the boulder Ally. I painted a face on the boulder — complete with eyes and eyelashes. Scott designed shirts with rocks falling around the logo and the saying ‘STILL ROCKIN after all these years!’ People would drive by and take photos of it. From this incident, I learned a lot about these boulders,” she says.
Shortly after that incident, Scott decided to take a sabbatical from work. After growing up in the business, he needed a break. Kelli took over the leadership role.
“That is when I really got my rental legs,” she admits. During this time, she sold two locations, but continued to own the land of one location, which she now rents.
After his sabbatical, Scott decided to follow a dream he has had for years — sailing around the world. With Kelli’s blessing, he began the journey in 2017. “He is halfway through by now. I used to go fly out to wherever he was at and visit for about two weeks and he would come home for a month or two out of the year. He was stuck here for a year and a half during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he is off again,” she says.
At first, it was just Kelli holding down the fort with her employees. Then her daughter, Miranda Wythe, came onboard. “She is a big asset. She can operate and deliver all the equipment. She loves the industry and usually runs the counter. She wants to run the business one day,” Kelli says.
With her husband away, Kelli has relied on her team, her daughter and the advice of her father-in-law. “He was the reason I made it. He was my crutch. He is in his 90s now and still looks at my reports every month and still gives me advice, but he doesn’t come in and around like he used to,” Kelli says.
When the pandemic hit, the event side of the business was hit hard. “It shut down the event side, but my equipment side doubled. Now we are busy on both ends. We are so busy, but it is so hard to find employees. I can’t get new equipment either. In addition, COVID took out the company I used to buy my inflatable jumps from. This person also did my repairs. Now I don’t have that anymore. Patching them myself is challenging,” she says.
“When something is thrown at you and you don’t have a choice, you can just figure out how to make it work. I can now fix a lot of things and figure out how to fix almost anything. The knowledge I have gained has been tremendous,” she says.
Her customers also specifically ask for her or Miranda.
“We know what we are talking about because we have been doing it so long. This is Alpine. We know the dirt, we know the equipment they need, we know what will and won’t work. For instance, the boulders up here will be blue granite and you won’t get through it with a jackhammer. I have personal experience with that,” Kelli laughs.
She also is extremely proud of how her business has been there for her customers.
“We are a small, family-owned rental operation. We really work with our customers on what they are doing. Someone can come in asking for a certain item. Then I learn about the job and tell them, ‘No, you need something else to accomplish that job.’ That is satisfying because we have provided that customer with the right tool for the job,” Kelli says.
It’s all part of providing excellent customer service, she says. “We make it a point to be helpful, very personable and offer great customer service. A lot of people prefer to work with a smaller rental operation. We benefit from a lot of word of mouth. That is very rewarding,” she says.
Kelli says that none of this could be accomplished without the company’s employees.
“Miranda, Simone, Mike, Jose and Little Hawk, each one of them has a special thing to offer that makes the everyday operation possible,” she says.