Jun. 13, 2021
After 65 years of serving the greater Austin, Texas, equipment rental market, brothers and second-generation rental operators Terry Norris and Dale Rundell, who have been running the Austin-based Safe Way Rental Equipment Co. since 1988, have decided it’s time to retire.
While it wasn’t an easy decision, the owners of what the Texas Rental Association (TRA) says is the “oldest family-owned rental operation in Texas” knew it was time to make the move.
“We initially thought about closing the business in 2020, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic caused us to hang in there. The central Texas area is still strong, and we will miss so many folks, but sometimes you need to hang up your spurs before the horse throws you,” Rundell says with a laugh.
Safe Way Rental Equipment Co., which at its height had five locations in the Austin-metro area and more than 100 employees, started with somewhat humble beginnings.
“Originally, our grandfather started a construction company back in the 1930s. He was a general contractor. At that time, general contractors did everything. They didn’t have subcontractors, so he amassed a lot of equipment to handle all the different jobs,” Norris says.
His grandfather’s office was a block away from a freight train rail track, which was handy because he would get his lumber by rail. “They would manually unload the block of wood and put it in his yard. Dad (Allen Rundell) was vice president of his father’s company. He felt it would be easier if they bought a forklift to unload the rail cars instead of using people. Without his father’s permission, he bought a used 1948 tow motor forklift. That ended up being his first rental item. When they weren’t using it to unload the boxcars, they rented it out. Then Dad bought an air compressor and then a Thor hammer. Then they started renting out some of the other equipment that our grandfather had. Rental was a natural transition for our father,” Norris adds.
However, “our grandfather didn’t want anything to do with this rental stuff that our father was starting,” Rundell says. “Dad was told to buy his own ‘toys’ and open his shop across the driveway. Grandfather then said, ‘When you fail, you can come back to work for me. This was around 1952. The business never failed and Dad officially opened his rental business in 1956.”
Innovation was the mantra from the beginning, not only for their business but also for the entire rental industry in Texas, according to Norris and Rundell.
“We brought in new products to complement our equipment, from introducing concrete wall-forming equipment to tilt-wall construction supplies. We also sold U-Cart Concrete at multiple locations, which drove customers to our stores,” Rundell says.
That forward-thinking mindset also created a number of “firsts” for their company.
“We were one of the first companies who had outside salespeople at job sites who tried to demonstrate the benefits of equipment rental,” Rundell says.
“We also were the very first rental company that used two-way radios in 1962, which allowed us to contact the delivery fleet to make changes in the routes. Dad was very prescient as far as technology,” he adds.
In the late 1970s, “we were the first to have radio telephones in our vehicles, which allowed us to call customers from our trucks. That was about 10 or 15 years before the first cellphones came out. We had our own pagers and had our own radio network. Dad launched into a communication company, which meant we owned radio towers throughout the Austin area and communication equipment,” Norris says.
Around this time, Norris and Rundell started an internet site “like what Amazon has, only ours was for tool sales. We called it ToolShak.com. No one else was doing it at the time. Amazon approached us and wanted to buy us. Stupid me, ‘I said No.’ The problem with ordering something big like a skid steer was calculating the freight. We figured out freight. We were the only organization that could give you accurate freight costs for any and everything on the website,” Norris says.
Later, in the early 2000s, after getting so many calls, they spun off a separate scaffolding company, Bilt Rite Scaffold. “I hired and trained them on engineering and erection. They specialized in system scaffolding, which was a new thing at the time. Today, the company is the only scaffolding provider for Samsung Electronics North America. We are in the process of selling the company to the sons of the man we originally hired to run the company,” Norris says.
That innovation also impacted the entire Texas rental industry in that their father was one of the founding members of the Southwest Rental Association, the forerunner to the Texas Rental Association.
“He helped put together the organization’s very first convention,” Norris says. “They had it at the Villa Capri Motor Hotel. He was the first person in the United States to bring in professors from the University of Texas to teach attendees how to market, implement proper accounting procedures and things like that. He even talked the manufacturers into showing up and selling their wares at that convention. He used the American Rental Association (ARA) as his model and condensed it down to a local and, eventually, to a state association.”
Their father understood the power of networking and camaraderie among rental operators. It is one of the reasons Norris became so involved with TRA, even serving as president from 2008-2009. During his tenure, TRA was able to get a theft of services bill passed by the Texas Legislature. “The TRA presidents and the board members who preceded me worked hard on this issue. During my presidency, we were able to get some stuff done,” he says.
Always a big proponent of ARA, Norris and Rundell liked having the opportunity to attend The ARA Show™ to “kick the tires, buy equipment at a discount and go to the seminars. It is a wonderful thing,” Norris says.
Both are very proud of what they have been able to accomplish over the years, as well as the employees who have worked for them, many for more than 30 and 40 years, and the customers they have served.
“We were old-style in that we believed in taking care of our equipment, our employees and our customers. We trained our employees. Many other larger rental operations tried to hire our employees away because they knew how well-trained they were. We also were known for our engineering ability and knew the mom and pops who started many of the manufacturing companies. They used to send us equipment. They would have us try out their equipment. We would offer suggestions that they would incorporate in their product lines,” Norris says.
Old-style meant focusing on relationships with their employees, customers or manufacturers. “I love the relationships I have formed over the years,” Rundell says. “As far as our employees, when you joined our family, it was more than DNA. When I opened my doors to my employees, it was like I was leaving my wallet on the counter and trusting them with all my equipment. Only a couple of times have people burned that trust. We would get invited to their families’ special celebrations. It was a family. Some would leave us for another job, but then they would always come back.”
The same is true with their customers. “Most of our customers we have known for more than 40 years. They know us. They know our kids,” Rundell says.
Norris agrees. “We always believed in being a full-service operation. We empowered our employees to make decisions. We have been here to help our customers no matter what their equipment needs. We always have treated our customers the way they wanted to be treated — and the way they should be treated. We were always there to help our customers,” he says.
Over the years, they reduced the number of stores they had and moved from heavy equipment rental to more general tool rental.
“We have been able to find a way to ride this company through the ups and downturns in the economy. We lived through at least four downturns, but we survived. We feel blessed that we have not had to look for another way to feed our families since we both started working here full time after college,” Rundell says. “We have had a great run. It is now time to close.”
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