$17 million for a Mom & Pop special-event tent-rental service.
By Stan Roberts
As mom and pop business success stories go, it would be hard to top Kirby Rental Service. In 1946, Ted and Esther Kirby started renting tables, chairs and odds and ends from a 1,200-square-foot building in Orlando, Florida.
In the mid-1960s, they purchased a few tents and rented them for small local events. By 2012 Kirby had become one of the nation’s leading suppliers of tents, tent equipment, linen and catering products. It now operates from a 120,000-square-foot warehouse/office in Orlando, maintains two other Florida locations, employs 130 and posts sales of $17 million.
Kirby pitches tents in sizes from 10 foot by 10 foot for backyard parties to the 57,600 square-foot air-conditioned Winston Tower at Daytona International Speedway. Its impressive client list includes the NFL’s Super Bowl, PGA tournaments like the Master’s and the U. S. Women’s Open, Bausch & Lomb Tennis Championship and charity, hospitality, business and civic events.
Most cities around the U. S. have at least one local company that offers tent rentals, so why is Kirby booked to provide tents and catering supplies for events 3,000 miles from Orlando, like the Boeing Classic in Seattle, Washington? “Most local businesses don’t have the inventory to handle events of that size,” explained Paul Weidner, Kirby’s president and co-owner. “We have $20 million in materials and equipment, and the personnel to staff an event from start to finish anywhere in the U.S.”
The Kirby’s eased into tent rentals. In the mid-1960s, when sales were about $200,000, they bought a few tents and rented them for family gatherings. “Orlando was a small town and we bumped along until Disney World opened in 1971,” said Weidner. “As the area grew we started getting more orders for tents. We realized this was a good product for us to focus on.”
Weidner learned the tent rental business from the bottom up—a summer job led to a job driving a delivery truck, which led to a role in management. He topped this in 2007 when he and an investment partner bought the company.
By a quirk, Weidner helped Kirby land its first major golf tournament. Kirby, then an upstart in the industry, was invited to bid on the 1976 U.S. Open in Atlanta. Dick Browne, then a company exec, was scheduled to present Kirby’s bid, but he got sick. “At the last minute I was thrown into it,” recalled Weidner.
After making Kirby’s presentation, the tournament execs threw Weidner a curve ball. “They asked for red, white and blue tents,” recalled Weidner. “I said, sure. I didn’t know if we could do this, but one thing I had learned—never say no to a customer.”
The PGA tourney got its red, white and blue tents, and Kirby over night arrived in the big leagues. “That job came in under $100,000—
a major fee at that time,” said Weidner.
Through word-of-mouth referrals Kirby became the go-to tent people at major sports venues such as Wachovia, Buick, John Deere, Honda, Michelob PGA tourneys, NASCAR, Daytona 500, Pepsi 400, and NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
For 43 years, Kirby has been associated with Daytona International Speedway. At one event, Kirby had 164 hospitality tents.
Another major Kirby’s client is golf’s biggest name—Tiger Woods. “Tiger takes us with him,” said Weidner. After Woods spotted Kirby’s tents at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill event, his team invited Kirby to bid on tournaments sponsored by the Tiger Woods Foundation, including Deutch Bank, Chevron Challenge and the made-for-TV AT&T.
Like most industries, Kirby has no shortage of competitors—six in Central Florida. For example, Kirby lost a $2,500 job over $5, but Weidner said the company doesn’t try to be low bidder. “We’re probably among the highest because we have superior products and service.”
For years, Kirby used canvas tents supplied by a company that had made covers for wagons. In the 1980’s, Kirby’s execs thought, “It was time to think about making our own tents.” Weidner brought in a seasoned fabric maker to head up an on-site manufacturing department and shifted to a 16-ounce, laminated vinyl fabric. “It’s stronger than canvas,” explained Weidner. “You can’t tear it.” Kirby also began manufacturing its wood and aluminum tent poles and introduced bleachers, decks and scaffolding which increased revenues $1 million a year. “We’re working on another first—a two-story tent,” said Weidner.
Pitching tents for big events is no snap. “A lot of people touch a tent before it goes up,” said Weidner. Big orders goes through every department—tents, poles, linen, dishes, chairs, tables, glassware—before they hit the delivery truck. It usually takes four weeks to set up projects, and 1-½ weeks to tear them down. A company rep is on site from start to finish.
KIRBY RENTAL SERVICE AT A GLANCE
Headquarters: 411 Hames Ave., Orlando, FL 32806
What: Rents tents, chairs, tables, linens, catering supplies
Founded: 1946 by Ted and Esther Kirby from 1,200 sq. ft. store renting tables, chairs, odds and ends
Current sales: $17 million
Forecast: Grow biz by adding products
For more information: 407/422-1001 www.kirbytent.com