Kevin Gray has worked in the equipment rental industry for over 20 years. In the fall of 2015, Highreach equipment, the company Gray worked at, shut its doors. Shortly after, Gray opened Skyreach Equipment Rental in Glen Burnie, MD, 20 minutes outside of Baltimore. Gearflow sat down with Kevin Gray to learn more about the importance of owning a niche in the construction equipment rental industry.
When Gray’s previous company closed its doors, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to get back into the equipment industry. Gray says, “It’s been a battle… I got whacked and thrown down. I asked myself, do I try to do this again? I had so many customers in glazing that kept telling me I needed to come back.”
Eventually, he decided what he had to do. “I had many glass contractors, but no manipulation devices. When I decided to start [Skyreach], I needed capital. I went out to two buddies and asked for a capital raise that was pretty high risk.”
Because of Gray’s experience in the industry, his friends were willing to listen to his pitch. Gray pitched his ideas for Skyreach and how he planned to achieve those goals. After the pitch, his friends were convinced that with the direction Gray was heading, he would be successful.
Ultimately, with the money that his friends lent him, Gray was able to open Skyreach Equipment. In order to build up his fleet, Gray reached out to a few manufacturers he had previously built connections with at Highreach. He approached these companies and explained his scenario, asking these OEMs to help him start this new business and work with him.
Gray had a solid plan in mind, and the trust he had built doing business with each of these companies for over fifteen years prior didn’t hurt. Gray remembers his conversation with one of the OEMs, “They told me that they had invested in me over the past 15 years because of who I was and that they were committed to me.” It wasn’t easy, but eventually, many of the OEMs agreed to work with Skyreach. “Going all-in on a business is a scary thing to do, especially if you borrow money from your friends… It’s been a long road.” The long road was worth it for Gray. Today, Skyreach is succeeding across Maryland and the surrounding areas. With this success, Skyreach has received rental calls from across the country.
How Do You Find Your Niche?
For most, if not all, equipment rental companies, knowing your specialization is extremely important. Gray recognizes this and has found his niche: glazers. Based on our conversation with Kevin Gray, we’ve outlined the top five strategies used to determine Skyreach’s niche:
1. Don’t blend in, differentiate
Skyreach focuses on renting and selling specialized equipment for glazers, but that isn’t all, Gray tells us, “The niche is key, any rental company can rent a boom lift, forklift or scissor lift. But, if you offer something specific that people don’t have, you become a one-stop-shop when they also need a scissor lift.”
Kevin Gray is a believer in the power of hands-on education. Currently, Gray is remodeling his store to house a fully functional training facility to educate glazers on various glass manipulators. This facility will set Gray apart from his competitors.
When I asked how the process was going, Gray responded, “Good, the whole process is a lot. We gutted the whole thing, put new walls up, and all new paint. Next week we will get wood floors put in the offices and the following week get the furniture and pictures in. I think once this is done, it will be a great thing for the current and future glazers in the area.”
2. Assess possible challenges
“Glass [equipment] is tough, the machines are very specific, and there isn’t a ton of high dollar equipment. For example, it’s a lot easier to rent a $24,000/month truck than it is to rent out a $7,000/month specialty crane.”
For someone with little knowledge and no connections in or around the glass industry, finding the right people to rent specialized equipment might bring possible challenges. With a highly specific product, rental can be tough unless you know a lot of people that use the equipment regularly. For Gray, his expertise, along with his strong connections, set him apart from his competitors.
3. Build strategic connections
Gray went all-in on the glass manipulation niche after visiting Bauma, a trade show in Germany, that is often referred to as “the world’s leading trade fair for construction machinery.” Gray still goes to Bauma as frequently as possible with his father.
“We were looking around [at Bauma] and saw a huge Jekko glass manipulator. We started talking to the guys from Jekko, and it turns out their US headquarters is in Baltimore. Afterward, we started telling our customers about Jekko and started to showcase Jekko’s products. Eventually, we got in with them and some others. Manufacturing is very competitive. Certain customers like certain machines, so I’ve found it is good to have a variety.”
Building strong, mutually beneficial connections with manufacturers helps Skyreach to serve their customers better. Skyreach ensures customers’ needs are always fulfilled and provides customers with a friendly environment. This helps Skyreach build loyal clients.
“I found this niche in glass manipulation attractive to the glazers, that’s where some of my best customers are. Glazers keep the machines very clean due to the nature of their work. This means less maintenance and less headache for us. We cater to them with all of our equipment, everything has glazing packages on, powered platforms, and all my forklifts are enclosed cabs with heat. I tailor all of the machines to the glazers’ needs.”
“These glass guys are highly trained; they know what they’re doing. Some of the glass manipulators I work with are so knowledgeable that I drop the machines off, and I don’t see them for 7-8 months. The whole time, I don’t hear a peep from those guys, and I don’t worry because they know what they’re doing.”
Even though Gray might charge more than some of his competitors, his customers keep coming back. “I’d say about 75% of our usual customers are glazers,” says Gray. This relationship is mutually beneficial for both the contractors and Gray. The glazers can book with him worry-free and know that the machines will be clean, running correctly, and have all the necessary upgrades. At the same time, Gray knows his equipment will be cared for properly and treated with respect.
4. Add value for your target customer
As in almost any business, if you don’t provide some sort of value for your customers, you aren’t going to go very far. A few of the many ways Gray delivers value to his customers is by tailoring the machines to the glazer’s needs, helping to troubleshoot if something goes wrong, and of course, building the training center mentioned above.
Gray shared with us how the training center works, “We’ve already begun conducting some training classes, we do about one class daily. Currently, it’s being done outside while we get the facility built.” On top of the training program, Gray also is working on an in house apprenticeship training program.
“Once we start the full-on glass apprenticeship program, we can do the whole glass manipulation side of installing glass. We will use all the different types of manipulators – hanging manipulators, walk behind manipulators, and crane mounted manipulators. We’ll be working on operating manipulators and doing transfers from one manipulator to another. This way, the students can get familiarized with both the remotely operated and the manually operated manipulators. We’ll be doing a whole slew of different things, which is great.”
Gray believes that by starting this training facility and the glass apprenticeship program, there will be multiple positive outcomes. First, it will allow contractors to learn which machines they like more than others to assist in buying and renting decisions. Second, it will help new talent gain real-world exposure in the safety of a training facility on various machines.
To summarize a real-world impact, Gray says, “Think about it, wouldn’t you much rather hire a kid that can say, ‘I have operated all these glass manipulators, and I know how they work with glass,’ instead of someone who has never operated a manipulator before?”
5. Be a niche-xpert
In conclusion, none of these steps can be fully met unless you are an expert in what you specialize in. For Gray, his many years in the industry helped him to create a company that is so targeted. He saw a way to come into a niche market and start a rental company that has a competitive edge. He weighed the possible challenges he might face and found solutions to all of them. He strengthened his previous connections and made new ones. Finally, Gray noticed a specific way to offer a value that cannot be found elsewhere to his current and future customers.