Returning to rentals

Frank Wilson is back in the work he loves



In a showroom in Grovetown, wood chippers and lawn mowers become personal.

Frank Wilson doesn't just nod to a customer's machinery of choice, punch the register and print a receipt.

No, no. He insists on asking customers what projects they are working on, what kind of tools they are using, and whether they need any help.

"This is really a relationship business that you build with people," Wilson said.

For all but nine of the past 38 years, Wilson made the equipment-rental business in the Augusta area his passion.

In 2001 he decided he had made his mark, closed the doors on his five equipment-rental shops in the area and went into semi-retirement. By late last year, he realized the industry needed him -- and he needed his customers.

After a nine-year absence, Wilson returned to the rental business, opening Frank Wilson's Equipment Center on Robinson Avenue in Grovetown in July.

"I had been asked 'Frank, why would you get back in this business at your age?' " said the 66-year-old. "I'll tell you why. I love this business."

Before Wilson made his return, he examined the industry he knew best and felt that something was missing. No one had picked up where he left off.

"I noticed that after being out of the business, nobody really was tapping into the market in this marketplace," he said.

He had always catered to the do-it-yourselfers, the handymen doing home improvements and the party planners who needed tent and party equipment.

Wilson rents items ranging from log splitters and texture machines to bounce houses and party tents. His newest store has nearly 125 pieces of equipment for rent.

He operates with three employees: his wife, Diane; stepson, Joshua Taylor; and employee Wayne Scott.

His principles have not changed.

"We operate the same way we did when we had 46 employees and five stores," he said. "There's no secret to this business. Respect the folks that do business and give them service worth their trust and money."

Wilson has used that philosophy since he moved to Augusta nearly 40 years ago.

Well equipped

One of the "last original natives" from Atlanta, Wilson set out in the equipment business as soon as he left the Navy in 1966.

"I got out of the Navy on a Monday and went to work on a Wednesday," he said.

He began work with Northside Tool Rental in Atlanta and progressed from counterman to the manager of operations.

A new job with Stith Equipment Co. meant a move to Augusta in 1972.

Years later he started his own rental company with eight partners while he cooked up bigger ideas for his own company.

By 1980 he formed Frank Wilson Rental and Sales, which started a chain of equipment rental stores in the area.

In the next decade, Wilson opened doors in Evans, North Augusta, Thomson, Aiken and Augusta.

"I realized I had this customer base, and I wanted to serve their needs to solve their problems," Wilson said.

In 2001, Wilson sold his businesses to a consolidation company, thinking it would continue running equipment rentals for the public.

When the shops turned into other ventures, Wilson knew he had to do something to bring rental services back to the area.

Making a return

Wilson had no hesitation about opening doors in an economy that is still struggling to heal.

"I came in at the tail end of the recession, and it can only go up from here," he said.

When the economy is down, people tend not to buy heavy equipment and would rather rent a tool to get the job done, he said.

Wayne Walley, the editor of the American Rental Association's official publication, Rental Management Magazine, agrees.

A recession makes renting more appealing than purchasing, he said.

"One thing that seems to be happening is a lot of contractors and do-it-yourselfers, they are suddenly looking at 'I've got this job that's coming up, but am I going to have a job after?' " Walley said. "With renting they know they can get it at a fixed cost and not have to worry about maintenance. If you get a construction job, you have equipment right now, you sign your name and you're off to the races."

Wilson also knew there were loyal customers feeling the void while he was gone.

It was a shock for Pete Whitaker, the owner of Whitaker Electric in Harlem, to see the man he had done business with for 20 years close shop.

"Frank has been a friend, number one, and he's always treated me fair," Whitaker said. "That's why I stayed with him so long."

Their encounter began with Whitaker renting track hoes and jackhammers, but it ended in a 20-year friendship, he said.

Now he doesn't have to worry about Wilson going anywhere.

Wilson starts his days at 6 a.m. and ends when he sits down on his family farm for supper at 7 p.m., he said.

And that's just how he wants it.

"As long as the good Lord gives me health, I'll be around."

Frank Wilson

BORN: Atlanta

AGE: 66

FAMILY: Wife Diane, daughter Sarah, son Tommy, stepson Joshua

HOBBIES: Fishing