Gary VerMeulen, president, Right Way Rental, Portage, Mich., might have been the owner of the only rental operation that not only offered equipment but also fishing tackle and live bait. A little unconventional? Maybe, but it’s a combination that has worked. Forty-five years after opening, it is a setup that recently came to a close with VerMeulen’s well-deserved retirement this past May.
Why retire now? “I have been in the business for 45 years and will turn 75 in July. With all the help-wanted signs down the street and the coronavirus pandemic that is still going on, I didn’t want to have to compete with another help-wanted sign. Besides, my wife and I want to travel. She said it was time to retire,” he says with
VerMeulen’s career in rental had a somewhat unorthodox start. It all began when he was working for a different type of business and became fascinated by the equipment rental operation across the street. Even though he had never rented any equipment nor worked in a rental store, he knew this industry was for him. In 1976, he bought property with exposure on Portage Road and opened his rental operation. “The rest is history,” he says.
He admits that overcoming the learning curve was a lot of “trial and error. Isn’t that the only way to learn?”
However, he did have experience that laid the groundwork for his new career path. “Before opening the store, I had worked as an iron worker. I have sold equipment and worked as a carpenter. I always have been very mechanically inclined, so rental was a good extension of what I already knew,” he says.
In the beginning, it was a real shoestring operation, with VerMeulen and his wife, Mary, at the helm. They started in an attached garage and lived on the other side. “Mary took care of all the books while I took care of all the grease monkey stuff,” VerMeulen says.
As the business grew, he hired a couple of part-time employees and then eventually had up to six full-time employees. His inventory also expanded, including everything from hand-held power tools to floor polishers, trenchers and backhoes. He also offered propane and had a little bit of party inventory, too, but that centered primarily around tables and chairs.
The tackle and bait shop became part of the rental operation about 15 years ago. “We are surrounded by lakes. At that time, the tackle shop that was down the street went out of business. I am a fisherman. I wanted to make sure the locals had access to bait and tackle. I thought this was right up my alley, so I opened a small shop at my operation. We fill a niche. We have carried a variety of bait, had rods and reels for purchase, and rented both 14-ft. fishing boats and several sizes of boat trailers. It hasn’t been unusual to sell a flat of crawlers to my customers who are planning to go fishing up north or in Canada. They always packed the crawlers with the beer to keep it cold,” VerMeulen says.
He first learned about the American Rental Association (ARA) in 1987 from Russ, the owner of what was then Russ Rents in Plainwell, Mich. “He is no longer in business. He gave me the magazines from ARA. It went from there,” VerMeulen says.
Soon after, he became involved with the ARA of Michigan, including joining the board in 1999, even serving as president from 2008-2013 and then again for part
“In order to have input with the association both nationally and locally, I figured it was essential to get involved. I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot from people who had been in the business a lot longer than I had been. Michigan is very diversified, so you learn a lot from other members from across the state. They helped me and I tried to help them. It was a mutual thing,” he says.
A frequent attendee of The ARA Show™, VerMeulen says he “always learned something new at the show no matter how long I had been in the industry. The shows have been extremely beneficial, as has been the camaraderie of your fellow rental operators who you see at the show. We always are teaching each other things.”
VerMeulen, who has stayed at his location on Portage Road for all these years, has seen a lot of changes and experienced plenty of challenges over his 45-year rental career. “One of the biggest changes has been the technology on the equipment. That has greatly expanded. The biggest challenge was when we first started the business. It was a challenge to get people aware of the rental industry. It wasn’t well-known in this area back then. We just kept working our way one step at a time. There was no turning the switch. It was just a matter of making people comfortable renting something. It worked out and kept increasing as time went on. With all the changes and challenges, we just rolled with the punches,” he says.
That easygoing manner has been VerMeulen’s modus operandi since the beginning. It has garnered loyal customers and employees. “I’ve always tried to run a customer-oriented business that strove to provide quality customer service. A lot of my customers have become my friends outside of the business. With my employees, I didn’t have much of a problem retaining help. I hated to lose a good person, but you also wanted them to advance themselves. Over the years, I tried to treat them well and they treated me well. I would say we were family-centered here, where we treated our employees like they were our own kids,”
Not seeing everybody every day — and not being in the rental business anymore — are all aspects that make his retirement plans bittersweet.
“I am feeling happy that I can now retire and my wife and I will be able to do some traveling, but I also am sad not being able to see all my customers on a regular basis.
And then there is the business. I really liked all the diversification of the equipment and what you needed to know. I have learned that there are a lot of good people in this world. It is so nice to be able to teach somebody how a piece of equipment works and have them accept it. I liked helping customers,” he says.
Even though VerMeulen has closed the doors of his rental operation, he is keeping the bait and tackle operation going.
“I am going to run the bait shop three or four days a week. Then, of course, my wife and I plan to travel across the northern states and the West Coast. We plan to see my sister in Arizona. I also plan to do more fishing,” he says.
Looking back on his long career in rental, VerMeulen has no regrets. “It’s a great industry to be in. Almost all the memories have been good. You always have a few bad ones, but you try to forget those. My advice for others who are thinking of opening a rental operation is that you can’t go wrong as long as you treat your customers well,” he says.