It all began in 1957 with a dream to build something of their own. Gene Blackwell, who had been a heavy equipment operator, moved north with his wife, Betty, from Southern California to Sacramento and began a small rental operation out of their home.
“They started a small place, not too far down the street from where we are now,” says daughter-in-law Vicky Blackwell, president of the company. “They lived in the house. The front bedroom was the rental counter. The garage was the shop. They didn’t have any fence around the place. They had a gravel front yard where they stored equipment. After or during dinner, they would get up from the table and help whoever drove in and needed assistance.”
When considering a name for the operation, Gene felt it was important to be at the beginning of the listings in the phone book. “He didn’t want to be another ‘AAA,’ so he thought about ‘Ab…’ He remembered the song, ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon’ by Debbie Reynolds in 1950, so the company became Aba Daba Rents,” according to the company website.
Through the years the company grew. They moved into their current location in Sacramento a few years after it was no longer feasible for the original house to hold the growing business.
As a family operation, their sons, Dale and Robert “Bob,” helped. Later, Gene teamed with a partner, Robert Myers. Some of Myers’ children helped in the business too. That partnership, which lasted 20 years until Myers’ death, resulted in a lot of growth for the company.
“They had up to six locations at one time, typically buying existing rental centers. They would buy inventory and take over the phone numbers so they could grow the business,” Vicky says, adding that their Citrus Heights location opened 50 years ago. With its primary focus on concrete ready-mix and concrete truck deliveries, it complemented rentals well.
Vicky joined the business in 1980. “I came in as a bookkeeper and worked for Gene and Robert Myers. At that time, I think we had four locations,” she says.
She loved how the business catered to the small construction and do-it-yourself homeowner markets as well as handling festivals, small parties and backyard events. “At one time they had a separate location that was more party-driven. That property was owned by Robert Myers. When he passed, his children took over the party side, but we bought it back from them after several years,” Vicky says.
By this time, Dale and Bob, the second generation of Blackwells, were heavily involved in the business. Shortly after Myers’ passing, Gene turned the business over to his sons.
Rental is also what brought Dale and Vicky together. “Both of our previous marriages had ended. We were friends for a couple of years before we married in 1984,” she says.
Vicky jokes that when she married Dale, “I was cheap labor,” but the truth is they were a couple whose lives centered around rental.
“Dale lived and breathed the industry,” Vicky says. “He loved equipment and the problem-solving. Dale was eager to transfer from manual hand contracts to computerization as he was a big innovator and said we have to computerize because utilization was everything. Getting a computer — so we would have more information faster — was huge for him. He looked at what to buy, what to sell, when to sell it, what is renting, what is not renting, etc. Tracking information was important.”
That love of rental prompted Dale to become active in the California rental industry. He held several roles within the California Rental Association, including serving as executive director for 14 years. He also was a supporter of the American Rental Association (ARA) as a member of ARAPAC, ARA’s political action committee, from 2010-2012, and a member of the ARA Dues Committee from 2001-2002. For his service, he was awarded the Region Nine Person of the Year award in 2002.
He felt compelled to volunteer “because the more he volunteered the more he learned,” Vicky says. “He felt he had an edge up by volunteering. I think his volunteer involvements strengthened our rental company. By talking with other people in the industry, having that camaraderie with the board members and hearing their stories and understanding that their problems were his problems, he found new solutions for himself as well as others. He was happy to share that information with anyone who was willing to listen.”
Vicky benefited from that volunteerism too. “I got to go with him all the time. Our vacations were driven around trade shows, going to another rental center, an auction or an equipment manufacturer. That was part of the fun of it. We lived and breathed what we did. That is unusual. It doesn’t happen often. It was a blessing,” she says.
Like all rental operations, there have been challenges throughout the years.
“Theft of equipment, particularly conversion, is always a challenge,” Vicky says. “We have been hit more than I would like to think about. Over the recent years, some of it has been party. They just don’t want to return three tables and 30 chairs. I don’t get it.”
As a California rental operation, dealing with changing regulations has been difficult at times. “We are trying to transition into batteries as much as we can for the small stuff. We used to rent Honda gas lawnmowers. We might not rent them anymore. You can buy a battery-powered lawnmower for a couple of hundred bucks. It will be an item I see us no longer renting as it will no longer make economic sense. We will continue to go electric with our chain saws and other smaller items,” she says.
Since the pandemic, labor shortage and supply chain issues have made an impact. Vicky has fared pretty well as far as the employment issue. “We have 35 employees between the two stores. We make a good team. I also recently hired a couple of high school kids. They are good workers and are willing to learn. I am optimistic for future workers,” she says.
“The supply chain issue is never-ending,” she adds. “We try to keep things running longer. My shop foreman is fabulous. He has so many resources and knows where to get things,” she says.
Along with challenges, there have been lots of transitions. Four years ago, Dale’s brother, Robert, decided to leave the business, so they went through the buyout process. Then, in 2020, Dale died very unexpectedly.
While it was a shock, Vicky had no intention of closing the operation.
“This is our livelihood. Now two of our kids and a son-in-law are part of the business. We still provide a good service to the community. We never thought of closing. We knew we would continue. But it has been difficult because I am now doing the work of two people. While I have a lot of knowledge, I don’t know the mechanics of the equipment. I know what they are and do, and I can rent it all day long, but I don’t know operations management. Dale and I worked well as a team. He had his area of responsibility and I had mine. For years if I didn’t know something I could go to Dale, and if he didn’t know he could come to me. Now I have to rely on others. While I love them dearly, it is different than a partner. Plus, they don’t have 40 or 50 years of rental under their belts,” she says.
For all his contributions to the industry, Dale was honored posthumously at The ARA Show™ with the Industry Ambassador Award. At the Regional Reception, he also was honored with the Leadership Impact Award.
“It was very heartwarming. His hard work paid off. It was nice to be recognized. I wish he could have seen that. That is what he worked his whole life for,” she says.
Vicky is proud the company continues to be so customer-driven. “We all try to go above and beyond for our customers. We want to treat them right,” she says, adding, “As one of our slogans says, ‘We strive to provide superior service.’”
The passion for rental and the push of the team to take care of customers has made Aba Daba Rents a successful rental operation for the past 65 years. It is what will propel it into the future too.
“It’s a team effort and our team is all about rental,” Vicky says, adding that the passion for rental she saw in Dale is what she sees in her children and other staff. That bodes well for the future of Aba Daba Rents.