Michael Kneeland became CEO of United Rentals in 2008, but his career in rental started long before. His first experience in the industry was in sales for Free State Industries, an aerial equipment company, before this type of equipment was popular, and scaffolding prevailed in the construction world.
Kneeland’s perseverance led him to become president of Free State, eventually negotiating its sales to Equipment Supply Co. in 1996. In 1998, United Rentals acquired Equipment Supply Co. and Kneeland assumed a senior management role and later became the third CEO in the history of United Rentals.
He says he is both proud and humbled by being named to join the Rental Hall of Fame. “It’s an honor to be singled out in this way. I’ve had some months to reflect on it, and the past 40-plus years have been a great journey. I can still remember what it felt like to hook a JLG lift up to my pickup truck back in ’78 and drive around town giving demos to contractors — you couldn’t stop me from talking about equipment rental. I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can continue to contribute to the industry as the chairman of United Rentals,” he says.
One of Kneeland’s persistent messages as a rental executive was “being the biggest doesn’t matter unless you’re also the best” — reflecting his take on customer service, ingenuity, creativity and imagination. In 2011, Kneeland was part of the group that established ARA Rental Market Metrics™, which gave rental companies a consistent way to calculate performance for the first time.
In interviews, he often has talked about being a “good steward” for the industry, which he says is about being thoughtful about the decisions you make and the actions you take.
“From time to time, United Rentals surveys its customers about what’s important to them — where they think the value lies in equipment rental. I read every one of those survey reports as CEO, and it was amazing how some of the findings would pull the rug out from under preconceived notions of customer priorities. I remember one survey where customers ranked price fifth as a priority. What does that tell you? Don’t play with price. Give customers more of something they value — go out and create that value. That, to me, is being a good steward of the industry,” he says.
He also is proud of how United Rentals expanded equipment rental beyond the traditional business model.
“Twenty years ago, most rental operators treated specialty equipment as categories of general fleet. At United, we built dedicated operations for temporary power, climate control, fluid solutions, trench safety, disaster recovery, tool management and other on-site services. Our specialty branches began to attract new types of customers, and many of those customers started renting general equipment. We also began exploring new equipment tech with manufacturers. Looking back, I can see that by championing specialty solutions early on, we helped to grow the value proposition of the rental industry,” he says.
“Innovation is a passion of mine. When I was a kid, I was hooked on ‘The Jetsons’ — I always wanted one of those cool little jet-propelled cars. Then I grew up and began working in the rental industry, and I found plenty of ways to satisfy my thirst for innovation. There are always new and better ways to deliver value in any business. United Rentals is very good at embracing out-of-the-box thinking and avoiding complacency.
I would tell our employees, ‘I don’t want us to be taken by surprise. I want us to be the company that surprises everybody else.’ We would read about something groundbreaking in an unrelated industry and ask ourselves, ‘Could we be doing that in some form?’ I’m proud that I had a hand in inspiring that passion for innovation at United. It’s still very much a part of the culture.”
Kneeland continues to serve as chair of the board of United Rentals, chair of Maxim Crane and serves on other company boards.