Dan Hooks worked his way up in his family's party rental business — with the accent on “worked.”
Hooks started out washing “everything in the building” at Party Reflections in 1983 while he was still in high school. His status as the son of the owners didn't give him an edge over anybody else; “My father made sure I earned every penny of that $2.50 per hour,” he recalls.
Hooks rotated through various posts at the Charlotte, N.C.-based company — delivery, pulling orders, dispatch — learning invaluable truths along the way. For one, “Dispatch is the single largest area to make or lose money in the entire company,” he says. “If you do not operate your trucks efficiently, you are not going to make money in this business.”
Hooks, now a CERP, took the post of Party Reflections president in 1995, “still doing the same things, and at the same pay,” he jokes. “Welcome to the family business!” But the party rental business itself has hardly stayed the same.
Since its founding, “Our business has evolved from a ‘mom and pop’ party rental store into an event rental production company,” Hooks says, a trend he sees playing out across the industry. Last year, Party Reflections opened a second store, in the Raleigh-Durham area.
The stature of rental has changed as well. “Years ago, we were perceived as order-takers, where we passively waited for direction from the event planners,” Hooks explains. Today, however, the breadth of experience a veteran rental pro brings to an event is receiving its due. “While one planner may be involved in 20 large events a year, their experience is limited when you consider that we deal with over 100 such planners who are each doing 20 events in a year,” Hooks says. “That gives us contact with over 2,000 events, and the experience that is drawn from that exposure is immeasurable.”
The recession of the last few years has taken its toll, largely in shrinking event budgets but also tight credit markets, which makes it hard to bring in vital new inventory. “Availability of money that used to take a phone call now takes a team of accountants and six months of paperwork to accomplish — if at all,” Hooks laments.
Ironically, however, bad times can bring out the best in management. “Our biggest challenge led the way to some of our biggest opportunities,” Hooks explains. “In the past two years, we have hired a CFO, written a budget, exceeded that budget, determined where we are making money and where we are losing it, and somehow in the midst of the worst financial crisis in the country, found ourselves in the best financial position in the company's history.” [For more on the company, see page 20.]
Hooks adds, “If I had learned this earlier, it is difficult to predict where our company could be today. Armed with this knowledge now, we can go into the uncertain future with the confidence that we know what works for us and what does not.”
Party Reflections 3412 Monroe Road, Charlotte, NC 28205; 704/332-8176; www.partyreflections.com
DON'T CRUNCH--COMPETE "I think one of the worst things to happen to the rental industry in the last decade has been the consolidation of so many rental operations. In many cases, these were the pioneers of the industry that pushed not only themselves but others in their markets to be better through an entrepreneurial spirit of competitiveness. I think a lot of this entrepreneurial spirit has been lost and replaced with corporate number-crunching to satisfy investors. That is not the direction that I think this industry needs. There is an enormous amount of risk involved in selecting products and building inventories, but that is what makes this such an exciting business."
THE TECH FACTOR "I think the single biggest factor that has improved events today is the amount of technology utilized in every aspect of the event. From the social media driving interest in the event to the lighting and visual effects companies are capable of now to the presentation material that can be transferred electronically, events are an experience and not just an excuse to get together anymore."
TALKING POLITICS "There are only a handful of events that we are fortunate enough to know about more than a year in advance, but none have ever sparked so much interest and talk as the 2012 Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte. We have heard a few horror stories from Denver in ’08 and are taking steps to mitigate some of these issues, but most of the information we have received is positive and suggests that we are in for a fun ride. We will prepare as best we can ahead of time and roll with the changes as they appear."