For Bill and Matthew Vihstadt, business and family go hand in hand. Bill has owned A to Z Rental Center in Mankato for nearly half a century. He and his late wife, Ruthann, who died last June, operated it for most of those years.
Their son Matthew moved back to Mankato after college to work in the family business. The location hasn’t changed since then, and many of the items they rent now were popular in 1968, when Bill’s aunt and uncle opened the company. Bill bought it three years later and still appreciates their role in making the business a success.
“I was very fortunate to have an aunt and uncle that started it,” Bill said. “I am forever grateful to them.”
While they still have some relics in their warehouse, Bill said wear and tear means having to replace inventory constantly.
“Unfortunately most items don’t last forever,” Bill said. “We buy most of the items direct. Very seldom do we go through distributors.”
He jokes that his son Matthew was involved “since he was conceived.” When Matthew was a kid, it was a chance to bond with his dad and he learned the business over the years. He said that when he finished college with a political science degree, he had to decide whether to go on to graduate school or work for his dad.
The shop features a wide variety of construction equipment and tools, but also popcorn machines for parties, weddings and grand openings. Matthew said a customer will walk in expecting to reserve tables and chairs for a graduation party. They turn around and see the popcorn machine and say, “Whoa. I could use that!”
He said that while they have to replace worn-down equipment, some has stood the test of time.
“Some of the most profitable things are the things that have been around forever,” Matthew said. “I could probably pull out an electric drill that was dated 1968 or some of the old tables. It’s heavy-duty wood. You can’t just go up to Sam’s Club and buy an $80 table and expect it’s going to last 50 years.”
They say advertising in the newspaper and on television, word of mouth, and a tremendous and loyal customer base have led to their success. What people choose to rent varies with the time of year, with outdoor construction work slowing to a near halt by winter. That’s when customers show up with indoor projects in mind. On this particular March day, they rented several floor sanders.
“I think people sit at home and watch the DIY network and decide to tackle a project.” The staff give people demonstrations on how to use the machinery.
“A few of us here have brought enough of this home that we’ve taken on some of the projects ourselves in our own houses,” Matthew said.
At their summer peak, they have more than 20 employees, mostly kids taking a break from school or college. Graduation time is the busiest.
The adjacent warehouse has hundreds of tables and chairs waiting to be hauled out for commencements; one of their biggest customers is Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Graduation parties and commencements are short-term rentals, but they may not see other items for months at a time. Sometimes they’ll go out into the field to check up on the equipment, bring it back to the warehouse and repair before returning it to a customer. They have mechanics on site to repair the wide variety of machinery they have. Sometimes, a customer needs equipment or machinery for so long they just opt to buy it outright.
“We’re technically a general rental so we have party, construction, homeowner and lawn and garden,” Matthew said. “You can’t just focus on one thing. With our inventory we could just be a party rental store, but there’s times of the year where a lot of the party times die out and other things pick back up.”
As he reflects on the past half century in the business, Bill says the strength of Mankato and the region has led to their longevity.
“It’s been a long 50 years, but the community has been wonderful,” Bill said. “We started the same year as GM Contracting from Lake Crystal and WEB Construction from Mankato. They’ve been around for 50 years and they’re still our good customers. The community has been good to us.”
A to Z Rental Center
1428 North Riverfron Drive, Mankato