An in-depth look at five young professionals who are helping the tenting industry move toward an innovative and vital future.
by Pamela Mills-Senn
You can’t discount the contribution of folks who have spent decades in the tenting industry, advancing it through innovation and hard work. At the same time, those at the start of their careers will be the ones to continue the forward momentum and carry on the good work.
In keeping momentum from last year, InTents is once again calling attention to five professionals under age 40 who have decided that the tent and event rental industry is where they want to direct their energy, effort and passion. Although their stories are different, all share the same excitement about the industry and the same determination to not only get through the current challenges presented by COVID-19, but to thrive—now and in the years ahead.
Do you know a young professional we should keep our eye on? Nominate that person for the 2021 InTents “5 under 40” by emailing editor Sammi Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Attracted by the opportunity the rental industry provides and wanting to capitalize on his experience gained over the four years he spent working in the sports and entertainment industry, Darren Randle opened his business this January.
“I was the contact who ordered tents and rental items for those events from the various providers around town—which ultimately led me to the industry,” he recalls. “I wanted to be the one others relied on for these rental needs.”
The opportunity to learn more about this industry before diving in with his own company came in 2015 when he joined a rental business in the Houston area, overseeing many complex, large installations for sporting and corporate events, product launches and festivals, among others.
“When people ask why I decided to go this career route I explain how much enjoyment I get out of helping planners, organizations, sports teams and schools host a successful event,” he says. “The tent and rentals equipment part of an event is important and with that, I’m able to get creative and use my marketing and operations background to create a fun experience.”
Still, it was never his intention to launch his own tent and event rental operation from nothing—it’s a tough road to walk. Consequently, he advises those hoping to break into this industry to find a family organization, working hard with the idea of becoming a leader or partner within that business.
IFAI is an important resource, says Randle, connecting him to other young industry professionals. And although the pandemic has cut into the number of events he’s done this year, Randle has still accumulated some memorable moments, one being showing off his newly opened warehouse to his wife and young daughter.
“Watching my daughter run around the warehouse floor was worth all the hard work and time away from them over the last year to pull this off,” he recalls. “Who knows, maybe she’ll want to run the Houston Tents & Events business many years down the road.”
Darren Randle, Owner
Houston Tents & Events
Employs: Six with plans to grow to nine
Q: What’s the best leadership lesson you’ve learned?
A: An important one was from Martin Luther King Jr. He said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a leader is the right thing. It’s easier not to place importance on an employee or to undervalue a customer that only orders one small backyard part a year versus that client you work with every month. All should be a priority. There are many wrong ways to do things in our industry, but doing it right is what’s most important to me.
Matt Mutton likes variety and “organizing chaos,” although he didn’t realize this when he began working after school for the family business, making just $1 an hour.
“My job responsibilities at that time were taking out the trash, filling the pop machine and distracting staff,” he remembers. “It’s hard to pinpoint my first encounter with a tent, but I can vividly recall my dad putting me on a lace line at a very young age. That thing seemed to be a mile long.”
Working summers during high school and college, Mutton spent most of his time on the install side, relishing the hands-on labor and the ability to overcome issues like extreme weather, picky clients and “questionable crew members.” Still, he had a different future in mind.
“Entering college, I honestly thought I was going to go into corporate America,” Mutton continues. “But at some point during my junior year at IU [Indiana University] it dawned on me that I needed the variety the rental industry provides to be happy.”
There are advantages to joining the family business, but there are also downsides, such as proving you deserve to be there, says Mutton. He dove in, working long hours and giving his all to the business. This focus has allowed him to meet some big career goals, such as doubling and tripling the company’s revenue, moving into products like clearspans and flooring, and developing a regional reputation as a “top-tier tent company.”
Having gone full bore from the age of 20 to 32, Mutton says he’s pulling back a bit. This is a “big movement” for the company as well, involving a consideration of culture, hours, days off, pay scale—all quality-of-life components.
“It’s easy in this industry as an owner or top-level manager to obsess over getting bigger,” he says. “In the pursuit of growth you can work yourself and your staff to death. I still love to work, but it has been a nice change of pace to find a little more balance over the last couple of years.”
Matt Mutton, Owner/president
Mutton Party & Tent Rental
Fort Wayne, Ind.
Employs: 20 during off-season, 45 in-season
Q: What do you think needs to change in order to strengthen the industry?
A: Most of the staff who have quit over the years has done so because of deciding the tent business didn’t align with their definition of quality of life. So the question becomes, what does this mean for each company, owner, manager, etc.? We all know the tent business can be labeled a young man’s game. The question is, how do we make it a middle-aged man’s game?
Growing up in an “entrepreneurial family,” one that has spent nearly 30 years in the tent and event rental industry, did give him a foot in the door, says Paul Ussher, whose parents opened Premier in 2011. But that doesn’t mean hard work wasn’t required. During summers off from the university, where he studied accounting, Ussher worked as a general laborer on install crews. He also had to earn the respect of his peers, doing so by being “consistently willing to get my hands dirty.”
Prior to joining the company in 2016 as operations manager, Ussher spent 12 months working for the accounting firm KPMG. Although he found financial analysis, mergers and acquisitions “thrilling,” continually analyzing but never implementing proved frustrating.
“The opportunity to step into a management role in the tent rental industry was attractive because in this role, I not only analyzed the business but used that analysis to take action and measure the results,” he explains. “Plus, the industry also provides a unique gratification as we transform empty spaces into usable venues.”
An exciting accomplishment occurred in 2018 when the company was bidding to renew a contract with Golf Canada to provide tenting and flooring for two of the association’s Canadian professional championships. Ussher was tasked with writing and producing the ultimately successful proposal.
“Winning the contract was a real high point and provided a firm foundation for the continued growth of the business,” Ussher says. “Attending the tournaments and seeing the structures installed and filled with happy fans is always a memorable experience.”
What he likes best about this industry is its versatility. The tents provide a “blank canvas” where almost anything is creatively possible. As such, Ussher says he’s benefited from IFAI Tent Expo where structures are installed in parking lots, giving attendees a chance to discuss the products in person with manufacturers. But there are things he’d like to see change.
“For most of us, our default position is to focus only on what we’re doing and not think about the other parts involved in bringing an event to life,” he explains. “This ultimately leads to frustration for the customer who then has to consider all of these elements. While industry professionals like event planners can help ease this frustration, suppliers can make this process easier, leading to a smoother customer experience.”
Paul Ussher, Director of operations
Premier Event Tent Rentals Inc.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Employs: 15 full-time, 60 during the summer months
Q: What is your advice for a young person hoping to break into the industry?
A: Be versatile. In order to succeed you must be able to communicate well with customers and installation crews. It’s important to be able to write proposals and crunch numbers, but to also be able to install large structures and manage complex logistics. It’s vital to be in touch with the front lines but also to be able to maintain a laser focus on the bottom line.
Although Scott Alexander started working in the family-owned business at age 12—first as a dishwasher and then later as a driver while in college—it wasn’t his plan to make a career of it. Instead, he went to college for microbiology. However, after graduating in 2009 he ended up joining the company’s management team because the 2008 recession was causing the company to struggle.
“I told my father I’d give him two years to help. But because I found a lot of success in the industry, I stuck around and decided to purchase the company from my father in 2014,” says Alexander, who plans to continue growing the company.
The family business made it easy for him to get into this industry. But for others starting off on their own, the biggest barrier to entry Alexander sees is having enough capital to acquire the necessary assets.
“It’s easy to overspend and mismanage cash flow,” he says. “Having good budgeting skills and proper financing in place are both key to success. In terms of joining an existing company, I think the biggest challenge is that this industry is still relatively small and decentralized, meaning there normally isn’t adequate training or ramp-up for new employees, which can lead to quick burnout.”
Training new employees on every product and piece of equipment during the first year is nearly impossible, he explains. The cyclical nature of the business and long hours can make it difficult to achieve a good work/life balance, resulting in high turnover.
“I think the industry needs to consolidate so that companies are large enough to have proper training and hiring programs in place,” he says. “This should provide a better work environment for employees, which ultimately will help our industry improve talent retention.”
Scott Alexander, Owner/president
Alexander Party Rentals
Employs: 30 year-round, up to 50 in-season
Q: What has been one of your most exciting industry accomplishments so far?
A: Being recognized by our local ILEA [International Live Events Association] chapter for a custom theater venue we made out of tents for a dinner theater company in Woodinville, Wash. The setup consisted of 12 tents featuring custom logoed tops, insulated hardwall and custom triangle tents we seamed together and to a variety of trailers and temporary buildings. It was up from September 2018 to February 2020. That install pushed us from being just a fair-weather tenting company into a long-term fabric structure solution-provider.
Steven Herring had spent about three years working off and on as a derrick hand in the California oil fields. He was also serving as a paid call firefighter for Cal Fire in 2010, going through the academy to qualify as a seasonal firefighter. However, state-implemented budget cuts that year sidelined his plan.
Around this time he was helping a friend set up for a party. While unloading the delivery truck and signing the receipt, he saw what the rental company was making. Shortly thereafter he sold everything he owned to purchase 200 chairs and 20 table rounds, renting these out for parties.
Starting out it was just him. By 2012 he was busy enough to hire a couple of friends. The following year he began expanding his inventory, adding his first sailcloth tent, along with dance floors and other items. He also rented a small warehouse and hired more employees.
Herring established a subrental relationship with a tableware and glassware rental company, eventually purchasing that business. He brought in lighting and other decor and began attending tradeshows and networking. By 2017 he’d purchased a 14,000-square-foot warehouse and at the start of 2020 he added a second location with showroom and offices.
There were plenty of challenges breaking into this industry, Herring says. But his dad, Greg, was a big help, serving as a mentor and financial advisor then and now. His attitude also played a key role.
“I’m a very optimistic person,” Herring says. “I’m always willing to take on a challenge and make it work—but I also always have a contingency plan.”
Along with the challenges have come many accomplishments, such as winning several awards, most recently from California Wedding Day magazine for best tabletop, best furniture and best all-around wedding vendor. This year he was also invited to the legislative caucus held in Washington, D.C., to represent the events industry in the discussion of workforce development.
“But the most gratifying achievement has been the opportunity to employ so many hardworking people,” Herring says. “Providing them with a nice career has been really satisfying.”
Steven Herring, Founder
All About Events
Paso Robles, Calif.
Employs: Pre-COVID about 30, currently about 15
Q: What is the hardest thing about leadership?
A: I think it’s having to put your emotions aside and make the tough decisions based on what’s good for the company and your entire staff. It’s easy to lead when things are good, but to lead through turmoil is the true test. The perfect example of this is having to lay off 20 employees and leading a team through a global pandemic.