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Invest and grow

“Invest and grow” was the successful formula for George Smith and Mahaffey USA.

Profile | June 1, 2024 | By: Laurie F. Junker

In 2005, Mahaffey USA was asked by an aviation company to provide a tent for the private aircraft of a Saudi prince. The company built this 64-meter clearspan with 11-meter uprights. All photos courtesy of Stephanie Ramirez via

George Smith, vice president of operations for temporary structures for Sunbelt Rentals Inc. (and former president and CEO of Mahaffey USA), never intended to make a career out of the tent business.

In the beginning, it was strictly a side gig. 

“I was working in garage door sales in Boston when my wife’s father suggested I buy some tents and rent them,” he says.  

His father-in-law is Bill Pretsch, who at the time was the owner of a tent rental business, Mahaffey Tent & Awnings, based in Memphis, Tenn. One of his claims to fame was helping to bring clearspan tents to the United States in 1982. The innovative structures didn’t require a center pole or guy ropes and were an instant hit, especially with large outdoor events and concert promoters. Their popularity and the fact that Mahaffey was one of the first American rental operations to have them, allowed the company to expand its rental territory across the country, primarily east of the Rockies. 

 Smith took his advice and purchased a few 20-by-20-foot and 30-by-30-foot Tentnology® canopy tents, renting them out of his garage on weekends for backyard parties. It was a good sideline, but Smith continued to work full time in the garage door business for a few years. Then in 1994, he landed a contract for ancillary tents at the FIFA World Cup games in Foxborough, Mass.  

The international event was an eye-opening experience. Smith enjoyed being in the field and, for the first time, began to grasp the industry’s potential. “I realized this really fit my skill sets and could be a fun career.” 

As a result, in 1996, he joined the family business. It was a decision Smith didn’t take lightly. Brother-in-law William Pretsch had stepped in three years earlier when Bill Sr. decided to take a less active role in the company. “I liked William and Bill and was worried about straining family relationships if things got tough in the business,” he says. 

Smith’s wife, Karen, joined at the same time, providing marketing and copywriting. “It felt right that we did this together,” he says. At the time, Mahaffey had 35 employees and a solid business renting to fairs, festivals and special events. 

Smith and William made bold moves to grow the business, taking out a loan to purchase a larger clearspan tent in 1999, a calculated risk that enabled them to cover larger areas more efficiently. Now one large tent could do what had required two. 

It was a solid business with solid growth. Until it wasn’t. 

That first aviation contract led to a second from the same company, this time to provide a tent for the private aircraft of an African dignitary. Smith says the experience expanded his thinking. “The possibilities of what can be accomplished quickly with these aluminum box beams are almost endless.”

9/11 turning point

“We lost half our business overnight,” says Smith, referring to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the subsequent economic contraction, especially in travel and entertainment. That’s when Smith and Pretsch realized Mahaffey needed to diversify. Their approach was two-pronged. One was to expand subcontracting/rentals to other rental companies who didn’t want to keep large tents or clearspans in inventory. 

“That started right around 9/11,” says Smith. “Lots of tent companies were gun-shy about making investments.”

 Mahaffey’s other strategy was expanding into industrial markets. The company had some experience in the area and knew the value of long-term rentals to smooth out the ebbs and flows of the entertainment and events market.  

To build contacts and generate leads, Mahaffey bet on paid internet searches. When someone typed in “tent for construction site” or similar, the Mahaffey website would pop up near the top. It turned out to be a sound strategy and how the company got most of its early industrial prospects. 

Keep investing

Following their belief that bigger is better, Mahaffey continued to invest in tents, purchasing several giant clearspan tents, 210 feet (64 m), in 2005 to secure an aviation contract. “Everyone wants bigger and taller. Decorators love it, and it works for big industrial projects too,” says Smith. “We always wanted to have the biggest structures in the country, and it’s been a risk that’s paid off.”

That same year, following Hurricane Katrina, Mahaffey expanded its disaster relief work, renting tents to power companies and to cleanup, catering and aid organizations. Its growing inventory allowed Mahaffey to respond rapidly to need, making it a logical extension of the business.  

Another important catalyst for growth was Pretsch’s work developing military contacts, eventually leading to a significant contract in Fort Polk, La., in 2010. The five-year deal provided critical cash flow for the company that made it easier for Smith and Pretsch to purchase Mahaffey from Bill Sr. It also opened other opportunities within the military sector. 

Then came 2020.

“Once we realized the world wouldn’t end, COVID was the best thing that ever happened to the tent industry,” says Smith, echoing a sentiment many would agree with. It was a different kind of disaster, and Mahaffey, like many in the industry, expanded further into long-term temporary structures for health care (including 2,000 tents for a temporary hospital) and more.   

“We always wanted to have the biggest structures in the country, and it’s been a risk that’s paid off.” – George Smith

Change of ownership

With business booming, Smith and Pretsch decided that after spending 25 years growing the company, the time was right to explore options. “William and I never ran this like a family business. We didn’t play it safe. Our approach was invest and grow,”
says Smith. 

In December 2021, Mahaffey Fabric Structures was acquired by Sunbelt Rentals, an industrial equipment rental company. Mahaffey Event & Tent Rentals, the local Memphis party rental spinoff, continues to be owned and operated by Smith and Pretsch.

Smith stayed on board after the sale, though his role has changed. He’s less involved in the day-to-day and more of a resource for figuring out tricky jobs—his favorite part of the business. It’s also a way for Smith to transfer decades of knowledge to others. In addition, he’s working with Sunbelt to help it identify tent rental companies to acquire, work he enjoys. “It’s fun to look under the hood and see what makes those companies tick,” he says.

Giving props

Smith credits people he’s met in the industry for a lot of his success. His contacts became invaluable resources for best practices, problem-solving and the occasional save. One example was when the company got to an out-of-town jobsite and needed equipment that went missing in transit. 

“I knew who the local guys were, and everyone was always willing to help.” He gave back too, informally and by serving on the ATA Tent Rental Division (TRD) board from 2001 to 2010, including a stint as TRD chairman.

“This business has all the hardest things to manage—time, weather, travel and people, and I still can’t think of a better industry for variety, creativity and fun. No two days are alike,” says Smith. 

His advice to others is to be transparent with customers and employees, practice what you preach and avoid hidden agendas. And empower team members to think on their own, even if it leads to occasional mistakes. “Your belief in people leads to growth.” 

Laurie F. Junker is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

SIDEBAR: Mahaffey celebrates 100 years in business

Mahaffey Event & Tent Rentals recently celebrated over 100 successful years in business. Back in 1924, brothers Owen, Gene, and Earl Mahaffey started out making canvas tarpaulins, awnings and cotton
pick sacks.

When a request came in 1929 to make a tent, they agreed, only to have their client fail to pick it up. It remained unused until they received a call from the Tri-State Fair (now known as the Mid-South Fair). That call resulted in their first tent rental and the next phase of the business was formed.

During World War II, tent rentals were forgotten as the Army contracted the job of making hospital ward tents and ammunition bags to Mahaffey. They shipped a boxcar of tents each week and it remained the sole focus of the company for the duration of the war.

In 1972, William F. Pretsch purchased the company from the Mahaffey family when the owner Eldred ‘Red’ Mahaffey died in a private airplane accident. Pretsch immediately saw the benefits of the new clearspan structures he had seen in Europe and was the first to introduce them to the American market in 1982. Today, the company rents everything from pole tents to frame tents to clearspan structures as well as party accessories.

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