Jim Gardner and Carpet Rentals: Lessons from Half a Century

Today, mats are ubiquitous in most business environments, whether they’re designed to protect an establishment’s floors from dust and dirt or its patrons from slips and falls or other hazards; however, when James Gardner of Statesville, North Carolina’s Carpet Rentals got started in dust control; mats were far from the norm. In fact, mats furnished Gardner with the opportunity to carve out an ever-expanding niche for himself in the North Carolina business landscape, and 50 years later, Gardner – and Carpet Rentals – is still going strong.

Gardner, a native of the Statesville area, came to mats from a background in jan/san. “I went to work part-time for a jan/san company while I was attending the local junior college,” he explains, “and that’s how I learned how to sell.” A natural salesman, Gardner sold more mats in his first year and a half on the job than the company had sold in the previous four years.

“Our customers loved that the mats kept their floors clean, but keeping the mats themselves clean and flat was a problem,” Gardner says. He quickly spotted an opportunity when he heard talk one day of mats being used in the Baltimore area with a backing that supposedly solved the curling problem, and after traveling to Maryland to investigate, Gardner took action.

“That new mat wouldn’t move. It didn’t curl up – it laid flat. So, I immediately ordered 800 of them. I found a 40 x 40 building that I could store them in and bought a cargo van. I told my wife, I’m not sure what I’ve done here,” Gardner chuckles. “Well, I just went down Main Street and put those mats down and let people try them out for a couple of weeks. When I went back to ask the businesses how they’d liked the mats, the response was very enthusiastic. This was the beginning of my mat rental business.” Carpet Rentals was born.

To say that Gardner’s business mettle has been tested would be an understatement. “Trial by fire” isn’t just a cliché when it comes to Carpet Rentals. “We’ve been through two large fires in the history of our business, one in 1972, and one ten or 11 years later when our facility burned to the ground and all that was saved was what our customers had on their floors or what our drivers had in their trucks.” In both instances, a combination of loyalty and plain old-fashioned hard work saved Gardner’s business. As he came back, Gardner built his facility larger than before and also decided to diversify, solidifying his relationship with his customers.

“Throughout our customer base, Cintas was always knocking on the door, trying to get in, trying to get our business. So our first move was to add jan/san to what we offered. In those days, that was a strange move for a dust company; however, with my background in jan/san, it was a natural move for us.

“Later, we added first aid, which was a move even further away from our core mat business,” Gardner says. “Anything we can do that keeps us in our customers’ businesses and keeps Cintas from expanding with our customers, well, that’s good business for us. And both jan/san and first aid, first aid particularly, they’re more profitable than the mat business. Mats, when you add more business, you have to add more washers, more dryers, more operators, etc. With jan/san and first aid, when you add more business, it’s just adding stock and rotating it in – just like a grocery store. Adding these niches is just good business.”

Such good business, in fact, that Gardner has spun off his first aid business as a separate profit center under the moniker Piedmont First Aid, which is run by his daughter, Tonya Gardner. The jan/san routes run separately from the dust routes, and the first aid company operates completely autonomously, but by offering these solutions as a package, Gardner is able to provide one all-important solution to his customers: vendor consolidation.

“Like just about everybody out there, my customers like having fewer folks to deal with,” Gardner says. “And many of my customers, they’ve been burned by the big guys. Dealing with Carpet Rentals for mats, they know what level of service I provide. They know, for example, that if we’re not in there to fix an issue by 10am the next day, then I personally am going to get all excited about it and someone’s head is going to roll. You just can’t put a price on customer service, and our customers know that’s the level of service we’re going to deliver, whether they’re getting a mat from us or washroom soap or a fire extinguisher.”

With 50 years of business under his belt, it’s clear that Gardner knows what he’s talking about. As an industry veteran, he also stresses the importance of membership in a buying group to staying current in the business.
“Most of the problems in our business start in California and moves this way, so as a member of a buying group, I’m able to connect with folks from other parts of the country and learn from their experiences and hear how they’ve solved their problems,” Gardner says. “I think that any independent really needs to be a member of a buying group, and Universal has been very important to me for just this reason. I’m even a member of a small group that Universal sponsors specific to dust control – the EDGE Group – which has been enormously beneficial to me.”

Gardner also praises Universal’s yearly Conferences, like the upcoming Leadership16, for the problem-solving opportunities they offer. “These Conferences are a win-win situation for everyone who’s there. You meet people you ordinarily would never meet, and that’s how you get a lot of your problems solved – by talking to other people who are in the business. When I started, there were no books, or films, or tapes, and certainly no websites on how to do all of this. In-person meetings like this are still the best resource where you can talk to people face-to-face and learn how to get past your challenges and share those solutions. I highly recommend it.”

Popular economics has it that over 95% of businesses fail within 10 years. Gardner has made it five times as long and is still going. His success is proof positive that hard work, tenacity, and willingness to take risks and back those risks up with your word add up to a legacy of success.