Generation to Generation – We Never Looked Back
Go to a party in Vancouver, or almost any organized event this weekend, and there is a strong chance you will see them there. Executing 120 events per weekend on average during the summer months, A&B Party & Event Rentals has earned the reputation as one of the best (and busiest) party rental companies on the west coast.
The proprietors are the Sebal family (Tom, Judy, and their sons Daniel and Malcom). The business started out in a 5,000 sq. ft. space on Quebec and 6th with four employees. Today A&B Partytime Rentals sits in a 32,000 sq. ft. space and has 40 full-time employees and seven trucks.
As I toured the sales/showroom with current co-owner Dan Sebal, I noticed that he greeted every employee by name and told me what role each person played in the company. He also mentioned that they rarely have staff turnover.
He asked me if I noticed the signs that say “Angel Parking” in the parking lot. He explained that those spots were reserved for everyone responsible for dishes and other clean-up following events, while he and his brother Malcolm (the other co-owner whom I met while he was washing the trucks in the back) park their vehicles on the street.
He then admitted that the business of celebration isn’t always a party. The decision to buy A&B in 1990 was one that was made out of integrity and necessity.
“My dad started with Woodwards, and worked with them for 30 years,” said Dan.
“When the Woodwards’ sons took over the department stores I think they had 7,000 employees across Canada. But the Woodward’s business hit hard times. My dad was the manager of the downtown Vancouver Woodward’s when he left. It was a tough time for our family. In some ways it was the best thing that could have happened because he used the opportunity to buy A&B. My brother and were just graduating. We never looked back.”
Dan said that the company they initially purchased was A&B Services, which included a tool department as well as party rentals. They sold off the tool rental component (the company still remains A&B Tools), and worked seven days a week at growing the party rental business. Then, one unfortunate day all of their hard work went up in smoke.
“We had a catastrophic fire in 2001. And after 10 years of being in business, we lost everything, ” Dan said as he sighed and shook his head, “We lost the entire business, all of the inventory, the works.”
By this time I was beginning to recognize unflappable positivity as a Sebal trait, so I was not surprised when he suddenly took the story in that direction.
“This becomes a cool story,” he said, “My mom and my dad, my brother and I just looked at each other and said: ‘What do we want to do? Do we want to get back into this or do we want to take the insurance money and run?’”
They decided to go for it once again. They moved to a building a few blocks away with the same landlord, repurchased all of their equipment over a six month period, kept the staff that wanted to stay employed over that time, and within the year were fully back in business. Dan laughed as he reported there was really no permanent damage other than all of his hair turned grey.
Given the high stress environment of almost any event, particularly weddings, I asked Dan if he had any “catastrophe turned learning experience” he would be willing to share. He shook his head and took a deep breath.
“Back before we had a computer system I forgot a wedding,” he said grimacing. “Missed an entire order, didn’t deliver it and found out on the Monday that we had forgotten it. The groom called me because the bride was too upset to talk to me. She had booked a 180 person sit-down dinner at the Vancouver Rowing Club. We were to supply the tables, the chairs, the linens, china, cutlery, glasses, the arch to get married under, everything. I could tell the bride was standing behind the groom while he was calling. It was horrible. Since then, we have bought in a computer system. We do an audit of all the day’s orders and everything that we have, paper versus whatever is in the computer. I have never missed an order since then.”
A&B is also recognized for their philanthropic efforts. As they are exposed to so many charities through their business, I asked Dan how they chose which to support. He explained it is tough as there are so many good ones, but they regularly donate services to Ronald MacDonald House and The Doctor Peter Centre. He explained that he may be a bit biased since he now he has two children.
“Kids are helpless when they’re sick, and the parents are too,” he said. “I can’t even imagine. So that’s where we like to help the most.”
He told me that 4 to 5% of their sales go to charity and they spend only 1% on advertising. He believes that word of mouth is a far more powerful tool and that they are only as good as their last job.
Dan believes the main reason the business has made it this far is because of the strength of the family. “It was hard at times,” Dan said, “the dynamic of brothers. My brother and I are two totally different people, but I think that’s what makes our relationship work. He doesn’t want to do what I do and I don’t want to do what he does. I’m more business development and sales and my brother is operations. It’s perfect.”
He also explained that even though he and Malcolm now run the show, they still could not do it without the help of mom and dad.
“About six years ago, we bought the company from our parents and we kind of made it our own, but we hired them back. My father is sales and my mother is in accounting. You couldn’t trust anyone else more with the money than my mom. The two of them are worth four people.” He then added, “We love them dearly, it takes a very special couple to work together for this long.”
By Dani Kremeniuk
Photos courtesy A&B and Vancouver Archives