American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Greg Van Zandt (Van’s Equipment Company Rentals & Sales)
By Nesha Ruther
Greg Van Zandt was the kind of kid that always gravitated toward anything mechanical, he had an early passion for tractors, heavy equipment, and machinery; as an adult, he made it his career.
Being mechanically minded from the age of ten, he was very curious about how lawn mower engines worked. He spent his time dissembling and assembling the motors in his bedroom. In high school, he mastered welding and built a fiberglass boat for his senior year project.
After high school, Greg spent the next six months working at Uniflite Boat Corporation building boats. His thirst for growth took him to the recruitment office of the Air Force where he was placed as a Crew Chief Engineer for Twin Engine Fighter Jets in Arizona, where he was located for the next two years.
After gaining extensive machinery experience on land, air, and sea, Greg found work with Scott Paper Company building and maintaining logging roads and driving loaded logging trucks.“I worked deep in the wooded areas of Washington where they were harvesting trees and driving the logging trucks on very steep switch-back dirt roads,” he says.
Greg eventually left Scott Paper Company and began working for various trucking outfits as a mechanic, and eventually an equipment operator (as his side gig, Greg obtained his dealer’s license to buy and sell luxury cars and boats.)
Unfortunately, Greg severely tore a muscle on his lower back while working on very rough terrain as an equipment operator. This injury left Greg disabled and unable to work for an extended period, forcing him to sell off many of his assets to make ends meet. “This was a low point in my life,” he says, “but I’m one of those guys that when somebody says I can’t do something, I just work that much harder to turn my life back around.”
Greg found work as the Chief Engineer for Crowley Maritime and Tugboats. Where they worked 70 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, one of the northernmost remote areas of Alaska. One day, Greg’s tugboat got caught in the eye of the storm coming across the Gulf of Alaska. When a rogue wave hit the boat, Greg reached for something to hold onto, but he slipped and tore his rotator cuff. The injury required multiple surgeries and he decided this was not his ideal future career.
Greg decided to redirect his energies back to his first passion of heavy equipment, as he had experience renting bulldozers for his previous side gig jobs. Friends began to reach out to him with job opportunities that required a full-time bulldozer. However, finding and renting the equipment was very challenging in Skagit County where Greg was based. The wait time to get equipment on site took much too long. Being innovative and business-minded, Greg decided he would purchase one. He brought the idea to his dad who said, ‘You’ve got rocks in your head. That’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done.’” This only further fueled Greg’s determination.
Greg explained the situation to his girlfriend Toni, who was a businesswoman herself. She immediately saw the opportunity and lent him $20,000 to purchase the bulldozer. Greg bought a used 450-C John Deere from Idaho and got to work. He loved operating equipment, and he knew this was the right fit for him. He was able to repay Toni in full within three months of this loan. Greg is the epitome of “if there is a will, there is a way.”
After his first equipment purchase, Greg had enough business to purchase three additional bulldozers. He went to multiple banks to request financing for the investment but was turned down. Eventually, he found a bank whose manager was an old friend, who was able to get the bank to agree to a small loan.
Greg’s bulldozers were constantly in demand and out on job sites, therefore, he had additional funds to continue scaling the growth of his business, opened a location in Burlington, Washington, and named it Van’s Equipment Rentals.
While expanding and meeting the demands for equipment rentals, his banker tightened the reins and advised him to refrain from purchasing additional equipment. Greg, being a bigger thinker, did not take this advice and sought out other financings. He was able to continue expanding his equipment fleet to meet the demand growing in Skagit, Whatcom, and Snohomish Counties.
Fast forward ten years or so, Van’s Equipment Rentals grew exponentially. In 2000, he was approached by United Rental Company, which offered to purchase his business. An agreement was negotiated and then solidified.
A five-year non-compete stipulation was a condition of his contract with United Rentals. Greg then turned his attention and the funds from the sale to develop land and build various real-estate investments throughout Washington State.
In March 2004 Greg’s father passed, prior to his passing Greg’s father gave him encouraging words to chase his dreams. Greg loving boating on Samish Island and these childhood family experiences motivated Greg to build a new home close to where his family had rented a summer cabin. He found an old run-down cabin, bought it, tore it down, and broke ground in March 2005. He moved in July 2005. Having a home on the island brought Greg closer to his dad spiritually.
When United Rentals’ non-compete clause expired Greg decided to come out of retirement and open another business, which he named Van’s Equipment Company Rentals and Sales, Inc. He found a large undeveloped piece of land and built the building just three blocks away from his original location.
Many of his former customers came back to him. They preferred Greg due to his knowledge of the equipment inside and out and the pains he took to maintain the equipment, limiting the need for repairs. Within the next two years, United Rentals went out of business in Burlington, as they simply couldn’t compete with the success of Greg’s new business and five-star service. Greg’s service concept was to go above and beyond– within his and the employees’ capabilities–to help the customers in need, no matter what time of day or night.
In one instance, Greg had a construction team phone him at 11 pm as they were in desperate need of an additional piece of equipment to finish a highway project and the timing was crucial. Greg got out of bed, drove to the shop, loaded the machine, and drove it out to the job site. This is one of many examples of his five-star service mentality.
Greg’s daily responsibilities included all owner/management tasks, troubleshooting, repairing and maintaining the fleet of machinery, keeping track of rentals, sales, parts, and occasionally pick-up or delivery. Greg did not view the responsibilities of the owner as being limited to management; he would put his overalls on and often do the same work as his employees, which gained him their respect. Whatever it took to get the work completed, Greg had his hand in it.
To simplify the daily tasks of monitoring over a hundred pieces of equipment and delivery trucks, Greg had tracking devices installed. This eliminated many headaches, such as a piece of equipment going missing or a driver being unable to locate a job site. The latter was especially common in rural and underdeveloped areas. The service writer simply used the mapping program to overlay and locate. If a delivery truck was broken down during delivery, it could be easily located for the head mechanic to get to them in a timely manner.
Greg had high expectations for himself, his employees, and his parts suppliers. In one instance, a machine was rented out the following day but needed a necessary part, which had not yet arrived as expected. Greg called the supplier to inquire and was told that their computers were down and therefore the employee didn’t know if they still had the part.
Greg asked the employee ‘What did you do before the computer?” He told the supplier to get off his butt, walk back to the supply shelf and look. The parts persons then replied, ‘We’ve got five of them.’ The part arrived the next morning and the equipment was repaired and out to the customer as promised. Another example of pushing people to do the right thing.
Greg acquired a reputation of being able to locate hard-to-find specialty parts and became so well-known that before long he had customers, friends, and colleagues asking whether he could help them too. “A lot of people call me about equipment,” Greg says laughing. “I like to help them in any way that I can.” He had the ability to ask enough questions and the industry contacts to find the difficult parts in a timely manner.
When asked where he got his motivation, Greg cites a sense of healthy competition. “I love competition. I always want to be the best at what I do.” This attitude can also be seen in his refusal to kowtow to the larger competition. Greg stated, “The big companies don’t scare me a bit because I move ten times faster than them.”
Greg learned perseverance from a very young age. Growing up, he had a speech impediment that made him the target of bullying. Rather than beating him down, it only made him more determined. That attitude carried on into his business and made him a fierce competitor. “I used to work 60, 80 hours a week sometimes, I did whatever I had to do to get the job done, as he had a strong desire to succeed.” Work ethic, along with big thinking, has allowed Greg to see a vision where others do not and pursue it at all costs.
Being mathematically inclined aided him in his entrepreneurship. Greg states “I’ve got calculators everywhere and numbers don’t lie.” This skill is something many entrepreneurs desperately need but often lack. “So many people have financial needs but don’t understand cash flow. Unfortunately, schools do not teach managing a checkbook or the basics of cash flow. A lot of highly educated doctors, lawyers, and teachers that I have known struggle financially. We all use math every day, even if you’re a stay-at-home parent, you’ve still got budgets to manage.
Greg’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to brush up on percentages and fractions, as 80% of new businesses fail in the first two years. “It’s tough out there,” he says. “You must put in the time and pay attention to your bottom line all the time. Watch for those who are not honest and who will screw you around.”
Greg also highlights the fact that treating employees well is not only a moral task but good business practice. Happy employees reduce turnover and increase the stability of the company. Greg made employee contentment a priority by balancing hard work with high rewards.
“I pushed my employees at times,” Greg says, “as I had a commitment to the customers to stay on schedule; however, I would reward them with occasional cash bonuses out of my pocket and Friday pizzas. I didn’t buy them cheap pizza, I bought good quality pizza. On holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas I would give out turkeys or ham, and large bonuses.” To foster a sense of community among the employees, Greg’s wife would host a Christmas dinner party, complete with live entertainment, festive decorations, a fancy meal, and substantial gifts for both the employee and their guests. Everyone went home with a gift.
Another factor Greg attributes to his success is a commitment to obtaining and maintaining high-quality merchandise. Buying higher quality machinery, while more expensive, also allowed Greg to rent it out at higher prices. That is why Greg did all the purchase transactions himself. The machinery was one of the key factors to the company’s bottom line therefore, he did not outsource the responsibility to anyone else.
Greg explains that entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, it can be grueling, with long hours, employees and vendors to manage, utilities to be paid, difficult decisions to make, and numerous frustrations to overcome. The owner is always the last to be paid. “During the last recession, there were times when I used my personal money market savings accounts to keep the employees employed and the lights on,” Greg says. Ultimately, running a successful business is a long game.
During his 30-year career, Greg never took a vacation longer than 10 business days. He always had his work phone and computer to be on call and available to his staff and customers 24/7. “I never tuned it out or turned it off,” Greg states.
At the age of 64, Greg felt it was a good time in his life to consider retirement, to relax, and enjoy his life, wife, and family.
Greg reached out to Gregory Kovsky and IBA and began the process of getting the business valued and eventually securing a buyer. “[Gregory] and I got along and were like-minded in our thinking. We were on the same page throughout the process. This is the business he specializes in, and he has the necessary resources to get the job done,” Greg says. “He’s a real straight shooter, I don’t like people that blow smoke at me.”
Greg also valued IBA’s discretion and confidentiality during the selling process, as he did not want to alarm customers or employees regarding the sale of the business. For entrepreneurs thinking about selling their business, Greg recommends finding a broker with a proven track record in your industry, as well as someone who is honest. “Some of these real estate brokers want upfront payment. If the guy really believes in his ability to sell your business, like Gregory, he will not ask for payment upfront.”
Greg sold his business in May of 2019. Since retiring, he continues to invest in real estate, which has created cash flow. “I’ve got to do something to keep myself busy,” he says with a laugh. For Greg, being retired has in no way slowed down his intense work ethic.
Greg’s life is a testament to the fact that the “American Dream” is real and within reach for all of us, regardless of where you are born, if you start with minimal means, or experience numerous setbacks. “Having a true bootstraps mentality, sheer determination, strong work integrity, and the willingness to go above and beyond even when you feel like you just got kicked in the shins is how you get back up and keep pushing forward, day in and day out,” Greg says. “And at the end of the day, you too can enjoy the fruits of your labor.”
Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.