Milt Neumann and A to Z Rental

Today the rental business is a multi-billion dollar industry that construction companies, caterers, and do-it-yourselfers couldn’t live without. But 53 years ago when Milt Neumann, founder of  A to Z Rental, stepped onto the second-story balcony of his brother’s apartment  in Overland Park, Missouri, the industry was just beginning. As he looked down on a scene he had never witnessed before, he was watching what would soon become his livelihood, as well as the livelihood of his six brothers, his children and their children.
“There was a commercial building next door with a lot in back and there were these two guys trying to get a compressor going,” Milt said during a recent interview at his Valley home. “Eventually they got it running and hitched it to a pick up truck and one of the two guys drove off with it. I could not figure out what they were doing and so I went over to investigate.” It turns out Milt had discovered the rental business which was just taking off in Americaand he believed he and his wife Alice could make it fly in their hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota.
The young couple went back home and talked to the owners of Bismarck’s only rental store. “They had been open 4 months or so and were failing miserably, and so they were willing to sell,” he said. “The only problem was thatwe had no money. But we came up with a plan and went to the bank and demanded an audience with the president. By the time we left, we had the $15,000 loan we needed.”

“We made it work because we worked 7 days a week, 10 hours a day,” Milt said, adding that from day one Alice, his wife, worked by his side keeping the books and running the store. To be close to their work, they moved into a one-room apartment next door with their baby daughter, Cheryl. The new venture was successful from the start and within a year or so they began scouting for suitable locations in nearby towns, none of which had rental stores.
“We called my brother Irv and told him we were going to open a store in Minot,” he said, adding that Irv and his wife soon moved to Bismarck and shared their small apartment for about four months while they taught the couple the business. Shortly after that, another brother was operating a rental store for them in Grand Forks and then they quickly opened stores in Livingston and Dickinson. All of them did well.
Their timing was so right they knew they could open a rental store in any decent sized town, and so Irv, who was an avid hunter,  moved to Lewiston and opened that area’s first rental store. “Pretty soon Irv called and said he thought this little town nearby called Walla Walla needed a store,” Milt said. “So I drove out there with my oldest brother with the idea of setting him up.”
Within 2 days they found a good location, leased it and headed back to Bismarck, but soon ran into a problem. “When my brother told his wife and kids they were moving , they said no way,” he said, adding that it was decided that his brother would run the Bismarck store and Alice and Milt and their 3 young children would head west to open the Walla Walla store.
“Walla Walla was way too small for us,” he said. They stayed just long enough to make the store a success and then sell. The Neumann’s returned to Bismarck to sell all their stores before heading to Spokane where Milt was assigned  the job of opening a new branch for the National Insurance Company, with whom he had signed on as regional district manager while living in Walla Walla. But they soon found the Spokane market too ripe to be passed up.
In 1960, less than a year after arriving in Spokane, the Neumann’s opened A to Z Rental at Harold and Sprague where Wells Fargo is today. Back then a small strip mall called Valley Mart was just west of them and Thornhill Funeral Home was to the east along the two lane avenue. And once again, their new venture took right off. “We had customers before we got the new place cleaned up,” Alice said, sitting next to Milt. “Back then dollies were a big rental item and so were mechanics tools. It was all small stuff.”
While Milt had pretty much run out of brothers to open new stores, the couple had not run out of ambition. For the next 30 years, A to Z dominated the Spokane rental market by adding 2 more stores, staying on top of all industry trends and working seven days a week. Their business eventually grossed millions each year with large customers like Kaiser and the school districts keeping open accounts that ran into the thousands each month.

“We had grown so large by the time we were thinking about selling that only huge conglomerates could afford to buy us,” Milt said, adding that in 1996 they sold to a corporation from England that was attempting to buy as many of the most profitable rental stores in America that they could to start up a chain called Rent X. Over the next nine years, RentX went from one world wide company to the next until the forth one decided to sell their seven local stores one by one, unless the Neumann’s wanted to buy them all.
“The problem was that they wanted to run it from their ivory towers,” Milt said, “But this is a hands-on business.It just has to be.”  And so once again Milt and Alice took over a struggling rental business just like they had 50 years before inBismarck, North Dakota. This time they had the money but they no longer had the ambition or energy. But they still had Cheryl, who had grown up in the rental business. So in 2005, she joined her parents in the buy back and now runs the entire operation from the Valley location.
“What we are doing now is building back our old base of customers with the service they remember us for,” said Cheryl, who worked for years with her parents at the Valley store. “I know just about everyone who comes in and just about everyone knows me, and that is important.”

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