Nov 27 2007

On Call

A suburban Chicago startup reinvents its rental business.

Photo: Jeff Lendrum
Ganpat “Jim” Jain and Niraj Jain of ICC Enterprises custom built their inventory-tracking system.

Niraj Jain can pinpoint the moment his family reinvented its PC rental business, ICC Enterprises: Late in the day of Sept. 14, 2001, a desperate caller from powerhouse law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, which had been headquartered in the World Trade Center, needed 100 computers and 100 monitors within 24 hours. The horrific terrorist attacks three days earlier had displaced 600 of the firm’s workers and claimed the life of one. Like other global businesses operating from lower Manhattan, Sidley Austin executives refused to be cowed. But they needed to act immediately.

ICC did, too. If Niraj Jain, ICC’s chief operating officer, and his father and CEO, Ganpat “Jim” Jain, couldn’t deliver, install and network the systems within 24 hours, Sidley Austin would find another subcontractor that could. The hitch: ICC was a 16-hour drive away in Arlington Heights, Ill. “We didn’t even have anyone in New York,” says Niraj. “We quickly discovered that we didn’t have strong logistics capabilities.”

Now, logistics is everything to ICC. Backed by a custom-built enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that took six years and $1 million to develop, ICC can turn on a dime. Given one day’s notice, for example, it can set up a plasma-screen video wall at a trade show or ship 1,000 notebook computers loaded with the renter’s corporate logo and user interface.

The heart of the ERP system, called All-In-One, is a real-time Web-accessible inventory-tracking system that lets ICC sales reps in multiple branches know which of the 10,000 pieces of equipment are available. It also lets them take an order in one city and have it shipped to another.

“All our equipment is bar-coded and entered into our system. So, we know where everything is at any given moment,” says Niraj. “That means we can manage peak loads and minimize the time inventory sits on our shelves.” Importantly, All-In-One can be used by multiple branches over the Internet.

On the back end of All-In-One is Microsoft SQL Server; on the front end, Microsoft Office Access relational database. Between them are tightly integrated proprietary customer relationship management (CRM), sales and real-time logistics modules.

“This particular system has been the backbone of our operations,” says Jim. “With it, we can go into 50 different states and even go international.”

ICC had considered off-the-shelf rental management software, but nothing quite fit its needs, says Jim. Some couldn’t produce real-time stocking information; others were not tightly integrated with sales functions, limiting sales reps’ ability to quickly close sales. “We knew this industry better than anybody,” he says. “And we knew that renting computers and AV equipment is different [from] renting cars or CDs.”

What ICC didn’t know when it started was how long it would take to develop its own ERP solution — a months-long project turned into six years. “The biggest mistake we made was in not hiring a dedicated IT professional sooner,” says Jim. ICC now keeps a full-time programmer on staff, as well as two others who are intimately familiar with the software program’s code, says Niraj. Moreover, the ERP program is scalable and can accommodate 25 locations and up to about $100 million in annual transactions, says Niraj.

Such sophistication differentiates ICC from its competition, says Viktoriya Sadlovska, a supply-chain analyst for market researcher Aberdeen Group in Boston. “Simplistic inventory management methods lead to unstable supply chains,” she says. “Companies with high customer service demands, short product lifecycles, or multi-tier manufacturing or distribution networks have the most to gain from moving toward more sophisticated inventory-management policies and technology.” In fact, Niraj concedes, “ICC would have hit a ceiling two or three years ago without this software.” Instead, ICC has grown to four locations, with annual sales of $16 million.

Still, inventory management is not the only reason for ICC’s success. A lot of distributors can move PCs from point A to point B. But very few know what to do with those PCs once they take them off the truck. That’s where ICC stands out. It has 35 in-house technicians who offer 24-hour support on the equipment ICC rents. Typically, that support is extended over the phone, with tech reps fielding a modest 15 to 20 calls per day.

ICC takes its support on the road, too, sending as many as 15 technicians to a single event. An increasingly large portion of its business comes from onsite setup and tech support at trade shows and corporate events. “Typically, our technicians stay onsite with the client during trade shows, often at the same hotel, and they can always be reached by cell phone,” says Niraj.

That responsiveness has earned more than plaudits. “Support is why we shifted our entire national contract over to ICC,” says Kathleen Fitzgerald, national director of programs for Giant Campus, which runs summer “cybercamps” for youths at nearly 60 universities nationwide. “It’s not only their personality but the training they seem to have. Even when they subcontracted work out, they communicated every detail.” They ensured, for example, that the systems were properly networked and that content filters were in place to shield the eyes and sensibilities of the young campers.

There was also the occasional midnight run. “One night two summers ago, at one of our Midwest camps, a server went down late at night,” recalls Fitzgerald. “They drove all night to replace it.”

Niraj would prefer more office expansion and less driving. But that level of support sets ICC apart. According to a July 2007 report by market researcher IBISWorld, Los Angeles, repair and maintenance represented less than 1 percent of revenue among more than 1,000 U.S. companies that identified themselves as a computer or office-equipment rental firm. Moreover, 80 percent of the rental firms employ nine or fewer employees, making it unusual to provide tech support on any significant scale, the report notes.

Industrywide, prices of desktops had fallen drastically, and a number of manufacturers, such as Compaq and Toshiba, had entered the market with leasing options, squeezing small middlemen, like ICC.

So, ICC reinvented itself in other ways, focusing most of its efforts on trade shows and conventions, rather than corporate leases. In 2002, it opened its first branch office, in Orlando, Fla., and in 2005 opened a second branch, in Las Vegas. In 2006, ICC moved into a 34,000-square-foot office and warehouse complex in Glendale Heights, Ill., more than tripling its previous space in nearby Arlington Heights, Ill. And in 2007, it opened a telemarketing office in New York, pushing its employee ranks to 95.

As ICC grows, so do challenges. Foremost among them is managing growth. Privately held ICC has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year into building infrastructure, improving inventory turnover, and personnel and training.

Now, it seeks a full return on that investment. “2007 has been a year where we have vastly expanded our capabilities and find ourselves extremely well positioned for future growth,” says Niraj. The second challenge is in managing logistics. “We take 30 to 50 orders daily,” says Niraj. “Our systems help manage getting them from Las Vegas or Glendale to their destination.”

ICC’s fleet of 12 trucks helps. As does the in-house programmer who keeps the proprietary logistics software debugged. But with the average rental now lasting only three days — a relative blink of the eye compared to ICC’s original business model of 30 to 90 days — there’s little wiggle room. “Let’s say we have 1,000 laptops come back one day,” says Niraj. “We want to rent them out as quickly as possible. As soon as we can get them in, we check them and reload them.”

That way, ICC will be ready for the next desperate call.