Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm
Karl’s Event Rental is no longer that place on Milwaukee’s south side where your dad used to go to rent a rototiller.
The Oak Creek company has made a name for itself on the national stage – setting up large temporary structures for events such as presidential inaugurations, Super Bowls, Fashion Week in New York City, the PGA Tour, NASCAR races and many more.
Karl’s also has done some international work for the U.S. military and its subcontractors.
Karl’s was recently named the seventh-largest event rental company in the nation by Special Events Magazine. The company’s sales have climbed from $13.5 million in 2004, to $18 million in 2005 and are expected to reach $21 million this year. The company now has more than 200 employes.
That growth has been fueled by the company’s ability to offer clear span structures essentially anywhere in the country. Clear span structures might look like tents, but they have interior metal frames, do not need ropes or poles and can be outfitted with windows, theatrical lighting, heating and air conditioning.
Versatility and a willingness to adapt to customers’ needs are paying off for Karl’s, according to John Schlueter, president of the company.
“We’ve never had a layoff,” Schlueter said. “Every employee gets a chance to make his or her own future. The growth we’ve been blessed with allows that to happen. The hard work of everybody here has allowed our growth, which allows new opportunity.”
The company continues to evolve and has now added manufacturing to its repertoire. For years, Karl’s had imported all of the aluminum and steel frames to support its clear span structures from Germany.
To bypass the hassles and costs of purchasing the frames from Germany, Karl’s has created a new division, called Eventec Supply LLC, to manufacture the aluminum and steel frames for its structures. The frames have been given the brand name AmeriSpan.
Karl’s spent about $1.3 million to purchase a 26,000-square-foot building at 1075 W. Northbranch Drive, just across the street from its headquarters and warehouse.
When it opened the Eventec division, the company ordered a custom computer numeric control (CNC) machine capable of manipulating the 39-foot-long aluminum trusses the company needed for its frames.
In a few months, Karl’s will order a second CNC machine that can produce pieces 25 percent faster than its current machine. The company also is considering the purchase of a laser cutting machine that can manipulate steel sheets, Schlueter said.
So far, Eventec only sells the AmeriSpan products to Karl’s, but Schlueter will soon start marketing the framing products to other event supplying companies in other parts of the country.
“We’re looking to sell this product to two other vendors,” he said. “We’re also considering sub-renting the product to other rental stores. They’ll see little difference with what they’ve been using. We’ve reduced a number of different components, and this one is easier to install. Ours is stronger and more flexible, and it can do more than the German product.”
The AmeriSpan frames can be built with a triple track, allowing clear and white walls to be slid back and forth as users want them.
Having its own frame manufacturing facility has helped Karl’s reduce its lead times and respond more quickly to customers, Schlueter said.
“There was one time when we were forced to charter a 747 jet,” Schlueter said. “It was 40 percent full of our aluminum product – 96,000 pounds.”
Making the AmeriSpan frames in the Milwaukee area also has enabled Karl’s to partner with many Milwaukee and Wisconsin suppliers.
“The aluminum and steel, and the anodizing and galvanizing, it’s all coming from Wisconsin companies and Wisconsin people,” Schlueter said. “Milwaukee is still a fantastic place to get something like this done.”
Karl’s also is in the early stages of creating a new area in the Eventec building to construct its own double-hung glass doors. Karl’s currently purchases the doors from a German manufacturer.
By December, Karl’s will begin production of a series of new, 164-foot wide clear span structures. The new structures will be similar to the company’s current temporary buildings, but will be able to handle larger crowds, Schlueter said. The company already is receiving orders for the new structures, he said.
“We need more of it right now,” he said. “We’re going full-steam ahead with the design and engineering of it”
Providing temporary structures for large events remains a core business for Karl’s, which has more than 1 million square feet of clear span structures available for rental.
The structures can be built with large tempered glass windows and double-glass doors, giving them a more permanent look. Some have transparent panels on their roofs, allowing sunlight inside.
The structures can be heated and air-conditioned, creating comfortable environments any time of the year.
Karl’s also rents hardwood and other flooring for the structures, along with chairs, tables, heaters, air conditioning units and theatrical lighting. It can provide audio-visual equipment when needed.
Word of mouth referrals have been pivotal in Karl’s success, Schlueter said. For example, the company’s contract for Fashion Week in New York City earlier this year came from its previous work at an event in Orlando.
“The producer of (Fashion Week) had a friend in Orlando that had used us,” he said. “That’s how we connect the dots. We did great work for a satisfied customer in Orlando who referred us to a friend.”
The Fashion Week event required about 80,000 square feet of clear span structures, which were delivered to New York by 24 semi-tractor trailers. The event was five blocks south of Times Square, and Karl’s staff of 80 that went to the site had five days to set it up.
“Once we got out there, the question (from the Fashion Week producer) was, ‘Where did these people come fromω’ because our staff was hard-working, courteous, well-trained and knowledgeable,” Schlueter said.
The exposure Karl’s received from Fashion Week, held in January, has already produced results.
“We’re in New York once a month now,” he said. “We’re doing other fashion awards. We did an event for Cartier Jewelers on a rooftop with custom-designed clear span. We’re doing groundbreakings for condos, all kinds of events in New York and around the country.”
In addition to its Oak Creek facilities, Karl’s also owns a 7,000-square-foot facility in Orlando, Fla., because of the large amount of work it does there, and the company owns two lots near New York and Las Vegas, where it can store trucks and equipment.
Parties, concerts and sporting events will continue to drive growth for Karl’s, Schlueter said, but the company also has found industrial and commercial applications for its clear span structures. Karl’s set up clear span structures in Texas, where a contractor is installing new electronics in tanks for the U.S. military.
Schlueter continues to expand the company that was started by his parents, Karl and Marva Schlueter, 35 years ago. Although Schlueter runs the day-to-day business, both of his parents remain active in the company.
“They’re still here regularly,” Schlueter said. “Karl hasn’t had a desk in 12 years, but you can see him driving one of our 70 vehicles around town. He recently poured a 200,000-pound concrete ballast for us. He’s always been a hands-on guy – and I know people respect that.”
Ironically, while Karl’s has received national exposure and receives referrals from clients in New York, Florida, Texas and other large markets, finding business in Milwaukee can be challenging because of the company’s history here.
“In Milwaukee, people have a perception that Karl’s is that place on the south side where I used to get rototillers from,” Schlueter said. “And our change happened so fast, that’s not necessarily the case. Our sales process is longer in Milwaukee because people don’t know what Karl’s is today.”
Some Milwaukee companies and event planners will call Chicagoland rental companies, Schlueter said.
“It’s humorous to me that a lot of people think to call Chicago companies for their large events,” Schlueter said. “Even the large companies in Chicago don’t have the stock we have. Don’t think Chicago – think Milwaukee. The rest of the country does.”
Address: 7000 S. 10th St., Oak Creek
Employees: About 200
Sales: About $21 million for 2006, up from about $13.5 million in 2004
Industry: Temporary structures, tents, and accessories for parties, meetings and large events
Web site: www.karls.com