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My Biz: Iowa City's Big Ten Rentals finds niche market in bleacher rental

Pitching a tent, one event at a time

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IOWA CITY — Brian DeCoster likely gets a little nostalgic this time of year as students move back into the dorms at the University of Iowa.

In 1981, when DeCoster was a UI student, he was moving in and hatching a business idea from his dorm room.

“I started this business renting compact refrigerators,” DeCoster said. “I started with just one fridge, then the second year I had six. The third year I rented 13. I bought a whole semi-load after that and thought I’d make a run for it.”

Thirty-five years later, Big Ten Rentals has made a big name for itself by specializing in providing a variety of equipment and inventory — tents, bleachers, flooring, audio and video equipment, lighting, food service equipment and more — for larger and small events around the Midwest.

With its headquarters in a warehouse on Iowa City’s south side, the company inhabits some 40,000 square feet of space. The company also maintains warehouse space in Oxford, West Branch and the Quad Cities.

“Building this business was one step at a time,” DeCoster said. He explained that when he first started out microwaves also were gaining in popularity. He took advantage by adding them to his refrigerator inventory.

“My first year I had 100 microwaves rented,” he recalled.

Customers began requesting tent rentals for various events, so DeCoster added those to his inventory. The company entered the bleacher rental business about 12 years ago.

“It can get very busy during the political campaign season,” he said. “That business has really matured nicely.

“We do a lot of annual events, such as out at the Field of Dreams, and a lot of bleacher rentals in the Chicago area.”

As with most small business owners, DeCoster said he most enjoys the variety that his job brings him day in and day out.

“We do everything from little backyard parties to presidential events,” he said. “Revenue-wise, we do more corporate events.”

While Big Ten Rentals remains busy much of the year, business usually slows down from the beginning of November through the end of March. But last winter the company stayed busy enough that DeCoster was able to retain his staff of 30.

DeCoster’s role involves a lot of planning.

“I do site visits with customers to help come up with the vision and plan for the events,” he said. “That way I know what type of tent they might need and how we will anchor it.”

DeCoster said maintaining and caring for the company’s inventory is especially important.

At its tent cleaning facility, employees wash, dry and examine their tents for any holes, even the smallest pin hole.

“It’s 18,000 square feet, and we have four employees working there,” he said. “Our 10-foot-long washing machine — created from old washers from a Levi jeans plant that closed — can handle 1,800 square feet of vinyl at a time.”

AT A GLANCE

What: Big Ten Rentals

Where: 1820 Boyrum St., Iowa City

Phone: (319) 337-7368

Web:bigtenrtentals.com

Know a company in business for more than a year that would make a good My Biz? Contact George C. Ford at George.Ford@thegazette.com

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