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Bryan Loane keeps his 197-year-old business focused and flexible

Feature, Management, Perspective, Tents | March 1, 2012 | By:

Bryan Loane grows his family’s company by planning ahead and thinking on his feet.

“We’re unusual because we’re probably the oldest tent company in the country,” says Bryan Loane, president of Loane Brothers Inc. in Baltimore, Md. “A lot of people feel that’s really important and in a way it is—but on a day-to-day basis it doesn’t matter as much. We need to be focused on what is needed today and where we’re headed tomorrow.”

Loane, whose great-great-great-grandfather started the company in 1815 as a sail maker’s loft in the Baltimore harbor, always knew he would work in the family business—a business that now rents party tents and party equipment, and manufactures awnings.

Loane’s father encouraged him to pursue whatever he wanted for a college degree, assuring Loane he would teach him everything he needed to know about running the company when “the time came.” “It was one of the nicest things my father could have done for me,” Loane says. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies, and teaching English in Spain for 18 months—the time came when his father wanted to phase out of his position as CEO, and in 1987 Loane returned home to begin the process of learning to run the business.

What clients want

Loane started out cutting awnings and tents and gradually took over more responsibility. In 1993 he became president, and shortly thereafter added a party rental division to the company. “Customers were asking about it and we saw that other tent rental companies were offering equipment and decor as a package deal,” he says. “And that meant we were losing business.”

The party rental division runs almost like a separate company, with its own crews, trucks and management. “We saw early on that the tent installers mentality didn’t blend well with tables, chairs and china,” Loane says. “It really is a whole different mind set that’s required to do the job.”

The thing that Loane and his company did differently than some other tent renters as they expanded their inventory was exercise caution and restraint. “We were conservative in the way we grew, which we could afford to be since we had a base to work from,” he says. “New equipment is expensive and you have to be able to forecast that you can pay it off in a reasonable amount of time. There are—or were—a lot of companies that purchased too much inventory at the outset and ended up going out of business.”

While the party tent and rental divisions are the larger divisions of the company and bring in the most revenue, Loane says it is the awning division that is the company’s foundation. “The awning division is the smallest but it’s probably the most important,” he says. “Since it’s a manufacturing division it gives us the ability to make a lot of our own tent accessories, which many other companies don’t have the ability to do—and that’s crucial for us to stay on top in this industry.”

Also crucial, Loane says, is the company’s attention to trends and niche markets. Many clients are drawn to the ethereal and fluid retro look of sailcloth tents or the straight-lined old-fashioned look of traditional pole tents. Although the sailcloth tents are not suited for all weather due to the lightweight fabric and open structure, he points out that they work beautifully for certain settings. “And the old-fashioned pole tents don’t have the swooping lines of the more popular century-style tents [marked by large peaks and fewer internal poles] but sometimes it’s just the look people want,” Loane says. “When enough people want a certain look—they’re worth having in our inventory.”

Need to know

The running of the business is shared by Loane and his partners Mike O’Connor and Charlie Balcer, and the party rental division is managed by Sue Tachetti. Most of Loane’s responsibilities are sales related for tent and event rental. Managing a sales call means understanding the client’s vision; the limitations of the space, budget and inventory; and anticipating alternate plans should some unexpected factor throw a wrench into the works. And Loane is thinking about all of those things during the site visit.

“A lot of times clients don’t have an idea, or they do and don’t know how it’s going to work,” Loane says. “I listen to them and then point out where the challenges might be.” Challenges are often logistical—such as how the crew will get equipment in and out without damaging landscaping, and how vendors will get to the site without trudging through the house. The company also has to ensure adequate space and lighting for guests to get to and from the event, and how the tents will be safely staked—especially if it rains.

Plan B

“Yes, and then there’s the weather,” Loane says. “As the clients are sharing their vision for the event, I always think—hurricane.” Of course it’s rare that inclement weather of that magnitude is an issue, but Loane says it’s always got to be in the back of his mind as a possibility, and it’s his responsibility to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

In Loane’s 25 years at the company’s helm, he’s only had to conduct an evacuation twice, and both times the guests were kept safe—but he won’t forget either event any time soon.

The most recent evacuation occurred at a spring fundraising event in Annapolis, Md. Loane had been monitoring the weather as 50 mph winds blew and rain fell steadily before the event. Loane assigned an additional eight staff people to the event because of the weather and was personally onsite to help the crew double-stake the tents in the saturated ground.

When the storm peaked during the cocktail hour with high winds that downed a 200-year-old tree alongside the driveway, guests were still in the house—but the catering tent was filled with catering staff preparing dinner. Loane says he could see tent stakes moving in the ground when he evacuated the tents. “The caterers ran out of the tent—food in mid-prep,” he says. “As soon as everyone was safe the caterers started thinking about how they could serve dinner inside the house instead. After the worst of the storm passed we walked around the tent and methodically checked and re-secured everything. The stakes, the sidewalls, and even the lights and heat were affected.” They declared the tent safe for occupancy and dinner was served as planned, only 25 minutes later than scheduled.

All in a day’s work.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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