There are upsides and downsides to being part of a family business. Angus Kennard (EMBA ’16) knows them well. Kennard is the CEO of the iconic Australian business Kennards Hire. Family owned, it began in Bathurst, regional NSW, in 1948 when grandfather Walter rented out a concrete mixer to a customer who asked to borrow it from his equipment retail business.
Riding the post-war building boom, the company found success and now operates more than 170 branches in Australia and New Zealand, with a property holding to support the business. There is also Kennards Storage, which is a separate business, owned by cousins.
Since the start, Kennard family members have been the backbone of the company, though being a Kennard doesn’t come with the assurance of a job. Angus and his siblings had to spend five years working elsewhere before being employed by Kennards Hire. For Angus, that meant selling products ranging from magazine advertising to photocopiers, before joining the Brookvale branch of Kennards Hire in Sydney.
Fast-forward to 2016 when the CEO job came up. Angus had been raising a family, developing a love of rally driving (he’s just finished his 13th tarmac rally event) and helping to run the business. He wasn’t a shoo-in for the role; an interview panel grilled him on how he would lead a family-run business before he was offered the job.
Now working with a brother who is on staff managing the property side, and a sister who is on the company’s board, Kennard acknowledges this means that some decisions come with an “emotional layer”. “It works though, because I love and respect them all dearly.”
Valuing family could also be why Kennards gives top priority to its staff, and in the most practical ways. Earlier in 2018, Kennards Hire unexpectedly gave its 1530 staff a share in a total $7 million bonus. Full-time employees who had been with the company for two years or more each received around $6300.
“Technology is increasingly important, but people come first,” says Kennard. “A lot of our people are like family.”
Kennard himself is not a hard-nosed corporate type. Photographs in the many business publications that have noticed him, capture his easy smile, but in person there is a reserve and humility that belies his quick success at the head of a large and ambitious company.
Starting the job one month after completing an Executive MBA at the University of Sydney, Kennard says the degree has been instrumental to that success, helping him grasp that the current business environment of disruption and the shared economy means Kennards Hire has to adapt.
“The business had done really well over a couple of decades, which came with some hubris,” he admits. “The Executive MBA opened my eyes.”
He also appreciated the international components of the program, which sent him to India, Silicon Valley, London and France: “I didn’t want to just have my head in the books. I wanted to expose myself to experiential learning elements.”
With one eye firmly on the future, Kennard and his staff are always looking out for new equipment to add to their offering. He is also complementing Kennards’ “mile wide, inch deep” business model, where stores offer lots of products that are easy to use, with an “inch wide, mile deep” strategy.
“It's about providing solutions rather than just renting equipment,” he says. “For example, we can now hire out equipment for lifting bridges, and provide the specialist engineers needed to operate it.”
As the organisation evolves it helps that Kennards isn’t driven by dividend-hungry shareholders looking for instant returns. “I think we can make decisions that can hit us in the short term but are better for the long term,” says Kennard.
An insight into what makes Kennards Hire different from other large businesses can be found at their busy Artarmon branch in Sydney, very near where Kennard himself has an office. Beyond the large rental display area are two orderly rooms full of old but well-cared-for equipment, together with Kennard family photos and fully restored 1950s work vehicles, painted Kennard corporate red and polished to perfection.
There are no obvious signs identifying it, but it’s called ‘the museum’ and it’s where the business history is kept. When asked about what the collection represents, Kennard says simply, “Respect for legacy."
Written by Jocelyn Prasad
Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim