Expert Interview: Stephen Rhea


This past Tuesday and Wednesday, I had the great opportunity to travel to Chicago to spend some time with Stephen Rhea. Steve owns a party rental company that is a major player in a major market, and has built his business from the ground up.

This time with Steve was a privilege for me, as it allowed me to learn a lot about the party rental industry from a proven expert over the course of just a couple of days. I spent the first day with Steve (and staff) at his warehouse, and the 2nd day accompanying him to a large event at a nearby college.

While driving out to the event with Steve, I suggested that we create a learning opportunity for you (the Inflatable Academy community) by conducting an interview I could post to the blog.

He graciously agreed, as I suspected he would, since it’s clear to me how important he considers his role as an expert in paying it forward to other operators, like you.

So, I’m very excited to present you with Inflatable Academy’s first interview with an industry expert, a Q&A with Stephen Rhea. If this is valuable to you, let us know in the comments. If we see your interest, we’ll continue to reach out to other experts in the industry for similar interviews.

Introducing Stephen Rhea

Mike: Hi Steve. It’s a pleasure to be here with you and I really appreciate the guidance you’ve offered me during my time here. Can you please start by telling us a little about your business?

Steve Rhea: Hi Mike. First of all, I’d like to express that I really appreciate the opportunity to be speaking to other business owners in the industry, through this interview with you. I’ve learned a lot over 13 years in the business, and it’s one of my great joys at this stage in my career to share those lessons with others.

My name is Stephen Rhea, and I own AMJ Spectacular Events and A Moon Jump 4U, which are both party rental companies, as well as AmeriZyn Repair and Restoration Center. We’re based out of Chicagoland area, and we’re at 5109 West Lake St., Melrose Park, IL, 60126.

We’ve been in business for 13 years and continue to build the business. We have salespeople on the street as well as event planners on the phone to help our clients plan the most successful events possible to meet their needs.

Today, we have about $2.5 million in inventory, diversified with over 400 inflatables and many other products that support the party rental industry. The diversification of our inventory allows us to thrive during the primary rental season, as well as generate a lot of winter sales, which as we all know can be a challenge for many operators. We have what I think is a strong strategy to generate winter sales, but of course we continue to learn and build additional revenue buckets.

That’s great. Congratulations on your success, Steve. That’s just awesome.

Passion for the business

I’m curious… what do you like most about the party rental industry?

What I love about the party rental industry is being successful at making people happy… making people smile. I love giving them something that they want, and exceeding client and customer expectations is fantastic.

Having key product, at the right time, for the right individuals is very, very important and satisfying to me. And I enjoy providing these services in a way that can satisfy almost any budget. There are people that are looking for the best of the best, and we have it and can help them. And of course there are many people with a lower budget, and we have product that can make any event spectacular.

So, I pride myself on being able to provide to the masses, and not just a top tier event budget.

I love that. It really does come down to the customer experience, and we have a unique opportunity in this industry that our product and service directly puts smiles on so many people’s faces.


So, now I’m wondering… what are your goals in this business?

My primary goals in the industry are to grow our business and to help others in the industry. With my experience and success, I’ve gone through the trenches and have developed a comprehensive understanding of the industry. Because of that, many people in the industry regard me as an expert buyer. I get to weigh in on key decisions that are made with regard to new products being introduced by manufacturers, for example.

I also have the great pleasure to currently be mentoring six other individuals with their party rental businesses. Seeing them use and have success with the lessons I’ve learned is very rewarding for me personally. Because I’ve been given so much, I really like giving back.

My goal has always been to take care of my employees, and to take care of my family. It’s a huge responsibility to own a company and to provide for many families. It keeps me up at night thinking about how to make sure everybody’s paycheck cashes and their families are provided for.

In order to do all those things, I need to have goals for my business. My primary goal in my business right now is creating new revenue buckets, as I like to refer to it. I’m constantly looking for new products and new ideas.

I’m always thinking three to five years down the road, what the industry is going to look like and what my business needs to look like. Then I develop goals to be able to achieve that three to five year plan. I find it to be very important to my business to set aside time at my desk once a week to think about where I want my business to be and what the goals are that represent the stepping stones to that vision.

Great. Just in the time I’ve spent with you I can tell you have so much insight you could offer the industry. I’m very hopeful that Inflatable Academy could be a vehicle for you to accomplish your goal of helping others.

A memorable day

Steve, can you share with us what was a particularly memorable day for you in this business?

A day that strikes me as quite memorable as a business owner was my first time at the IAAPA show, about five years into owning my business. It was that day, when I walked through those doors, that I realized what my potential was in this industry. I saw such incredible opportunity laid out in front of me. I felt like the world was at my fingertips and all I had to do was reach out and grab it.

Prior to that IAAPA, I didn’t have the information to know the types of products that were available to me to be able to help me attain my goals. Today, I view IAAPA as a great way to meet people and build relationships in the industry. It’s a great opportunity to help others, as well as learn from others.

I totally agree. Relationships are absolute key to business success. Whether relationships with our customers, vendors, or even competitors, it’s those relationships that create the greatest opportunities.

Advice for those that are new

There are many business owners out there just starting out. They’ve invested in a few inflatables and they’re hungry to grow their business. What single piece of advice would you offer them?

Stay focused.

Do the basics.

You don’t win without doing the simple things, what I call the blocking and tackling. These are things like:

  • Returning phone calls in a timely manner
  • Answering customers’ questions honestly
  • Helping the customer by understanding their needs and meeting those needs in the best way that you can

Stay focused. Do the basics.

So many times, I’ll be talking to a customer and they’ll tell me that they’ve called other party rental companies and they don’t get called back. Or that no one ever answers the phone. And then if they do answer the phone, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Helping the customer requires my sales staff to know my inventory. Period. They’ve done their homework. Once you know your products and the industry, you simply apply that so that when the client does call, you’re informative and valuable, rather than simply trying to take an order.

I also have to say that one of the reasons I’m grateful for the opportunity to be doing this interview with you Mike, is that I think Inflatable Academy is right on target with respect to providing the industry with marketing ideas and strategies, like your lead generating strategy (EasyLeads).

That’s great. Thanks for that vote of confidence there Steve. It really does mean a lot coming from you that we’re on the right track with Inflatable Academy.

Overcoming a plateau in business

So, what about someone who’s already experienced significant growth and is starting to plateau? What is the most important thing for them to understand?

The first step in pushing through a plateau is to recognize the simple fact that you’re not growing. You have to be honest with yourself and admit that your business has become stagnant, and you need to begin working to understand why. And that starts with working on yourself.

My view is that you reach for an outside resource, like a coach or mentor. Sometimes you’re just too close to the project or problem and it makes it difficult to see the reality of the situation or even obvious ways to resolve issues. Having someone with fresh eyes come in and ask questions and offer objective perspective can be immensely valuable, and can spark change quickly.

Reach for an outside resource, like a coach or mentor

A common question you’ll ask yourself when you find a coach is: “why didn’t I think about that?”

For example, in my case, I was doing a lot of print ads and it was wasting my time and money, and we just weren’t seeing the results we needed. By simply changing some marketing tools, we were able to spark new growth.

I highly recommend engaging with Inflatable Academy. Read their blog, engage with them and the community by posting comments, and take a look at the services they’re offering.

I believe their vision and intent truly is in your best interest, and they’re looking at our industry in valuable and innovative ways. I expect there will be many opportunities to learn from them and other experts in the party rental industry to grow our businesses.

Great. Thanks again for that. I actually didn’t intend or expect such an endorsement. But you’re absolutely right about the plan we have in store for the Inflatable Academy community. What drives us is helping the industry succeed individually and collectively.

Overcoming a significant challenge

My next question is… please tell us about a significant challenge that you had in growing your business and how did you handle it?

The greatest challenge, for me, in growing my business has been financial. It’s having the capital to put to work and drive growth. How do you create additional revenue? The money has to come from somewhere to build those additional revenue buckets.

Related to the prior question, I recognized at one point that my business had become stagnant, and I was searching for what to do about it. What I didn’t realize at the time was that money is available as cheap as it is, and the value of being able to create new revenue from being able to use that money is so much greater than the cost of using that money.

By establishing a relationship with our community bank, I’ve been able to leverage the bank’s capital to create those additional revenue buckets and continue to spark growth in my business. Once that began to happen, our cash flow situation improved and I was able to not worry as much about the financials.

Always know your numbers, and cash is a lot more important than you may think it is.

I agree. It’s incredibly valuable to business growth to leverage other people’s money.

The typical day

Steve, what does your typical day look like?

First, it’s getting up in the morning and having coffee with my wife. It’s nice to be able to do that consistently. It’s important that we all remember why we’re doing what we’re doing. We want better lives, better lives for our families, and we want to be able to live a little bit better and be at peace with each other. That’s how I rate success… by how much peace is in my life.

That’s how I rate success… by how much peace is in my life.

Once in the office, the first thing I do is make sure the salespeople and office staff have what they need. I always take a walk through the building in the morning and say hi to all the employees, make sure everyone has coffee if they need it, and make sure we’re all focused on the goals that we have in front of us, and we all understand the tasks that we need to perform that day.

Then I’ll retreat back to my office, and work with the salespeople to make sure we’re following up with the leads that we have, reviewing our inventory to see what is selling and what’s not, or if there’s any problems that we’ve been having with our inventory. With over 2,000 products, it’s important that we keep our inventory up to snuff.

I always spend part of my day researching or observing what my competitors are doing. There’s a reason we have a small rear view mirror and a large windshield. In other words, I spend 95% of my time looking forward and 5% looking back.

There’s a reason we have a small rear view mirror and a large windshield. In other words, I spend 95% of my time looking forward and 5% looking back.

So 5% of my time is spent checking out what my competitors are doing to understand what we’re selling against. I convey that to our salespeople so they understand the obstacles that might be in their way or some of our competitive advantages we can emphasize.

I spend about half my day, every day, talking with customers in one capacity or another. Whether it’s knocking on their doors, or meetings at our office, or it’s on the phone, it’s vital that I consistently invest in my relationships with our customers.

Strategic thinking

How often do you think strategically about your business?

It’s not a daily thing, but I try to take time on a weekly basis to shut the door to my office and get my mind off the day-to-day and on to the overall direction of our business.

I also keep a daily diary of brief notes of what’s happened in my business, so I can look back at trends, and past performance. I’m able to compare that with where we are today and it gives me good perspective on whether we’re on track.

Not many people know about that diary (laughter). But it’s important that I don’t lose track of what needs to get done and where I’ve been with the business. Maybe there’s a week that seems down, but I’ll go back to my diary and realize that it’s been a “normal” experience for us. I’ll see that there’s a light at the end of a tunnel, and it’s not a train (laughter), and we see that next week it’s going to pick up, and it sure enough it does.

And then on an annual basis, usually at about the same time as IAAPA, I re-evaluate my business for the year. Where have I been, where am I going, and how will I get where I want to be over the next 12 months?

Great. Steve, this has been such a pleasure speaking with you, and I’m more than confident people will relate with and value what you’ve shared. Many would be lucky to be mentored by someone such as yourself. I really do appreciate your time and willingness to do this interview.

Final words of wisdom

Do you have any final words of wisdom to share?

Yes. Get involved with Inflatable Academy. There’s a lot of professionals within that group that can make your life so much easier as a business owner in the party rental industry. If I had known 10 years ago what I know today, it would have saved me probably eight years of heartache.

I see and understand the trends today, and they change all the time. Use the folks that have been there and done that. They’re willing to help you. Take advantage of it.

For those reading, I just want to assure you that Steve’s feedback on Inflatable Academy were completely unsolicited and Steve’s responses to my questions were unscripted. I’ve shared my vision with Steve, and he simply believes in what we’re doing.

What to do next

If you were to guide the reader’s next steps, what would you advise?

I would like for you to focus on your business. Look at the numbers and understand where your business is today. Are you happy with it? You have to LOVE what you do. If you don’t love what you do, then you need to change it up. So what’s going to make you happy?

I’ve said a lot in this interview, but there’s many things that I might be able to help you with, that might save you a lot of time and make you and your family more happy and your lives more full.

So I appreciate your comments. I don’t know everything, and I’m learning more on a day-to-day basis. But there’s a lot I do know, that I’d love to help you with.

So, feel free to make some comments. Feel free to ask questions. And let’s have some fun together and make a few bucks.