A serial entrepreneur on a new path: Renting the Swiss Army knife of heavy machines

As far back as he can remember, Paul Adkison, founder of Lift It Rentals LLC, was an entrepreneur.

“I was always doing something as a young kid,” Adkison said. “I was the paper boy. I was the lawn boy. I was always doing something entrepreneurish.”

That quality would come to define his career. The Charlotte native immersed himself in the startup world soon after graduating from East Carolina University, and he hasn’t come up for air since. He founded two companies before launching Lift It Rentals in 2014, switching gears from technology and communications to focus on something entirely new:

Renting a very specific kind of heavy machinery — the Merlo Telehandler lift — to customers in more than 15 states.

The Merlo Telehandler lift looks like an old school cherry picker, but Adkison compares it to a Swiss Army knife. The machines can drive and steer. They can dig, push and transport materials. They have a boom that telescopically extends and accommodates an astonishing number of attachments — man baskets, clamps for lifting logs, forks for lifting palates of bricks and scoops for transporting dirt to dump trucks, to name a few. They are used in construction, farming and warehousing, in addition to other industries.

The idea to rent these machines came to Adkison after he launched two other companies. The first was IQMax, a company Adkison founded in 1999 to offer secure communications tools for health care professionals.

Then, in 2013 Adkison leveraged the IQMax technology in a new company called ZABRA, a provider of online safety tools and educational materials to help parents monitor their children’s use of social media.

A curious mind is rarely complacent, and while Adkison grew his companies, he continued to invest in a smattering of other areas — a piece of property here, an investment in a startup company there. He never risked a lot of money, but he liked to bite off a small piece of action in a wide variety of fields.

Like in 2011, when Adkison was approached by his friend Garth McGillewie, who had set up a framework to sell and service Merlo Telehandler machines imported from Italy.

After the 2008 financial crisis, companies were now more interested in renting these machines than buying them. And Adkison saw an opportunity: He would buy the machines and rent them out. He bought two to start.

“Suddenly I had a million dollars in machines,” said Adkison. “I didn’t want that million dollars depreciating in my cul de sac. It was turning into a business.”

Adkison brought in some of his people from IQMax and ZABRA, as well as a couple of financial institutions. He set up Lift It Rentals LLC in 2014 to rent and finance Merlo Telehandler machines. Scott Diggs joined the firm as president and mutual owner. He handles the day-to-day operations As founder and chairman, Adkison is in charge of business and long-term financial strategy. Today, the company rents 100 machines in over 15 states.

The Merlo Telehandler machines are a different breed from those supplied by U.S. equipment manufacturers, who came to dominate the U.S. market in the 1970s. Adkison explains that U.S. machines are huge because they were created to service the enormous U.S. infrastructure.

“But in Europe, they went down a different mentality regarding machines,” he said. “The Italians and Germans are excellent designers, and they’ve done a fantastic job of developing a much safer, smaller unit that is able to get around easier, but still able to do the same tasks as these machines in the U.S.”

As cities in the U.S. continue to grow in density, there’s a need for smaller machines that can maneuver in tighter spaces, while performing multiple tasks. The Merlo machines have the additional plus of being built with safety foremost in mind. They have HVAC systems with HEPA filters, and the operator cabs have roofs, and provide a 360-degree view due to the low-pivot boom.

The machines are purchased through Applied Machinery Sales in Pineville, N.C., and Rock Hill, S.C. They rent to companies that have more than 100 employees, a Dun & Bradstreet rating, a strong operating history and corporate insurance.

Lift It Rentals has partnered with GPS Insight, a location service vendor that allows the company to track the location of the unit, the hours it is being used, and whether there are any service issues. The company also launched a Dealer Incentive Program, in which it purchases units and rents them short-term to dealers as floor models.

Lift It Rentals’ motto is Buy Right, Rent Right and Sell Right. The company’s goal is to own 350 machines by the end of 2018.

Adkison cites Charlotte’s location and the excellent flight availability as two reasons the company is headquartered in the Queen City. But those aren’t the only reasons.

“It is recognizable,” Adkison said. “It has a phenomenal banking community; if we can’t leverage banking here, we can’t do it anywhere. And there’s a great employee base. I’m a Charlottean, and Charlotte is my home.”