For a company that rents pumps, construction tools and man-lifts, Trowelex employees sure talk like it’s a lot more than that.
“This is home,” says Jean Bonin. “It’s comfortable and relaxing. It is very family oriented… and everyone here is part of a family.”
Bonin should know: she’s celebrating her 48th year at the company. She’s known the current owner since he was in diapers.
But it’s not easy to say what Bonin’s position is in the company.
“She’s the bookkeeper?” suggests Harold Chernoff, the latest in the family to run Trowelex. “Maybe call her the office manager?
“Let’s just call her the ‘controller’, that sort of covers it,” he concludes, laughing.
“This is one place, you’ll never have two days the same. Never,” says Bonin, agreeing. “You never know what the job will be, it is totally different from day before.”
And it’s been that way since 1971, when Bonin was hired by Trowelex’s founder, Harold’s father, Nick Chernoff.
The stories of Nick Chernoff are legend around the Trowelex compound. A grade-school dropout, Chernoff got into construction and concrete finishing as a youth, and founded Trowelex with his wife Vera in 1968. His work ethic (“Nick was a complete perfectionist,” says Bonin.) brought him bigger and better jobs, until Trowelex was working on hydro dam infrastructure, airport runways, major public works projects, and finishing hockey arena floors across the province.
And over those years the legend and stature of the founder has grown. There are stories of the day Nick was run over by a car while at work — he was back on the job the next day. Or the time he fell 75 feet out of a helicopter, breaking some ribs. Or his fights with the bank. Or tales of his compassion and generosity.
The DNA of Nick Chernoff is woven deep into the company.
Rentals came second
While it started as a cement finishing company, Trowelex kind of wandered into the equipment-rental business three years after it began.
“A guy said he needed a compactor,” recalls Bonin. “Nick said he would lend him one, but he needed it back by 6 a.m. because he was heading out for a job.
“The guy said no problem. Of course, 5:30 comes along, then 6:00, and the guy never shows up. So we’re short a compactor.
“Nick came back from the job and was upset and said ‘that’s it’. If anyone wants anything, they’ll pay for it ahead of time. Then we’ll get it back.”
And so Trowelex’s rental business was born. The company started renting out most of its equipment, and branched into sidelines (Nick once rented a lady’s purse for a 50 cents a day, goes one legend). It moved away from the cement-finishing business in the 1990s.
It’s since become the largest renter of industrial equipment and supplies in the Kootenays — quite a feat for an independent in an industry dominated by big chains.
Careful and clever management of the company, and slow and steady growth got Trowelex through the hard times, says Bonin. Being flexible, ready to adapt to change and listening to the customers were part of the founder’s philosophy.
“Nick was the smartest person I have ever known,” says Bonin. “He would study and learn, and always said “if you don’t learn something every day, you might as well be dead.”
Rob Planiden lives by those words. He’s worked for Trowelex for 30 years, the second-longest employee after Bonin.
“I was taught by Nick, ‘when you stop learning you won’t have to work here anymore, because you’ll know everything’,” he recalls. “Well it’s been 30 years and I’m still here.”
Planiden can’t see himself anywhere else either.
“These are the best days of my life,” he says. “Every day I go home I am happy with what I’ve done, and thinking what can I do to help tomorrow?”
Now the future
Chernoff continues to inspire the staff, though he’s been gone three years now. His son Kevin, Harold’s older brother, had been general manager for about 30 years before that, but he died of a heart attack just a year after his father, in 2016. Now Harold finds himself behind the big desk.
“It’s tough, the tough part is dealing with big contracts, getting your brain into that way of thinking,” he admits. “I was always the guy out in the field, doing the heavy construction, we had a gravel pit, all the heavy-duty stuff. The store wasn’t my realm.”
But the company is on its feet and growing again. Chernoff says it’s getting to the point where he can catch his breath, and plan for the future.
“I’ll never retire, the company will go on for awfully long time, and my son is interested in the business too,” he says. “So we’re now looking at the next generation.”
Despite the turmoil of the last few years, Harold Chernoff says some things won’t change.
“Our company really supports community and always will,” he says. “This company is part of the community. We helped build this community. And we’ll be part of it.”
Trowelex continues to donate generously to community organizations, and this year will give about $30,000 to good causes, says Chernoff.
Customers past and present, and the public, are invited to a celebration barbecue at the Trowelex site on Highway 22 about 6 kilometres south of Castlegar on Friday, May 25 from 10-3 p.m.. There’ll be a barbecue and music, and a chance to tell stories about the company and its family.
It’s what Nick would have wanted.