Where it all began: The Firestone Street location of the first in a line of Hawthorne family-owned equipment businesses — L.A. Tractor Co, in 1947.
Fifty years just wasn’t enough for Tom Hawthorne.
After handing over the reigns of the San Diego area Cat dealership over to his son-in-law in 2007, Hawthorne wasn’t quite ready to call it quits.
At the age of 79, Hawthorne saw an opportunity on the site of a bankrupt equipment rental business on Mission Ave in Escondido. Rebel Rents, a long standing rental service had vacated its property, and despite the looming great recession, Tool Shed Rentals was launched there in 2008.
“I saw a business opportunity, but more than that I saw an opportunity to keep the family together,” Hawthorne said. The ’family’ Hawthorne refers to are his three brothers, all of whom had, at various times, been key personnel at Hawthorne Machinery, the Cat dealership Tom formed with his father, JB, in 1956.
Today Tom, at 86, operates Tool Shed along with brothers Paul, 74, Jack, 71 and Gary, 68. The four brothers bring more than 180 years of combined construction equipment experience to the company. Each started in the business in their twenties and have remained throughout their respective careers.
To say that heavy equipment is in the Hawthorne brothers’s blood would be an understatement. Their father, JB Hawthorne, founded L.A. Tractor & Equipment Co. Sales in the Los Angeles area in 1947. Nine years later, sensing the growth the industry would see as a result of the Federal Highway Act of 1956, he and his eldest son acquired the Caterpillar dealership for the San Diego area.
Tom was 27 at the time. He would serve 10 years as president of Hawthorne and take over as CEO in 1966. Hawthorne CAT’s first year in business saw about $5 million in sales. The company’s sales would grow significantly under Tom’s leadership. Also during that time, the company would add Hawaii, Guam and the Pacific Islands to its territory.
Meanwhile, the other three brothers were all involved in the industry, and at times with Tom’s dealership. Paul helped his brother launch the first Caterpillar Rental service in 1974, and later became VP of Hawthorne CAT’s rental division. Gary served initially as marketing director of Hawthorne and later in the sales department. Jack was critical to the growth of the company’s service department. Gary and Jack later left the business and started Hawthorne Contracting.
In 2008 the four were reunited and began the process of building a new Hawthorne dynasty. Nine employees of Rebel Rents were retained, and all remain with Tool Shed today. After seven years, the number of employees has risen to 35. Later, the neighboring property of a plumbing business was purchased, and Tool Shed grew to its current size.
Tool Shed rents equipment small enough for the homeowner and large enough for the biggest earth moving contractors. Landscapers also represent a significant part of the business. The company maintain more than 200 pieces of rental equipment in addition to 100 pieces in the earth moving division.
Sales have grown to $10.3 million in 2014.
Gary heads up sales and marketing, Paul the finance end of the company, and Jack is in charge of all equipment service and maintenance. He also has the final say on all equipment purchases.
Although “Tom has effectively turned over the keys of the business to the three of us,” according to Gary, he still is very active in the business and maintains a five day a week work schedule. Gary, Paul and Jack are the managing partners today.
Jose Alvarez, one of the original employees from Rebel Rents, is rental and operations manager.
A third generation Hawthorne, J Paul, is sales coordinator.
While a satellite location in Hawaii does not seem to be in the offing for Tool Shed, its continued growth seems inevitable.
Its equipment rental store serves San Diego county and the cities of Escondido, Vista, Oceanside, Encitas and Chula Vista, but the earth moving division reaches far beyond. It rents and sells equipment from most manufacturers, including Caterpillar, John Deere, Bobcat, Ditch Witch, Vermeer, Multiquip, Barreto and Tanaka.
It also offers U-Cart Concrete mixing trailers.
Meanwhile, just a few miles down I-15 in Rancho Bernardo, the family is still at the helm of Hawthorne Machinery. Tee Ness, CEO, is Tom’s son-in-law (married to daughter Debbie), and grandsons David and Michael Ness are now part of senior management.