Maverick equipment magnate Don F. Ahern is sitting on top of the world compared to two years ago, when his eponymous Las Vegas-based rental company was mired in debt, plunged into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and facing a hostile creditor takeover bid by billionaire investor Tom Gores, whose Platinum Equity LLC owns Maxim Crane Works and NESCO. Ahern persevered, repaying 100% of claims with 16% monthly interest to term lenders. That enabled Ahern to continue running a business started by his father in 1953. Turning to other deals, the thwarted Gores later paid $1.1 billion for the 132-outlet, 2,100-employee Volvo Rents, now called Blue Line Rental.

The 60-year-old Ahern speaks with piercing blue eyes, a warm smile and a salesman's easygoing charm—traits that may have helped him convince Wall Street investors to provide a $750-million credit line that allowed the company to exit bankruptcy on June 5, 2013.

He hasn't looked back since. Ahern Rentals today consists of 82 branches in 25 states, with a 38,700-piece fleet concentrated in high-reach units. The 1,800-employee company did $412.3 million in business last year, making it the country's largest privately owned construction equipment rental firm. Ahern's other business, Xtreme Manufacturing, a maker of rough-terrain telescoping forklifts, flip-tail delivery trucks and modular stacking cubes, bought the self-propelled aerial-platform fabricator Snorkel from London-based The Tanfield Group in October 2013. Snorkel, which lost about $23.6 million in 2012, is expected to generate $150 million in sales by 2015.

"Don Ahern is very independent. He does things his own way," says Michael Roth, editor of Rental Equipment Register, an industry trade publication. "He goes from the gut. He is definitely a risk taker."

Ahern Rentals' turnaround is partly due to a $43-million capital investment by Ahern, mostly used for upgrading production and supply, as well as strong demand in Europe. The 56-year-old Snorkel now builds 300 machines a month from five manufacturing plants in Australia, Canada and Japan that employ 600 people.

"Ahern already had 800 Snorkel machines in his rental fleet, so buying the company was partly motivated by a desire to protect his investment," Roth says. "The Chinese had initiated purchase talks with Snorkel when Ahern entered the picture."

Xtreme made waves earlier this year by unveiling North America's largest rough-terrain telescoping forklift during CONEXPO-CON/AGG in Las Vegas in March. This mega-telehandler has a 70,000-lb lift capacity with a 38-ft maximum height and a 22-ft forward reach. The 100,000-lb XR7038 comes equipped with 2,000-lb forks, 6-ft-tall tires and a 300-hp Cummins QSL9 Tier-4 Final engine, making it ideal for mining, bridge building and pipe-handling work. The massive machine retails for $740,000.

"Don has a pretty good nose for things like this," says Charles Snyder, a Charlotte, N.C.-based industry consultant and ex-equipment rental executive. "I see this machine more as being sold to end users who have specific applications as opposed to rental companies, due to its size and complexity."

Business in the Blood

Equipment is part of Ahern's DNA. His father, John P. Ahern, purchased a Signal Oil and Gas station on the Las Vegas Strip in 1953. He soon began renting various items, including window-mounted swamp coolers, box trailers and hand tools. The elder Ahern also designed and fabricated special landscaping equipment for planting sod in Southern Nevada's hard caliche soil.