Photo by Bill Hughes
Don Ahern survived the recession and a Chapter 11 filing to save his family's equipment-rental business.

Equipment magnate Don F. Ahern says he doesn't believe much in setting goals. "Goals are where you stop and rest. Just let the sky be the limit," he says. Ahern, 60, is chairman and CEO of Las Vegas-based Ahern Rentals Inc., a firm founded by his father, John, in an old gas station along the Vegas Strip in 1953.


The son built the firm into the country's largest privately owned construction-equipment rental company. Using 1,800 people and 38,000 pieces of equipment spread across 84 branches in 26 states, the firm earned $470 million in 2014, Ahern says.


His road to success has been riddled with potholes. The company was the exclusive equipment provider for the $8.5-billion CityCenter project on the south Vegas Strip in 2006, supplying 6,000 pieces of machinery. The end of the project left Ahern Rentals with a glut of unused machines. Ahern decided to open 24 new branches throughout the South and East between 2009 and 2011 to redeploy the CityCenter leftovers.

But Ahern didn't have enough time for those branches to mature before the recession hit. The company's debt ballooned to $620 million, resulting in a voluntary Chapter 11 filing in December 2011. Ahern proposed to repay the loans at less than face value while keeping company ownership intact.

Over the next two years, he fought off a hostile takeover and drew out the bankruptcy process, gambling that the market would recover enough to acquire working capital and allow for full debt repayment, thereby preserving the family business. His high-stakes bet worked. Ahern repaid his creditors in full and eventually bought 56-year-old Snorkel, which now builds 300 machines a month in five manufacturing plants overseas. He also tweaked the company's Xtreme line, launched in 2003, with a telescoping forklift that remains "the Swiss army knife of machines," he says.

"Don Ahern goes from the gut. He's definitely a risk taker," says Michael Roth, editor of Rental Equipment Register, an industry trade publication.