Photo by Tudor Van Hampton for ENR
United hosted 230 equipment vendors at its annual management meeting, the first since its merger with RSC.
Photo by Tudor Van Hampton for ENR

Instead of red and blue states, there were red and blue stores. It wasn't the same as holding a national election, but last year, Michael Kneeland, CEO of United Rentals Inc., was charged with the difficult task of merging RSC (whose brand color is red) and United (whose brand color is blue) to form the world's largest rental company in a deal worth $4.2 billion.

We caught up with Kneeland this month in Indianaplis on the sidelines of United's annual management meeting, which hosted more than 2,000 people, including 230 equipment vendors that exhibited at the Indiana Convention Center. Late last year, we spoke over the phone about Superstorm Sandy and its potential to drive equipment rentals in 2013. This year's meeting was the first for United since merging with RSC.

ENR: It is pretty impressive for one company to hold its own private trade show like this.

Kneeland: It is. And when you bring all the managers together, it gives them an opportunity to see the products that are the newest, the best for our customers, and it also allows them to communicate any kind of feedback, concerns—positives and negatives—to our vendors. It's a win-win for both.

You recently estimated that rental rates were up 7% last year. Do you expect rates to hold up again this year?

We typically wait until our fourth-quarter report to determine what we are going to be communicating to the outside world. We haven't gotten there yet because they still haven't closed the books.

What do you think is coming for the economy this year?

I think you're going to get probably a mixed bag. In general, what we hear from our customers—over 80% of them say it is going to be equal to or greater than what they experienced in 2012. I think that as we go through 2013, barring any kind of financial disruption, you'll see a stronger back half off 2013 than the front half because of the uncertainty of the fiscal cliff and the pause that a lot of industries went through.

How do you view the residential market in 2013?

Is has been picking up, thought it doesn't impact us directly. Less than 2% of our business is residential-related. Having said that, it really is a kind of backbone to a stronger recovery. If you go through all of the downturns, in just about every one of them residential led the recovery. This was a recovery where that really wasn't the case. We had a lot of financial engineering by the Fed. We had a lot of influx of cash stimulus. We had a vibrant global economy around commodities. So I think this was a very different recovery that we've been experiencing.

This year will be the first full calendar year with United and RSC together. If you could use one word to describe 2012 and one word to describe 2013, what would those words be?

I think, for 2012, it would be "integration," and I think, for 2013, it's "building a future." The tools that we are rolling out are very competitive. Some of them are leading-edge to enable our branch managers and our salespeople to be more productive. There was a lot of disruption over the last year, and there was a lot of uncertainty. Now, that is all behind us, and we are focusing on our customers.