By SHELLY WILKISON
Sixteen years have passed since Brian Butler bought a used Bobcat, parked it on State Highway 29 and hung a “Rent Me” banner from it.
As Butler greeted his 30,000th customer on Saturday at Cat Trax Rentals, he presented Sergio Delacanal with a gift certificate and realized how fast the years had passed.
“Yes, it’s still fun,” said Butler, reflecting on the early beginnings of one of Liberty Hill’s landmark businesses.
Butler and his wife, Kim, say that after all these years they still enjoy coming to work every day and building friendships with their customers.
Mrs. Butler, who has seemingly never met a stranger, always has time to swap stories with customers. And regardless of the physical labor that awaits them when they arrive home or at the job site, customers leave Cat Trax with smiles on their faces.
“Brian doesn’t like for me to work on Saturdays (the busiest day of the week) because I just like to talk to everybody,” said Mrs. Butler.
“It’s not hard for her to spend 30 minutes with a customer,” her husband laughs, “even when there’s a line out the door.”
“I like to find out what people are doing with the equipment they’re renting,” she said, adding she is especially interested in hearing about customers’ gardening plans. “We have met the neatest people working here.”
Butler was working full-time as a manufacturing manager at IBM in Austin when he started “piddling with the idea” of Cat Trax. At first, he thought of it as a way to earn some extra money. He borrowed money out of his IBM 401k and bought a 14-year-old Bobcat and parked it in front of the old auto parts store (now a jerky shop). Six months later, he sold the Bobcat and bought a brand new one along with a trencher. Mrs. Butler was working as a teacher’s aide, and within a short time, resigned and began running the rental business.
“I told Brian if I was going to run the business, he needed to show me how to load things on trailers before he went back to work (at IBM),” Mrs. Butler said. “He finally told me the guys (customers) would show me what to do when they got here.”
Very quickly, Mrs. Butler learned the tools of the trade, and within a short time was loading equipment, changing tires and changing oil.
“I guess I’m kind of a tomboy,” she laughed.
Within three years, the Butlers began looking for room to grow the business. One day, local real estate agent Suzy Bates found a downed real estate sign hidden in the high grass along State Highway 29, and inadvertently found the perfect location for Cat Trax.
The Butlers built a 1500-square-foot building on four acres and opened the present location at 12630 W. SH 29 in January 2000.
Butler and his father, who is now deceased, were in the equipment rental business together in the mid-1980s. They owned B’s Rentals in Liberty Hill several years until the economy turned bad and Butler went to work for IBM.
He said passing along the family business is a dream he has one day for his son, Corey Butler. At age 25, Corey spent five years in the US Marine Corps before returning home to work with his parents.
With a customer base that is half residential and half commercial, Butler said his inventory has grown to meet a variety of needs. From city governments and water utilities, to area home builders and residential customers, the Cat Trax inventory now estimated at about $1 million generally has any piece of equipment on hand most of the time. Customers from surrounding communities frequently call ahead to check availability and reserve equipment.
“With minimum training, everyone can run this equipment,” Butler said, adding that manufacturers are constantly making heavy equipment easier to operate.
He said the Skid-Steer Bobcat is still the most popular rental, with trenching equipment and backhoes following close behind. In the springtime, customers are interested in renting tillers, aerators, and other lawn equipment. And in recent years as drought conditions continue and burn bans become more commonplace, brush chippers have also become high-demand items.
“This is expensive equipment and it is cheaper to rent it as opposed to buying it outright or hiring the work done,” Butler said.
He said commercial customers find it easier and more cost effective to rent equipment close to the job site, while avoiding high maintenance costs.
Cat Trax products can be found online on the website, www.cattraxrentals.com.
“I like starting new stuff,” Butler said. “It’s like a game to me, anticipating what the next day will bring.”
This week, the Butlers are expanding their business to include trailer sales.
Within days, Cat Trax is expecting its first shipment of new trailers manufactured by Diamond C of Mount Pleasant in East Texas.
“I don’t know, I guess it’s a guy thing,” Butler laughs. “Every guy needs a trailer for something.”
Cat Trax Trailer Sales, located next to the rental store, will feature utility trailers, gooseneck and dump trailers at first, Butler said. Soon, the company will also offer trailer repair and service.
The Butlers, longtime residents of Liberty Hill, are active in their church and believe in giving back to the community. Over the years, Cat Trax has been proud to sponsor youth sports teams, the Liberty Hill Livestock Association, Liberty Hill Young Farmers, the high school band and many other organiztions benefitting young people.
Butler is also a former member of the Williamson County Emergency Services District #4 Board of Commissioners, and currently serves on the City of Liberty Hill’s Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors.
He said he was happy to volunteer for the EDC appointment because he thought his own experience might be beneficial as the panel seeks to grow Liberty Hill’s business community and expand the tax base.
“And I just like learning new things,” he said.
The Butlers and Cat Trax Rentals will celebrate their 16th year in business on April 27 — an event open to the community.