Growth in High Gear

How Cheryl Black built an agile value strategy for employees at Sunbelt Rentals

When Cheryl Black joined the HR team at Sunbelt Rentals Inc. in 2000, she was immediately faced with an enormous challenge: the company doubled in size the next month. Since then, Black has grown her team of two to a staff of more than ninety people to facilitate the concurrent expansion of the workforce—from 1,800 initial employees to almost 12,000 employees today.

Throughout the years as senior vice president of human resources at Sunbelt, Black has cultivated a can-do approach to human resources that has resulted in important strategic initiatives, such as leadership training and a benefits revamp. She has led her team through acquisitions and greenfield openings in her eighteen-year tenure, seeing the company grow from 80 locations to more than 750 in the United States and Canada. That dexterity has positioned the construction equipment rental company as the second largest equipment rental business in North America. Black has not only witnessed this evolution, but also played a significant role in its development firsthand by establishing human resources as a driving force behind this exponential growth.

Cheryl Black Sunbelt Rentals
Cheryl Black, Sunbelt Rentals

“Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do something,” Black says. “When you’re developing and growing so fast, you need to be able to morph and move to help each other build the processes. We aligned with senior managers in the field to be boots-on-the-ground support. We continue to investigate ways to make sure people understand the value of retention and adjust our strategy here.”

Part of the Ashtead Group based in the United Kingdom, Sunbelt rents specialized equipment across industries, such as general tool, climate control, power generation, and industrial resources, among others. From her base in Fort Mill, South Carolina, Black is entrenched in all facets of human resources: employee relations, benefits, compensation, performance development, recruitment, career development, HRIS, and employment litigation.

The ever-growing employee base, responsible for more than $8 billion in Sunbelt’s rental fleet, rallies around the mantra “make it happen,” which could easily have been derived from Black’s own personal experience growing up on a farm in North Carolina. Her father ran a paint and body shop, and she recalls an important lesson. “Out in the country, you do whatever it takes to get the work done,” she says.

Black continues to go out in the field today, to meet with and support the thousands of Sunbelt employees at work. This face-to-face interaction is crucial, Black explains; it’s an extension of the due diligence her team completes for each acquisition. Creating positive integrations is a cultural cornerstone for Sunbelt.

Not only is getting out into the field important, Black says, but also recognizing each employee as a whole person is crucial as well. “We realized we’ve got to be inclusive of the family, because these spouses are also taking care of our employees at home,” she says. “We have dinners when we bring them in and talk about what to expect, and that has made a huge difference in the retention of the employees and how they feel about the company and our culture at the early stage.”

To take this one step further, in December 2017, Black rolled out a more high-touch approach in the HR department. Her team geared up to interact with each new hire to cultivate relationships on an individual level. That philosophy is an expansion of the process used during many of the mergers and acquisitions, when her team invited the newly acquired company to a meeting to discuss each step ahead.

Sunbelt’s benefits program, which Black continues to evolve, also caters to the needs of the employee base. For example, Black initiated automatic enrollment for the company’s 401k program, resulting in an award-winning high of 96 percent employee participation. “From the president to our support staff, to our yard staff, our mechanics, our service managers, our salespeople—everybody is saving for retirement,” she says. Black and her team collectively sum up this goal as “paternalistic empowerment,” and that investment in the lives of employees points to a larger philosophy at play within human resources.

Human resources also teamed up with insurance management giant Lincoln Financial to implement a unique design for disability insurance tailored for Sunbelt. “We realized early on, being in the construction industry, that our employees worked a lot of overtime. Lincoln enabled us to become one of the first companies to cover overtime in its disability benefits,” Black says. “Later, when we realized that employees didn’t understand signing up for disability was a ‘one-shot deal,’ we approached Lincoln about open enrollment for disability each year. We’re always looking for ways to help our employees so they can help our customers.”

“Cheryl and her team are committed to making sure the right benefits are available to Sunbelt’s growing employee population–they consistently evaluate the needs of their people, and work very closely with us on shaping their disability plans,” says Eric Reisenwitz, senior vice president of group benefits distribution at Lincoln Financial Group. “We’ve worked with Sunbelt for more than twenty years—it’s been a privilege for us to partner with Cheryl throughout this period of tremendous growth.”

When Black first joined Sunbelt as HR manager, she got to work upgrading the outdated payroll systems and most recently upgraded to the financial and human capital management software Workday. Embracing every opportunity to connect with candidates through technology, Black’s LinkedIn bio asks interested applicants to text “sunbelt” to a number to join their talent network.

Yet Black maintains that the personal touch, such as a human being answering on the end of the phone line, is essential for employees to not only access information, but also get the answers they need. “If people can’t understand what you’re doing or why you’re doing it, they’re not going to participate,” she says. “Keep it simple.”

Yet with each acquisition comes upheaval of the status quo, and that’s why Black, when recognizing that Sunbelt systems needed to be upgraded, partnered with the Center for Intentional Leadership to train teams for effective, open, and honest communication to better manage change. That’s when the mission statement “make it better” emerged within the HR team, Black says. “Now we apply that mentality to everything we do,” she adds. Her efforts to remove the silos within the HR department early on paved the way to support new growth opportunities and interactions with other functions outside of human resources, including cross-collaboration with the marketing, business development, and strategic initiatives departments in recently launching Sunbelt’s new talent strategy.

Part of Black’s strategy is to hire HR managers in the field and align them with senior management. Coaching field leaders is a priority for her team to target turnover issues with a more strategic focus. “Out in the field alongside Sunbelt employees is where human resources can add the most value now,” Black adds, and field leaders take ownership to deliver solutions for employees and ultimately Sunbelt’s customers.

While that proactive mind-set, coupled with a strong commitment to safety, is propelling Sunbelt into the future, creating a cohesive culture stems in part from the past, and Black’s past in particular. The HR leader started her career as an office manager and says she fell into positions through networking and referrals before attending Queens University of Charlotte to earn a bachelor’s degree in business management at age twenty-nine. While enrolled at the university, Black joined CCH Capital Holdings as a financial controller in 1994.

Later she entered the operational realm at CCH Capital Holdings with her promotion to HR and PR manager, where she brought payroll in-house and consolidated the function within the human resources department. She established corporate policies and created a competitive benefits program from handbooks to substance abuse prevention to streamline the organization’s twelve privately held companies.

Unifying departments to boost efficiency proved to be Black’s specialty, first at CCH Capital Holdings and now at Sunbelt, where she taps her experiences to usher in a new era of growth. Looking ahead, Black aims to replicate the US success in Canada.

“I always say the only way we’re going to make it better is just doing it,” Black says. “Don’t ever sell yourself short or not do something because you’re scared. If you show your value and build the relationships, success will come.”

Photo by Ryan Newton

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