February 12, 2007

Avis

And the man behind the brand is...
Warren Avis

As an Air Force combat flying officer during World War II Warren Avis traveled many hard miles in Europe and America. Unfortunately much of it was after landing - making his way between the airport and his destination. Decent ground transportation was so scarce Avis sometimes carried motorcycles in the bomb bays of his planes so he would be able to get around when he landed.

The solution was simple enough: a car-rental system needed to be set up at airports. It was not a new revelation but anyone who had thought of it considered it impossible. A national car-rental network would be required; huge fleets of cars necessary; elaborate controls mandatory. Even industry giant Hertz was reluctant to tackle the logistical nightmare presented by the airport market.

It was left to Avis - who mustered out of the Air Force in 1946 - to be the first to rent cars at airports. Avis, who started dealing bikes and used cars as a teenager, was an auto dealer in Detroit and began there. He signed an exclusive contract to open the Avis Airlines Rent-A-Car System at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport. Simultaneously, he opened a rental location at Miami Airport,
a favorite destination for both vacationers and business travelers.

There was much to overcome. Many people didn’t know how to rent a car in those days; Avis set up counters near the baggage pick-up areas where he had twenty minutes or so to educate travelers on the Avis rental system. There were scores of details to work out: where to park the cars, how to advertise the service inside airports, what kind of insurance should be offered, how to train and staff counter workers.

Once Avis figured everything out in Miami and Detroit other Avis-owned airport operations sprouted in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Washington. By 1948 Los Angeles and Houston had come on board. As the system expanded Avis began to align himself with the airlines. He wangled Avis pamphlets into the airplane seat pockets - the first non-airline information allowed in seat pockets. He advertised jointly with American Airlines, welding Avis’ rental cars with the airline in the public’s mind.

For three years Hertz, the industry giant, sat on the sidelines and watched. They were still convinced Avis would fail. Instead, Avis prospered mightily, so much so he entered the Hertz stronghold - downtown hotels and offices in 1948. When Hertz finally moved into airports they were always playing catch-up.

At the time Hertz was owned by General Motors. A Ford dealer, Avis had no problem striking a deal with Ford Motors. He began the unheard-of practice for car renters of buying new Ford autos every year. Avis pointed out that his renters would, in essence, be test-driving new Ford models. Ford let the cars go cheap and Avis got a reputation for quality from a fleet of reliable autos.

It was an exciting time. But Avis was a builder, not a manager. In 1954, with 185 Avis locations in the United States and another dozen in foreign countries, Avis sold his Avis System for a reported $8 million. Over the years that followed Avis was in and out of over 30 businesses. He did well in real estate, not so well in oil. Condominium conversions were a success, flowers-by-wire less so. He authored books and built Avis Ford into the largest Ford dealership in Michigan.

In his business adventures Avis always sought to make a contribution to society. For most of his years he did this through his companies. In 1988, however, saying, “We have to stop being a conflict society,” Avis established a $2 million encounter group program in Ann Arbor to explore peaceful co-existence. To many, world peace is a pipe dream. Exactly what they said about rental cars in airports.

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