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Trying Harder

With Onome Amawhe

Back in 1946, a man from Michigan, in the United States had an idea: ‘What if you were able to get off a plane and take up a rent-a-car right there at the airport?’ We take that for granted now, but back then, it was a novel idea.

Warren Avis, Founder, Avis Rent-A-Car

And it was the brain child of Warren Avis, the founder of Avis Rent-A-Car. Warren Avis got this idea from his experiences in World War 11. Avis was a decorated bomber pilot with the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II.

He flew bombers over Europe and South East Asia during the war and as a socially young man who loved life, whenever he landed in a different country he would go to local town to see what there was to do. Avis was also in the habit of putting motorcycles in the bombers so that whenever he finds himself in the local town of another country, he would have transportation. Airport transportation was an empty niche on the market at this time.

Other rent-a-car companies, like Hertz– the leading car hire company of the time and a major competition for Avis, were in downtown locations—the big cities.  And his frequent exasperation at the long wait for a taxi at airports gave him the then-novel idea for a car-hire company that was based at terminals, rather than in city centres.
On his return from the war after his military service, he bought a stake in Ford Motor dealership.

Shortly thereafter using $85,000 of his own money, the rent-a-car company focused on airports was founded in December 1946 as Avis Airlines Rent-A-Car Systems with three cars at the Willow Run Airports, Michigan which was built during World War 11 along with the Willow Run Plant, where the Ford Motor Company produced B-24 bombers for US Government.

Avis established branch operations across the US over the next few years, becoming the second largest car rental company in the country by 1953. By its tenth anniversary in 1956 it had opened its first international offices in Europe Canada and Mexico: “I didn’t think setting up the rent-a-car company  was anything other than giving the customer an option I never had as a traveller”, Avis noted  in an interview with the New York Times. “Nobody thought it would work and there was incredible trouble getting all the airlines to cooperate”. In 1954, despite the rent-a-car’s early success, Warren Avis sold company to Richard Robbie for $8 million.

This sale set in motion a series of sales that left the car rental company in the hands of many owners. Avis himself was said to be a very restless businessman who usually sells off   his business interests some of which include factories, hotels and even a bank, once he gets bored with them.

Soon after Robbie bought the company, it was once again sold to Amoskeag Co a Boston based company.  On March 22nd, 1962, Avis went red and was once again sold to Lazard Frères and Co., an investment bank that was determined to get Avis back on track at a time  the rent-a-car company’s market share was only 10-11 % compared to the 75-76 % for Hertz, its major competition and the number one rent-a-car company of the time.

It was the tough competition from Hertz that drove Avis to come up with the winning advertising campaign: “We are only No. 2. We Try Harder”. Avis was not No. 2 when Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) launched the “We’re only No. 2.We Try Harder” Campaign in 1962.

Hertz was No. 1, for sure, and then there was everyone else. Avis lay claim to the No. 2 spot by positioning itself with a spunky, energetic brand personality. With the launch of the “We’re only No. 2. (That’s why) “We Try Harder” campaign, Avis vaulted itself successfully over the pack and became No. 2. With this campaign which has been adjudged one of the world’s most famous advertising programs, Avis’ sales were $34 million with a loss of $3.2 million. In 1963, sales were $35 million with a profit (for the first time in 15 years) of $1.2 million. And in 1964, revenues jumped to $44 million with a profit of $3 million.

The campaign left its mark on Hertz, which in 1966 left its old agency for a new one, directing them to build a campaign to stop Avis. In many ways, it was too little, too late. Hertz had lost 10 percent of its market share to Avis and begrudgingly acknowledged in the first headline of their new campaign that the former non-competitor was now No. 2. Avis.

In trying to retain its glorious position, Hertz fought back by mentioning Avis by name in their advertisements as well as countering the Avis’ arguments by doing ads like: “No.2 says he tries harder.

Than who?” or “For years, Avis has been telling you Hertz is No. 1. Now we’re going to tell you why”. Early 1967 saw Avis fighting back with ads like: “Avis has been attacked by a larger fleet” and “Why No. 1 has to do something about Avis”. “We Try harder ‘illustrates a basic sense of honesty that was simplistic in its presentation, yet complex in its understatement and these three words changed the face of Avis.

The “We try harder” advertising campaign continues to communicate a sense of purpose and what the rent-a-car company really is: to provide the highest level of quality service and satisfaction to its  worldwide customer base and even today,  the campaign still remains an integral and important element of Avis global culture.

That’s how important the “We try harder” campaign is to the company. In 1965, Avis was sold to industrial giant ITT and expanded operations into Africa and Middle East. Avis became a privately owned company in 1977 and by 1987; it was already in the hands of employees who bought a 71 percent stake in their company.

The remainder shares were held by General Motors. Avis was once again acquired for $800 million in 1994 by Hospitality Franchise Systems.  Cendant the company’s current owner acquired Avis in 2001 and ceded part of the company to Europe, Asia, Middle East and Africa.

The company currently operates in over 4,000 locations in 114 countries and is now known as Avis Rent-A-Car system LLC, a part of the Avis Budget Group Inc that has brought innovation to the industry with its development of wizard, an electronic reservation system connected to the variety of the company’s partnerships including airlines, hotels and other select corporate organizations. The rent-a-car company previously operated in Nigeria through John Holt holdings owners of the Avis franchise at the time and is currently under a Turtle Nigeria, the new Avis franchisee for the Nigerian market.

A canny entrepreneur soon after Warren Avis sold Avis the rent-a-car company, he established Avis Enterprises, a privately held company with interests in real estate, management consulting and international investing.
He also invested in high-technology electronics companies, mostly in the U.S. Midwest. His other ventures included Avis Sports Inc., which owned wholesale sporting goods businesses in Portland, Oregon, Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, and Morehead City, North Carolina. A Ford Motor Company dealership in the Detroit suburb of Southfield that preceded the car-rental business still bears his name, while Avis Farms, a pair of office parks in Ann Arbor, were sold in recent years.

After selling a Detroit-based manufacturing conglomerate, Avis in 1970 moved to the farm in Ann Arbor, where he would operate his businesses from a converted barn. With success, Avis befriended famous socialites including actor Cary Grant, hotelier Nicky Hilton and entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.

In the 1970s, he founded Behavioural Science Training Laboratories Inc., which focused on human relations in business management. In 2002, Avis helped dedicate an exhibit in his honour at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn. In addition to his farm, Avis and his wife maintained residences in New York and Acapulco, Mexico, where he enjoyed parasailing and other water sports. He would later write seven books, including his 1986 business memoir “Take a Chance to be First,” which chronicled the Avis Rent A Car story.

His working life had begun in the 1930s, as a Michigan state department investigator, and then as a travelling pills salesman. Second World War military service in the US Air Force saw him reach major rank. But his metier rapidly became consumer-focused business innovation.
He added corporate credit accounts and, in 1948, ditched the “Airline” part of his business title as he opened branches near large city-centre hotels.  To travellers everywhere, Avis is familiar as one of the world’s biggest names in car rental, an airport fixture as humdrum – albeit handy – as Burger King or Sunglass Hut. Yet very few know what an innovator Warren Avis was. Years after he sold the auto concern, Avis offered to buy back the rent-a-car company in 1985.

He assembled a group of private, international investors who hope to acquire the auto concern estimated at $400 million. In the Avis deal, a former U.S Treasury Secretary out bid Warren Avis. Avis who maintained a home in New York was never bashful about his wealth or his desire to spend it: “I’ve never been interested in making a fortune and having a heart attack, as some people do”, he once said. Warren Avis was born in Bay City in 1915.
He died on April 25th 2007 of natural causes at his farm in Ann Arbour with his wife, Yana, at his side. He was aged 92


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