Warren Avis

Car-hire innovator

Warren Edward Avis, businessman: born Bay City, Michigan 4 August 1915; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Ann Arbor, Michigan 24 April 2007.

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 few now will know what an innovator Warren Avis was.

He founded his company in December 1946 as Avis Airlines Rent-A-Car Systems. 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. His first was at the Willow Run airport in Ypsilanti, Detroit, with a fleet of three cars; the second was in Miami, Florida.

Customers found it disconcerting at first, as Avis's staff escorted them to the car parked conveniently outside the terminal entrance. But they soon got used to it. "I didn't think it was anything other than giving the customer an option I never had as a traveller", Avis said.

He borrowed $75,000 to start the business, adding an extra $10,000 of his own capital. His part-ownership of a Ford dealership spurred him always to have the latest models for hire. "Nobody thought it would work", Avis said. But the business was a runaway success.

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 métier 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. He also franchised Avis across the US, expanding into Canada, Mexico and Europe.

In 1954 Warren Avis found an eager buyer for his business in Richard Robie of U-Drivit Corporation. He was paid an amazing $8m. It was the first of a dozen changes of ownership during which Avis grew to rival the US market leader, Hertz. Warren himself was long gone when the company launched its marketing warcry "We're only No 2. We try harder" in 1963, but it was commensurate with the founder's commercial zeal. Today, the Avis car-hire insignia can be found at 4,000 locations worldwide.

Once described in The New York Times as "chronically antsy", Avis bought a 300-acre farm in Michigan, plus homes in New York and Acapulco, and enjoyed a playboy lifestyle.

But he also went on a buying spree of businesses - anything that took his fancy, from factories to hotels, sports goods wholesalers to banks. If he found a venture "boring" then he sold it. A mission to buy back Avis Rent-A-Car from the American private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts foundered, but Warren Avis was undaunted - he simply bought Teleflorist instead.

Giles Chapman

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