We profiled Matthew Holowinski's company, Greenberg Rent A Car, in the Sept/Oct issue of ARN. I got an email from him recently thanking me for the piece. Matt's operation is tiny, which in the course of magazine publishing tends to get lost in the big picture stuff. And yet my mind keeps circling back around to his story.
Matt emigrated from Poland in 1992 and started his car rental career at Avis O'Hare airport. He quickly became a top salesperson, not because he was aggressive with customers, but because he gave them options to choose from. "I would rather try to sell people something that is really beneficial to them, and let them pick," he says. International clientele appreciated the patience he showed them, especially when their English was poor.
He was offered a manager's position at Avis but turned it down because he could make more money as a rental sales agent. Two years later he was tapped to become an Avis independent operator, and he grew his store into a $1 million earner. But after 10 years, he was ready, as he puts it, to spread his wings and create something from scratch.
At that point he had no location, no cars and no financing. But he had desire. "I wanted it so bad; I knew I could do it," he said.
Do you remember that feeling, that passion you had to stake your claim in the business world and go for it? It gets lost in the day-to-day toil sometimes. But if you're still in business, that passion is there, somewhere. Hopefully you can conjure it when things aren't looking so good.
Matt opened his business and called it Greenberg, after his hometown in his Poland. He bought an eight-year-old Ford Focus for $3,000 and put it to work. It was one of his best moneymakers, he says.
He wanted to open in Chicago. But realizing how prohibitive Chicago's taxation is, he found a location in a neighboring town on the city limits and advertised the lower rates.
He decided he wanted to make a go at luxury rentals. He was able to buy a Lexus LS 460 but was having problems marketing it. However, Matt remembered that when he was Avis he was forced to turn down plenty of customers with credit problems. How could he reach this market? Could he serve these customers and not get burned?
He went directly to his competition, major car rental companies in the area, and asked them to send him the business they turned down. They obliged. The customers came.
So he had the customers, now he needed cars. With no history of owning a business, getting traditional financing was not happening. So he turned to a company that leases limousines, of all things, and they financed him, one unit at a time.
Matt then tinkered with loss control. He installed a GPS tracking system with an ignition shut-off device. He now refuses cash rentals but will take debit cards. He says this system seems to be working. His 23 units are always on rent, and he has to turn customers away. But the revenue is barely enough to cover his costs. He knows he has to grow.
In his recent email, Matt said he is close to obtaining financing from an established lender. It looks like things are moving for him, which I expected. When you talk to Matt you pick up an earnestness that belies all this hip cynicism that is so fashionable these days. You don't get that with Matt. But you also understand a savvy businessman under it all.
"I wanted it so bad; I knew I could do it."
Matt's story is that of an independent car rental operator who in this day and age is making it work, somehow. It's one of entrepreneurial spirit. Of what is possible.
Those expecting stability in the auto rental and automotive industries are in for a rude awakening. If someone has moved your cheese, you better go find it. Someone absconded with Matt's cheese, so he switched to cheddar and it tastes pretty good too.
If it's not another excise tax, higher lending rates, franchise buyouts or bankruptcy litigation, it's something else. We'll always be worrying about something, big picture or small. But talking to Matthew Holowinski makes me think that we can be okay.