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Hertz bankruptcy a major road sign toward the future of cars and transportation


It was sad to see the oldest car rental institution in the world, Hertz, file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Friday, given the severe impact of COVID-19 on travel and the economy. But the story is a much bigger one — it reflects the difficulties of building a solid, profitable company in the car business with healthy cash reserves to survive a catastrophe; and it points to the fundamental changes in how people will be using cars, travel, and taking short rides in the city, in the years ahead.

I’d learned a lot about the car rental business and other elements of its supply chain — automaker fleet departments, airlines, hotels, travel management companies, reservation systems, and the used car remarking arm — as the editor of Auto Rental News; and later working with car rental industry expert and consultant Neil Abrams as the manager of his Abrams Travel Data Services business unit. Learning about the nuts and bolts of how car rental companies work gave me a wonderful education in economics, the auto industry, and the growing importance of travel to consumers and corporate executives — almost like an MBA. Automotive Digest Publisher Chuck Parker had served as the publisher of ARN, and encouraged me to take that publication where I wanted it to go — analyzing market data and offering readers a big-picture perspective on how all of this dynamic change would likely affect their future.

A Bloomberg article on the Hertz bankruptcy cited a ranking of top car rental companies that I put together for ARN in 1994. It ranked Enterprise its new No. 1 by fleet size and number of offices, bumping Hertz off its top spot for the first time. It was also during the time when Hertz’s advertising spokesman OJ Simpson was taken off his mantle and had his years-long contract with the auto rental giant taken away as his murder trial was scheduled. The 1990s also saw the beginning of company mergers and buyouts; and smaller car rental companies having to shut down and leave the business. The global economy was seeing similar trends with mergers and acquisitions taking center stage for automakers, airlines, hotels, media and entertainment companies, banking and investment firms, healthcare, and tech companies.

Over the next 20 years, we would see Enterprise purchase National and Alamo, Avis buy Budget and car sharing leader Zipcar, and Hertz buy Dollar and Thrifty. Hertz would take on Enterprise in the local market with its Hertz Local Edition division — offering replacement cars for repair and service, and weekend rentals to nearby residents who wanted a nice big vehicle to take a road trip. Hertz and Enterprise started car sharing units to compete with Zipcar and its parent Avis, along with Daimler’s car2go and General Motor’s Maven business units.

But what’s happened since then?

—Building a profitable business model continues to be tough: C