J.P. Vercollone runs his family’s new Sixt franchise location serving Boston’s Logan International Airport.
Like many in this business, Jack Vercollone didn’t set out to be in car rental. A teacher by trade and holding a master’s degree in sports management, Vercollone returned from a teaching stint in Italy, got married and took a job at the employee fitness center at the corporate headquarters of Xerox in Stamford, Conn.
The year was 1978, and Vercollone soon saw the ceiling in his corporate fitness job. With layoffs pending, he turned to his brothers, who owned a couple of gas stations and a car wash. “My brothers said we’ve got this little car rental business that nobody is taking care of,” he says.
With a fleet of 30 cars, they called it Low Budget Rentals to compete with a Budget Rent a Car down the street. “It took me two weeks to even figure out how to write a contract,” Vercollone says. He learned, of course, and managed through the ’80s to grow the business and the fleet to about 125 units.
Ultimately, Vercollone’s brothers were more interested in gas stations and car washes than funding a rental fleet. Instead of shutting down, Vercollone bought out the rental business in 1990 and changed the name to Verc Rentals. “We divided the business and kept the family together,” he says.
Along with his wife Paula, Vercollone carved out a niche in Boston’s South Shore and Eastern Massachusetts doing insurance replacement and neighborhood rentals.
Verc operated similarly to other local rental companies, marketing through Yellow Page ads, knocking on doors of insurance companies and body shops, promoting “locally owned,” sponsoring events and giving to charities.
Verc Rentals (and then Verc Car Rental) found a niche for a while renting conversion vans. Owners Jack and Paula Vercollone (pictured) have 11 children.
Vercollone found success with vans, becoming one of the largest renters of 15-passenger vans in greater Boston. Conversion vans — with upscale trims, captain’s chairs and DVD players — were hot for a time. Wheelchair accessible vans are still good business. They did well with Toyotas.
The company benefitted from low overhead and few layers of management, so initiatives could be implemented quickly and dismantled if the market changed. It was entrepreneurial but not an exact science. “We went with our gut feeling,” he says.
The company ebbed and flowed with the economy, opening and closing locations, achieving a peak fleet of close to 500 units. But when looking forward, Vercollone says the math didn’t add up. Corporate business was always a struggle as a small independent. The majors would always have more buying power. Local rental companies were disappearing. Vercollone admits he isn’t tech savvy, and keeping up with technology became harder and harder.
“We came to the conclusion that the days of the small independent are over,” Vercollone says. “I didn’t think it was a business I could invite the kids into to take over.” In terms of a succession plan, the original idea was to “run it as long as we could, shut the lights off, sell everything and walk away.”
At the 2012 Car Rental Show, Jack and Paula Vercollone met the team at Sixt, the premium European brand that was just establishing a foothold in the United States through a mix of corporate and franchise stores.
The couple subsequently visited Sixt’s U.S. headquarters in Florida, which led to an invitation to the Sixt corporate meeting in Vienna, Austria.
Founded in Germany in 1912, Sixt is a public company, though still family driven — a fact not lost on the Vercollones.
Erich Sixt runs the company as chairman of the board of directors. His wife, Regine Sixt, is senior executive vice president of Sixt International. Their sons Alexander, head of corporate development, and Konstantin, managing the company’s Internet activities, represent the fourth generation of family involvement.
“We were extremely impressed with [the Sixt] work ethic,” says Vercollone, adding that at the meeting, Regine and Erich Sixt made themselves available on various occasions. “They were wonderful hosts.”
Sixt eventually offered the Vercollones the franchise to serve Boston’s Logan International Airport. For all of Verc’s years in rental, setting up shop at one of the top 20 airports in the U.S. is “the difference between downhill skiing and cross-country skiing,” Vercollone says.
To spearhead this initiative, Vercollone turned to his own family — his son J.P.
While Jack Vercollone did not initially consider a career in car rental, J.P. did.
J.P. grew up working for his father, first washing cars and then driving them. In college, he got an internship with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. After graduating, he held different positions with Enterprise in various locations throughout the U.S., gaining valuable airport experience along the way. After a corporate sales job outside the industry, Vercollone offered J.P. the opportunity to run the Logan location.
“I was hesitant at first,” says J.P. “This was a great opportunity, but if we don’t do it right, it’s not going to work. The process is fast moving and a lot larger than suburban insurance replacement rentals. He [Jack] didn’t know what he was getting into, going on airport to compete shoulder to shoulder with the majors.”
J.P. took the job and set out to get as much hands-on training as he could. He conferred with his old Enterprise contacts and visited multiple Sixt locations for weeks at a time to observe and learn. “My biggest takeaway is that you need to invest in the right people and get them trained the right way,” he says.
The first step — securing a location — ended up being the hardest. Logan’s consolidated car rental facility (conrac) had just been built, though the airport insisted on a track record before a new entrant could bid.
The Vercollones went to look for a location in several adjacent towns serving the airport, each with peculiarities. East Boston was already overrun by park-and-fly-type businesses and shut the door on new ones. A hotel in the famous Seaport District was a possibility, but a drive to the airport through the Ted Williams Tunnel during rush hour made it clear the location wouldn’t work.
The airport, on a peninsula, was directly connected to the town of Chelsea over a busy drawbridge. It was close enough, but the new franchise had to plan for drawbridge delays by mapping out alternative routes while looking to shorten wait times by putting tablets in the shuttle vans to fill out contracts. Sixt ultimately approved. The search for a location took “well over a year,” says Vercollone.
While the day may come when the franchise enters the conrac, being off-airport has its advantages. The “near airport” model is commonplace for rental companies in other cities, but at Logan, Sixt’s competition is negligible. And for customers, the trade-off for the extra shuttle time is lower costs — at least 15% savings in fees over airport companies.
The airport location, which opened in June, fits into Sixt’s stringent branding requirements. Exiting the shuttle bus, clients are treated to an unexpected “wow” factor.
Owners Paula and Jack Vercollone and two rental agents pose with the first customer to the new Sixt Logan International Airport location.
The office has granite marble floors, illuminated desks, background music and monitors playing Sixt commercials. Customers can make their own espresso. The look is modern, sleek — and orange. Male employees wear three-piece, tailor-fit suits. Women wear Chanel-level business suits. “It’s unlike anything you’ve seen in this industry, from any other brand,” says J.P.
In any new franchisor-franchisee relationship, initial CSI (customer service index) scores gain increased scrutiny. So far, they’re very good, Vercollone says.
The suburban locations are still known as Verc Car Rental, though the rebranding process has begun.
A 24-hour business — with shuttle vans and drivers and an overnight staff — took some getting used to. The importance of hiring the right people is becoming more evident. Reservations are Internet only, and they come from multiple channels. Managing the rapidly changing pricing structure is a job in itself.
J.P. doesn’t downplay the hard work. “As owner-operator of a store open 24 hours, I can’t possibly be here enough,” says J.P., who is pulling 80- to 90-hour workweeks. “But I can’t possibly be here all the time. I need time to decompress.”
Overall, Vercollone says it has been an adjustment moving from being your own boss to abiding by a franchise system’s rules. But Sixt has offered the support needed to navigate a more complex business.
“We’re grateful to be in a position to grow, because we weren’t able to grow with Verc,” Vercollone says. “And yet we would not be in the car rental business at Logan Airport as a Sixt franchise without the strong, loyal group of employees who got us here.”
“I’m in my twilight years of working,” he admits. But when asked about retirement, he references a similar conversation with Erich Sixt in Vienna, who told him, “I don’t play golf.”
“I don’t play golf either,” Vercollone says.