I couldn’t have been more than a year into my role as editor of Auto Rental News. There was a meeting at LAX, one of those roll-up-your-sleeve affairs where reps from car rental companies haggle across a conference table about parking space allocation and counter sizes with their frenemies in the room. And Joe invited me.
I had no business being there, but I didn’t know any better. The exchange went something like this:
Them: “Who’s he?”
Joe: “Hey everyone, this is Chris Brown, from Auto Rental News.”
Me (wave): “Nice to meet everybody!”
Them (incredulous smirks): “What? No. Goodbye!”
To this day I don’t know how Joe thought I’d be allowed to sit in on an airport concessions meeting. I’m sure he had a smirk on his face during the affair. Welcome to car rental.
I thought about that incident recently. I thought of mentioning it to Joe during one of our regular calls. I didn’t get the chance.
I’ve been writing this tribute in my head for a few years now, ever since Joe’s health scares started getting serious. You know that phone call will come, but you can never prepare for it. “Hey man, if you haven’t heard, Joe Knight died yesterday.”
This is my tribute to Joe.
I’ve had a few mentors in my life. My dad first and foremost. Elaine Litwer, a champion of the Graves Amendment, who I knew through my work with the National Vehicle Leasing Association. But when it came to car rental, it was Joe.
He taught me everything I know, or at least the stuff that matters. Joe took a shine to me when I was first starting out. Here’s a kid who actually likes to talk car rental, and write about it? There aren’t many of us to be sure.
He told me people call him the Cowboy, or sometimes the Colonel, so I started calling him that. Frankly I don’t remember anyone else using those nicknames for him, but I suppose they did.
There was a time when we made a point to chat every week. He’d call out of the blue and start the phone convo with, “Mr. Brown, how the hell are yah!”
We talked about daily dollar average, utilization, ancillary sales, and rental rate fluctuations. All the geeky stuff. We talked auction lanes, automakers that were cutting allocation, and which ones had money on the hood. We nattered on about acquisitions and acrimonious splits and who was moving to a new company.
Joe liked to bring up airport market share and which brands ticked up or down a point or two. And I’d harass him to have Fox get more airport shuttles at LAX. (They still need more shuttles, btw.)
He knew more about my family than most of the people in my life. He took a genuine interest. He’d remember things and bring them back up: “Hey, how’d things turn out with that teacher conference for your kid?”
But it wasn’t just shooting the breeze; he taught me how stuff works. If I didn’t get it, he’d send me links to information to enlighten me. The process advanced my knowledge of the industry, which translated into better content for readers of Auto Rental News.
He told me stuff in confidence. I never betrayed his confidence and he never betrayed mine.
Joe loved his rodeo and talking about the National Finals in Vegas. He took me to Gilley’s at Treasure Island. Near the Bobit headquarters in the South Bay of L.A., there’s a place called Texas Loosey’s. The waitresses used to dress in chaps and lingerie back in the day. Joe’s type of place. Mine too.
We held the Car Rental Show at the Las Vegas Hilton for years. That hotel is long gone, taking a few Joe and Chris stories with it. There were other places in other cities far off the beaten path. “Joe, where are you taking us?”
Allen Rezapour, Mike Jaberi, and Mark Mirtorabi founded Fox Rent A Car in 1989 with six Nissan Sentras and built the company to what it is today. Joe can take credit there too. He was the in-the-trenches guy, always on the road for the new store openings during Fox’s incredible growth period.
That meeting at LAX was one of hundreds for Joe. He banged elbows with the big brands at airports around the country. “And here I am, little old me,” he’d recount, but the message around the room was clear: “I’ve been to too many of these rodeos to know what’s true and what’s bullshit.”
It’s that type of attitude that will get you a bigger counter, more parking stalls, and a larger quick turnaround area. This is how market share is won in the trenches that won’t show up on a resume or an obituary.
This matters too: The boards of anything — a condo, church, company, or industry association — are made up of personalities. Joe served on the ACRA board for many years and worked with many personalities. I was never in those board meetings, but I do know Joe’s calm, we-can-work-through-this attitude helped to gain consensus, get bylaws written, and resolutions passed.
Texas Looseys was gutted by a three-alarm fire a few weeks before you died, Joe. Gilley’s is still there but I can’t imagine that in the new Vegas it’ll last much longer.
It’s all coming a little more front and center for me lately.
I’ve been in this business for 20 years, which is a fraction of your contributions to it, but long enough to see and live the arc. Industry acquaintances become friends. Those friends grow into their middle-aged selves, like me. We witness each other processing the years. We retire and will die someday, just like you. And the community mourns.
Industry friends are good friends — underrated, actually. They never ask too much. You give and take what you need.
I wanted to give you this send-off. But I’ll admit that some of it was for me. Writers relish the chance to pay tribute to someone who matters to them. Writers need to write. Sometimes the words don’t flow, but emotions are a pretty good instigator.
Thanks for what you’ve done for the industry, Cowboy. Thanks for being my mentor and my friend. And thanks for helping the words flow.