If all of the women who have been inducted into the Birmingham (Alabama) Business Hall of Fame for the past six years came into Sallie Creel’s Thrifty location to rent a car, they would be able to rent a two-seater. That’s because Creel can count herself as one of only two women who have received this honor, sponsored by the Kiwanis Club, since 1997. The 30 men who have also received the honor would need at least a couple vans.
One thing is certain, though — each of these business leaders would readily turn to Creel for any of their auto rental needs. That’s because Creel’s formula for success includes a generous helping of community involvement and activism. Serving on countless boards and committees, she readily acknowledges that giving to the community has more than doubled the returns.
It hasn’t always been an easy road for Creel, though. In 1972, after working in sales for both Budget and Thrifty, she decided it was time to strike out on her own. But it was Birmingham, Ala., in 1972. Women just didn’t do things like this at that time. Nevertheless, Creel pressed on. After receiving countless rounds of loan rejections from banks, she finally convinced GMAC to advance her enough money for a modest fleet of 20 cars.
Creel traveled down to a local auto dealer and placed her order for 20 Monte Carlos. Then she found the perfect location — the front end of a service station just half a mile from the airport — and started booking reservations. But the cars never arrived. It turns out that the dealer, like so many others before him, failed to take Creel seriously. When the cars arrived on his lot, he sold them at retail.
Faced with customers due to arrive on an empty lot, Creel hastily concocted a temporary fleet. “I had to do something to keep the doors open. I even rented out my mother’s car,” she recalls.
Her tenacity paid off, and in the first year of business Creel grew the fleet to 80 cars. [PAGEBREAK]
While Creel had a plan for growing her business, then an American International Rent-A-Car franchise, the company’s rapid expansion six months later wasn’t really part of that plan. But when her business landlord, the service station owner, fell ill, Creel wound up purchasing the entire facility. Faced with having to sell gas in addition to renting cars, Creel’s marketing instincts kicked in. Free six-packs of Coca-Cola came with each fill-up, and Creel took to the streets and airport to start distributing fliers trumpeting her business. At the end of one very hectic year, her business generated gross revenue of $140,000.
Today, more than 30 years later, Alabama Car Rental has three locations and more than 30 employees. Now a Thrifty franchise, the company grossed $3.5 million in 2001. Creel credits this success in large part to three factors: hard work, community involvement and a team of dedicated employees.
Community Involvement Key to Success
Creel has always made time in her busy schedule to give back to the community that she loves. Born and raised in Birmingham, it wasn’t hard for her to find causes that she cared about and she began volunteering for a variety of local organizations.
“I started with the Chamber of Commerce first and from there it just mushroomed,” Creel says. “As a native of Birmingham, I truly love this city. I’ve built relationships here my whole life, and since my business is a family owned and operated one, people know it is one they can trust.”
Creel capitalizes on this ideal by being the sole spokesperson for the business. Her advertising campaigns, which include print, radio and television, all feature her as the face of the business.
“I think it helps people to identify with the business. They know if they have a problem they can pick up the phone and call me,” she says.
Throughout the years, Creel’s community activism has provided endless networking opportunities. And it also provided her the chance to do something she is quite proud to point out — serve on the board of one of the banks that turned down her original business loan request. [PAGEBREAK]
Creel’s business has changed names and franchise system affiliations a number of times, but her community involvement has remained constant. In 1992, Alabama Car Rental received a citation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for the Blue Chip Enterprise Initiative — a prestigious honor. The Birmingham News and Birmingham Business Journal have both named Creel one of the top 10 women in Birmingham.
Back in 1984, Creel was named the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce’s first Small Business Person of the Year. In 1996, Birmingham’s Child Times magazine named Creel’s company Best Company for Working Parents.
Creel’s passion for activism extends throughout her company’s ranks. Advertising and Public Relations Director Lisa Christopher says that Creel “allows us to get involved in things important to us. We know that we have the support of Sallie and Thrifty. She has a tremendous sense of community service and civic duty.”
A Strong Workforce and Business Plan
With benefits like flex-time and a company car after 15 years of service, Creel offers many of the benefits of working for a large company but in a family atmosphere. Both of Creel’s sons are active in the business. What’s more, five other employees have been with her for more than 15 years. That includes branch service manager Eugene Perry, who earned Thrifty’s national Blue Chip Service Award for exceptional customer service.
“She’s a great manager, offering flexibility, encouraging self-initiative but coming to our aid when we need it,” says Christopher. “With Sallie it’s more than about making a dollar, it’s about doing the right thing.” [PAGEBREAK]
In 1995, Alabama Car Rentals joined the Thrifty franchise system in a move to bolster airport business. The strategy worked. Creel has also dedicated time over the years to forging strong relationships with local hotels that can direct business her way. Her strongest marketing tactic, though, is to consistently provide clean cars and superior service.
While such a credo may get the rentals, it is another tactic that contributes heartily to the company’s bottom line. Her son Robert makes the fleet purchasing decisions with a strong eye on which cars will yield a high resale value. Carefully choosing a mix of imports, domestics, vans and light-duty vehicles, the company sells an average of 20-30 cars a month through an on-the-spot financing program arranged with financial institutions.
The ability to offer instant financing allows the company to compete with local dealerships and used car lots. In past years such sales have contributed up to 30% of the business’ total annual revenue.
Since her cars come with impeccable maintenance records and include transfer of warranty when applicable, Creel has managed to garner repeat customers including many businesses that come to her for purchasing vehicles for their sales force.
“Because we sell the cars with mileage under 30K, the warranties are often transferable,” Creel explains. “Combined with our records of preventive maintenance, we’re able to compete with any dealer or used car lot.” [PAGEBREAK]
Challenges Lie Ahead
Like other car rental business owners, Creel is struggling with the ongoing economic downturn and travel slowdown. In 2002, company revenue dropped 17%. Fortunately, the company managed to cut expenses 18%.
Recent shifts in Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group’s corporate strategy have also complicated matters, Creel says. She recently announced the decision to leave the Thrifty franchise system in August.
“When Thrifty merged with Dollar and consolidated administrative operations, their philosophy seems to have changed to favor more corporate-owned locations instead of franchises,” Creel says. “They want to buy the top 50 airport markets, of which Birmingham is not one, but the small business operator is expected to pay the same franchise fee as the top markets would.”
Moreover, 0% financing on new car purchases has also cut into Creel’s revenue stream of auto sales. “Like any business, it’s cyclical. Right now we’re down. I’m just hoping the tides turn soon,” she adds.
Predictably, Creel already has a plan for the future that includes possible expansion back into a valet parking service at the local airport. With her close location, she can offer rates below on-airport locations and have the cars to the airport in minutes.
When asked for her assessment of the car rental market, Creel is hesitant. “Everyone is struggling these days — manufacturers, dealerships, car rental operators. We need to start working together instead of cutting each other off,” she says.
One thing is certain, however. Creel is determined to stick things out. “A lot of things are on hold now with the world situation,” she notes. “We all just need to hang in there.”