It is widely accepted that the car rental industry was born in Chicago in 1918 with a dozen Model T Fords.

Thirty-seven years later, in 1955, the Car and Truck Renting and Leasing Association (CATRALA) was organized “to promote sound public policy with respect to the leasing and renting of motor vehicles without drivers.” At the same time, the American Automotive Leasing Association (AALA) was established to address a ruling that the IRS had made regarding capital gain treatments on the sale of used leased vehicles.

The two organizations worked together and met to discuss mutual problems and planned ways to solve legislative concerns. Howard Smith, executive secretary of CATRALA, said in 1962, “CATRALA was designed to avoid being an ordinary trade association. It has one prime goal: legislative concerns.” 

In 1978, CATRALA dissolved and the American Car Rental Association (ACRA) and the Truck Renting and Leasing Association (TRALA) were formed while AALA continued to represent the automotive leasing companies.

According to Ken Elder, a retired Dollar Thrifty franchise owner in Washington, D.C. who had always been politically involved, the major car rental companies and a number of larger independents and franchise operators began sharing lunches and opinions about legislative issues that were affecting the industry in the late ’70s.

From those casual meetings, the attendees recognized a need for a national association that would share a unified voice.

ACRA Builds its Base
Jim Tennant, currently principal of the Tennant Group, was asked to join the newly formed ACRA in 1980. At the time, Tennant was president of Holiday Rent a Car International Inc., a car rental franchisor based in Florida. It was the association’s goal to represent as many operators as possible, so the association welcomed the smaller systems, companies and independents to join.

ACRA was growing but still needed some assistance to organize more effectively. In the early ’80s, Mike and Mary Payne, who ran a public relations firm, assisted Tennant with a Holiday Rent a Car convention and were subsequently hired to give ACRA the boost it needed.

In 1988 Jan Armstrong, from Merchants Associates, became executive director of ACRA. She remained with the association until it was disbanded in 1998.

Avis, National, Budget, Alamo, Dollar, Thrifty and Enterprise were corporate members of the association beginning in the ’80s. Frank Olsen, CEO of Hertz from 1977-1999, chose to pursue legislative concerns in-house and did not join ACRA.

Jim Shapiro, formerly the owner of the American International Rent a Car franchise system, recalls that from 1985, the association alternated the position of president every year between a corporate employee and a franchisee. Shapiro was president from 1992-1993.

Many CEOs and senior corporate executives steered ACRA through the ’90s, assuring that ACRA was a moving force in Congress; they included Don Himelfarb of Thrifty Car Rental, Gary Paxton of Dollar Rent a Car, Phil Schailer of Alamo Car Rental, Charles Bovino of Avis Rent a Car, and Sandy Miller, Roger Gelder and Bob Aprati of Budget Car Rental, as well as Wayne Kauffman from Enterprise.[PAGEBREAK]

Independents, Franchises Splinter Off
According to Frank Colonna of Triangle Rent a Car, it was determined by a few that the interests of the major players may vary from those of the independents and franchisees. The idea was that two organizations would make a better structure, and in 1996, the independent car rental companies decided to start their own association called the Association for Car and Truck Rental Independents and Franchises (ACTIF).

Having two associations was not as successful as planned and the decision was made to disband ACRA in 1998, leaving ACTIF as the sole represention of the industry.

The late Russell S. Bruno was executive director of ACTIF from 1996-2003. The first president of ACTIF was Sherb Brown of Bobit Business Media, publisher of Auto Rental News.

This new association was dependent on vendors as well as members to be financially solvent. During this time, the Car Rental Show — formerly known as the American Car Rental Convention and a product of ACRA — became a joint venture with ACTIF and Auto Rental News. Other presidents of ACTIF included industry consultant James Schalberg in 2000, Shapiro in 2001, Dana Clay (originally with TSD) from 1997 to 1999 and several additional vendor presidents.

In 2003, it was determined that the national association should include all car rental companies. From that time until 2005, the association was known as ACTRA, or American Car and Truck Rental Association. ACTRA was run by the Harrington Association, a management firm, with Maggie Tatton as the associate director. Kevin Miles of Budget Car Rental in Columbus, Ohio was president in 2004-2005.

An Industry Re-unifies
Further restructuring of the association came in 2006 when the acronym ACRA was resurrected and the current association was formed, replacing both ACTIF and ACTRA. Neil Abrams of Abrams Consulting became the interim executive director and Dick Radzis from ACE Rent a Car was elected president.

Once again, Shapiro was instrumental in assisting the association with its formation. Sean Busking served as executive director until 2010, when he joined Fox Rent a Car and Sharon Faulkner moved from board member to director. Faulkner had served on the ACTIF and ACTRA boards as well as on legislative committees of all the national associations.

In 2008, Bob Barton of U-Save Auto Rental and Franchise Services of North America became president of ACRA. Today, under his leadership, ACRA has become an influential voice for the car rental industry, along with fellow board members: Robert Muhs, Avis/Budget Corp.; Dick Radzis, ACE Rent a Car; Rick Stevens, Payless; Gil Cygler, Allcar Rent a Car; Gordon Reel, Enterprise Holdings; Robert Klyce, Avis Franchisee; Frank Colonna, Triangle Rent a Car; and Joe Knight, Fox Rent a Car.[PAGEBREAK]

ACRA in the 21st Century
For the last several years, ACRA has emerged as the industry voice on public policy issues facing the car rental industry. ACRA successfully held off efforts of state and local governments to add discriminatory taxes onto car rental customers in Arizona and Florida.

For the first time in recent memory, the industry witnessed the end of the 2 percent rental tax in the state of Washington that was established in 1996 to build Safeco Field. The tax was scheduled to end when the bonds from the stadium were to be paid off on Oct. 1, 2011. Despite numerous attempts by state and local leaders to continue the tax and divert the revenues for other projects, ACRA held firm and prevailed.

To prevent this ongoing state-by-state, city-by-city approach of fighting these taxes, ACRA is pursuing federal legislation, H.R. 2469, with the help of Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., that would prohibit future taxes imposed on car rental.

ACRA is gaining traction on this issue, particularly in the House of Representatives. In Florida, for example, ACRA dissuaded the Legislature from imposing a cap on administrative fees for toll violations. ACRA has also worked on the modification of recall legislation at the state and federal levels to assure the safety and repair of rental vehicles in a timely manner.

Meeting the Challenges
Over the years, the car rental conventions’ show programs had a consistent message:

1996: “The car and truck rental industry is facing great challenges.”

1995: “The past few years have been among the most challenging in our industry, and there are no easy answers for the years ahead.”

1993: “Our industry has come through another turbulent year of additional bank failures and staggering airline losses.”

Some 18 years later the industry faces new challenges, and ACRA is still here, better than ever, making a difference. ACRA has become a recognized, strategic industry organization that speaks with a unified voice and a consistent message.

With the exception of Hertz, ACRA has obtained the support of all the majors: Enterprise Holdings (including National and Alamo), Avis Budget Group and Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group; most of the large, midsize and small rent-a-car businesses; and the many vendors that provide services to the auto rental industry.

Every successful industry has a national trade association that works on behalf of its members. ACRA is no different. But the association can only be as strong as its members allow it to be. History proves that together we can accomplish so much more. ACRA asks that all car rental businesses of all sizes and vendors join ACRA to help promote sensible legislation that will help the industry grow strong.

The first ACRA was founded to proactively monitor and document legal, public policy and legislative issues affecting the car rental industry. Today, ACRA carries on that tradition and is bigger, stronger and even more committed to making its members successful in a challenging industry.