Career paths are peculiar things. “I had my sights on doing graphics and web design,” says Cole Randall, co-owner of High Life Auto Rental in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But it is fun to be in the car rental industry.”
Randall first took a job as a car washer for an Avis location in Redmond, Ore., and after moving to Phoenix to get a bachelor’s degree, he held a part-time job at an Avis location in Chandler.
When Randall was unable to find work in his degree field, he took an opportunity in neighboring Gilbert to become an Avis independent operator. The Avis Independent Operator program allows an independent contractor to manage the store, hire employees and market the company, while Avis owns the building and the fleet.
“It wasn’t doing too well; it was located in a Napa Auto Parts store,” he says. ‘They only had 10 vehicles and the location had been open for six months. After eight months, I got that location up to 80 cars.”
Randall left that location for a bigger opportunity, teaming up with fellow independent operator Peter Serena in Scottsdale. The two grew the Scottsdale store to $1.5 million, but were ready to strike out on their own. “After going to the Car Rental Show, we found out that there is all this opportunity,” Randall says.
When an owner of a hotel management company decided to take a chance on Randall and his partners, High Life Auto Rental opened its doors at the Scottsdale Hampton Inn & Suites on June 1, 2009.
With five cars, Randall, Serena and third partner Charles Lee entered the rental market as a truly independent company. Named after living the “high life” in chic Scottsdale, High Life Auto Rental was ready to make its mark.
But even with determination and an entrepreneurial mindset, it hasn’t been easy for High Life to compete in the face of the bigger corporate rental companies. So, how does a new name like High Life not only survive but thrive in the car rental industry?
One way is getting people to recognize the name “High Life,” says Randall, who fell back on his graphics degree to design the logo, website and business cards. Randall has spent countless hours getting the word out about his small, local market rental company.
Even four years after its opening, Randall still spends 60% of his day on marketing. This includes managing social media and online customer reviews as well as knocking on doors.
“We are on Yelp, Facebook and Twitter,” says Randall. “We have gone to every hotel and resort to create partnerships.”
Although many hotels already have contracts with the big rental companies, Randall asks them to give High Life a chance if their current rental company runs out of cars or can’t accommodate a customer’s request.
The Hampton Inn guests have been a primary source for customers. This is especially true during Scottsdale’s high season, including baseball spring training in March, when High Life supplies up-and-coming ballplayers with rental cars.
During the high season, Randall emphasizes the need to stay competitive with other rental companies, especially when it comes to rates. Randall and his partners consistently watch the rental rates as they fluctuate up and down. “We don’t want to miss out on any dollar,” says Randall.
Randall tracks rates the old-fashioned way. Using an Excel spreadsheet with daily and weekly rental rates for mid- and full-sized vehicles from nearby competitors such as Avis, Enterprise, Dollar and Thrifty, he then takes an average of the total rates to set High Life’s rental rate. “I won’t have the lowest or highest rates; we want to be the mid-level guy,” says Randall.
Providing top-notch service is another way to stay ahead of the competition. “When a new customer calls and asks for our address, I say ‘I will make it easy for you. I will pick you up at the airport curbside,’” he says, which saves customers a 20-minute cab or shuttle ride. Randall will also take customers back to the airport.
Nonetheless, High Life does not take cash rentals, recognizing the auto theft problem in Phoenix.
Expanding to Second Location
In January 2014, High Life opened its second location at the AutoNation Ford of Scottsdale, handling the dealership’s replacement rentals.
“The AutoNation partnership has been one of the best decisions that we have made,” Randall says. “Being an independent in a large dealership is a big deal. We have grown very quickly.”
Unhappy with its former onsite rental service, AutoNation was on the lookout for a new rental company.
According to Randall, High Life caught the dealership’s attention with its service and its Ford products — its fleet mainly consists of 2014 Ford Focuses. Less than a month after opening, High Life added 10 new vehicles to the 30-vehicle fleet.
Taking a Chance
As a startup, it can be tough to find the services needed to run the business, especially funding.
While attending the Car Rental Show, Randall’s partner Serena met David Thomas, the general manager at Prime Capital Auto Leasing.
According to Randall, after sending over its financial report, Prime Capital was prompt with providing financial options and delivered new cars within two days. “Prime Capital has been a valuable resource for our equity,” Randall adds.
While his experience with Avis provided excellent training in management, sales and marketing, “I have had to teach myself how to buy and sell cars,” Randall says.
Initially, High Life acquired its vehicles on three-year, closed-end leases, but Randall learned a lesson with charges for mileage overages and for dents and dings. High Life now purchases its vehicles through Prime Capital, which owns its own dealerships and offers competitive pricing, Randall says.
Randall anticipates keeping his rental units to 50,000 to 60,000 miles. When the time comes to sell, Prime Capital will buy the cars back and ship new ones, says Randall.
These vehicles are insured by Sonoran National Insurance Group, a partner of the Auto Rental Resource Center (ARRC). High Life uses TSD as its software system provider.
High Hopes for the Future
Just ending its first month at AutoNation Ford, High Life is still getting an idea of the number of rentals needed per month. According to Randall, High Life has averaged 10 rentals per day and 230 rentals for the month of January (as of Jan. 27).
In the near future, High Life hopes to tap into other nearby growing communities such as Arrowhead, Cave Creek and Anthem. These new areas — outside Scottsdale — are currently untouched by any car rental company, says Randall.
With locations at the Hampton Inn & Suites and AutoNation Ford, High Life will continue to have a mix of retail and replacement business as it looks to expand in the Scottsdale area.