When you’re in the middle of an era, it’s hard to pinpoint its defining characteristics or the importance history will place on it. When Larry De Shon steps down at the end of this year, his tenure as CEO and president of Avis Budget Group may have been brief in the grand scheme of things — but he presided over the world’s third largest car rental company during a time when the auto rental industry woke up to the realization that it was facing disruption unprecedented in in its 100-year existence.
De Shon came up as an operations guy. Perhaps that mindset, whether moving airplanes or rental fleets as efficiently as possible, is what ultimately led him to lead the charge for Avis as the “mobility CEO.”
Before Avis, De Shon marked 28 years at one company, United Airlines, starting as a customer service rep. He ended up at United as head of worldwide airport operations, overseeing ground operations, logistics, safety, security, customer processing and service, product development, and internal communications.
Next time you’re in an airport terminal, just stare out the window and imagine managing that in 29 countries.
De Shon came to Avis in 2006 as an executive in operations. He was president of EMEA from 2011 to 2015. After a brief stint as president of International, he assumed the CEO and COO positions of Avis Budget Group in January 2016, adding the title of president in June 2017.
As I’m not privy to the C-suite machinations of this global company, it’s not within my purview to know the real brains or kick-starters behind projects that in retrospect will have positioned Avis for a solvent future. But Larry De Shon has been the face of this company and its operations for the past four years. As its shepherd, he will be unavoidably tied in this period to the decisions made and paths taken, or not taken.
It’s no secret that the car rental industry needs to evolve its business model. De Shon understands this like everyone else, but he was also intent on positioning Avis squarely in the middle of this change.
He pulled in bright minds from non-car rental disciplines such as IoT and telematics. He sat down for interviews on obscure podcasts. He made the rounds at the right transportation conferences. As recent as two weeks ago, De Shon was in Santa Clara speaking at the IoT World Conference on “How Avis Budget Group is Reinventing Rental.”
(De Shon was keynote speaker at the Car Rental Show in 2011, when the term “mobility” was still only related to handicap access.)
Of course, there is substance behind what was said on stage. Avis was the first car rental company to announce a global initiative to connect every rental vehicle in its fleet by 2020, and by all accounts Avis is winning that race.
Under De Shon’s watch, Avis opened its Mobility Lab in Kansas City, a real-world proving ground for how a connected rental fleet will benefit companies and customers. As thousands of rental cars move through a city daily, the data generated from those cars is beneficial to both the rental company and the city. The Kansas City initiative is only the beginning.
De Shon presided over the company’s partnership with Waymo to manage a portion of its autonomous vehicle fleet. While the publicity of this tie-up may be outsized compared to the actual management of the fleet, that’s not the point — Avis was the first car rental company to put a flag in the autonomous sandbox.
De Shon also understood the importance of Fleet Management as a Service. This is a new concept, and one you’ll be hearing a lot more of on these digital pages. The basic idea is that when the time comes, some entity will have to manage fleets of autonomous vehicles, because consumers won’t own them. With its decades of managing the movements of millions of vehicles, Avis and other car rental companies are well poised to be that provider.
De Shon, like most in this new world of mobility, understands that no company can go it alone moving forward. This requires testing the waters with startups that major car rental brands wouldn’t have touched five years ago or would’ve done it themselves.
Earlier this year Avis Budget Group’s Budget Truck Rental partnered with Fetch, a nascent peer-to-peer marketplace. A major rental brand with an owned fleet getting together with a platform that allows personally owned trucks and vans on its platform? That’s on the bleeding edge for car rental.
Avis partnered with Arrive, a parking app, understanding that one of the main challenges for renting cars in cities these days is the high cost of parking. Last year, Avis joined the Internet of Things Consortium.
De Shon knew that the world has gone mobile and that the smartphone is the key to unlocking on-demand rentals. Again, this is not a new concept to anyone — but De Shon’s teams kept refining the app and made sure the public was aware.
Speaking of on-demand rentals, De Shon was wise to keep Zipcar its own distinct brand in the public’s eye, while making sure it enjoys the buying power of Avis in the background.
Car rental needs operations people, guys like Scott Thompson, who ran Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group. Larry De Shon is an operations guy. As car rental companies transition into “mobility service providers,” operations guys will be more important than ever.