By Bob Barton
‘If Ever I Would Leave You’
Those are the first words and the start of Robert Goulet’s most famous song. Most of you reading this are probably too young to know who Robert Goulet was, but singing those words was also the trademark of another legend that sadly left us this past Memorial Day, Robert A. (Bob) Smalley, Sr.
“Sr,” as he was affectionately known, was 88 years young. His legendary career in car rental began when he worked for his grandfather, Frank Couture, who started renting cars in South Florida in the 1920s. Sr. and his brother Earl bought the business from their grandfather after returning from service in WWII and re-named it after him, Couture Rent A Car.
The company grew to become one of (if not the) largest franchisee in the National Car Rental system, and the third largest car rental firm. It operated throughout South Florida, the Caribbean and Cuba. Sr. would tell us stories of how all the cars were green so the fuel trucks driving around South Beach would know which cars were Couture’s so they could wash them, clean the windshields and top off the fuel tanks (boy, how things have changed in RAC!). He often speculated that if you were fortunate to get to Cuba, you would still find some of his old cars on the road!
Couture was acquired by the Hertz Corp. in 1958 and Sr. went to work for Walter Jacobs, who eventually appointed him as president and CEO. Sr. had another RAC legend working for him running Hertz International, none other than Fred Mudgett. We all know of Fred’s legacy in the industry, but having the distinct pleasure of being in both of their company on many occasions, the stories went beyond entertaining; those two wrote history.
The massive international growth of Hertz was taking place under Sr.’s leadership and that growth helped to make the company the powerhouse it is today. Sr. used to show me old scrapbooks and photos from his early days and his tenure at Hertz, including pictures of him with the Ford family, Carroll Shelby and gold-plated shovels as he broke ground on the reservation center in Oklahoma City. The photos that really stick in my mind were the luncheon meetings in the Hertz executive lounge in Manhattan. It looked like the sound stage for the series “Mad Men.” The suits, the furniture, the cocktails at lunch — just incredible. Such was life in the late 1960s in New York.
In the late 1960s Hertz was also renting motorhomes. In 1967, RCA acquired Hertz. In 1971, at the tender age of 48, Sr. took advantage of an early retirement package and moved back to South Florida.
Hertz exited the RV rental business and in 1972, Sr. —along with his two sons Bob, Jr. and Randy — started an RV rental company. That company changed its name to Cruise America and today is the largest RV rental company in the world with more than 4,000 vehicles in the United States and Canada.
The company went public in 1984 and the first independent director named to the board was Fred Mudgett. Bob and Randy continue the family tradition of acting as leaders in the rental business to this day.
I “cut my teeth” at Cruise America and will forever be grateful to the Smalley family for that. Sr. was not an employer; he was a mentor, someone whose presence was felt from the minute he walked into a room. People naturally gravitated to him.
I reached out to Fred’s daughter Jane Mudgett to tell her of Sr.’s passing. She summed it up better: “Even if it is sad, for some reason it seems perfect. What do we do on Memorial Day? Cook-outs, get out on the boat and have some cocktails — just as Bob would have done on dozens of Memorial Days in the past.”
You have unfortunately left us. God speed Sr., you were a remarkable man.
About the Author
Bob Barton is president and COO of Franchise Services of North America (FSNA), and president of the American Car Rental Association (ACRA).