(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2018)

In September 1918, the used car dealer Walter L. Jacobs came up with an idea as he was looking at his twelve Model T Ford cars that were parked in the yard rather uselessly waiting to be sold. Why wait for buyers when he could also rent out the cars in the short term against payment? The idea for the first car hire service in America had been born. Just five years later the fleet comprised five hundred vehicles when Jacobs sold his company to John Hertz, the President of the Yellow Cab Company and the Yellow Truck and Coach Manufacturing Company. General Motors acquired the so-called “Drive-Ur-Self” system in 1926, and in 1953 it was sold to the Omnibus Corporation.

A year later, the car rental company was named The Hertz Corporation and was first introduced to the New York Stock Exchange in 1954. This marked the start of a success story that has been ongoing for a hundred years. Nowadays, The Hertz Corporation is the longest established car hire company in the world. The company operates a total of over 10,200 car hire locations in approximately 150 countries. This year the company celebrates its 100-year anniversary. We spoke to Tobias Ruoff, Country Manager Germany, about the anniversary and the significant innovations through which the company has had a lasting effect on the car hire industry over the past hundred years.

What do you think caused John Hertz and his company to be successful 100 years ago?

A wealth of ideas, bravery and entrepreneurship on the one hand, and a large wealth of experience on the other. When John Hertz acquired the car hire company from Walter L. Jacobs he was far from being a newcomer to the mobility and transport business. On the contrary, in 1907 he already had a fleet of seven vehicles which he used as taxis, and in 1915 he founded the Yellow Cab Company. He pursued the aim of making mobility accessible to broad sections of the population right from the start. Upon acquiring the car hire company, he was smart enough to keep the founder Jacobs on board as the head of the company, as within the space of five years he had already established the car hire company into a business with an annual turnover of approximately 1 million US Dollars. Both of them were certainly ahead of their time.

How will Hertz celebrate its anniversary? 

The actual “birthday” isn’t until September, but of course the entire year 2018 is marked by the 100-year anniversary. We will be celebrating all year and across all locations with exclusive offers for our customers, a special brand look and original promotions, such as the world’s first Cinema Car which is currently being introduced in many countries in Europe as a limited edition.

Hertz also launched in Europe in the fifties and opened its first location in Paris. Why in France of all places, when French people aren’t particularly known to be vehicle fanatics?

At the time the decision had little to do with Paris. As an American company, Hertz was already closely monitoring and analysing travel patterns at the time. Let us not forget that civil aviation experienced a boom in the 1950s and that the year 1958 marks the birth of transatlantic flights through modern four-engine jets. Of course, Paris was of particular interest due to its central location in Western Europe. Hertz car hire’s first German site was opened exactly 60 years ago in Wiesbaden, by the way. That was certainly a smart decision from a strategic point of view due to its US military base and the associated volume of travel between the USA and Wiesbaden. The fact that Elvis was nearby that same year in order to complete his military service in Friedberg, Hessen, may not be directly related, but who knows.

Hertz operates across the globe, what cultural particularities are there when it comes to customer’s hire car wishes in the various continents, and how does Hertz respond to this with its offering?

Through greatly varying fleet compositions, for example. People like to drive large vehicles in the USA, as an example, while small vehicles are in high demand in holiday regions.  The percentage of compact and mid-range cars is very high in places where there are a lot of business travellers. The demand for chauffer services has significantly increased worldwide in recent years. We have therefore been offering this service since 2017 together with the German startup company Blacklane – and not only in Germany, but in 250 cities and at 500 airports in over 50 countries around the world. 

What is the strongest market for Hertz and why?

Indisputably the American domestic market, it has grown historically and received another massive boost through the acquisition of the equally popular car hire brands Dollar and Thrifty in 2010. But Hertz has a successful presence in 150 countries and across all continents. Germany is by far the most important outbound market in Europe for Hertz.

In some countries Hertz provides the option to hire motorcycles in cooperation with partners, for example. Are there general plans to expand the offer beyond the automotive sector and into other mobility sectors?

We clearly focus on four wheels, it’s what we are experts in. We are therefore looking into the various mobility concepts within the automotive sector, such as car sharing and its intelligent networking alongside classic car hire. There are also other special offers in individual markets. We do actually offer motorcycles in France, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland with Hertz Ride. In Amsterdam we even fittingly offer Hertz Rent a Boat. 

Nowadays it is no longer sufficient for a car hire company to simply offer great cars. What are customers currently interested in?

Comfort and saving time are currently the number one priority when it comes to customer’s wishes. The rental process overall has to be comfortable, starting with simple mobile booking and collecting the vehicle without having to wait, to prompt bill settlement following the return of the vehicle.  There are also particular mobility requirements and an increasing demand for special driving experiences. We therefore not only offer normal hire cars, but also chauffer services, car sharing vehicles and luxury vehicles for special moments with the Prestige Collection.

The succeeding generation and the millennial target group have significantly different social values from what we have known thus far. This includes the fact that cars are increasingly losing status. What is your opinion of this and how are you reacting to this as a company?

This development mostly affects owned cars and is more of a challenge for the manufacturers. As hirers we can actually benefit from the fact that an increasing number of people don’t own their own cars yet require regular mobility. When it comes to travel behaviour, we have also observed an increased demand for round trips with hire cars, because millennials in particular like to travel individually and not all-inclusive or in larger groups.

Are carsharing concepts the future for car hire companies?

Car sharing is a component of the mobility mix.  We are currently concentrating on offers in the B2B and B2B2C area with Hertz 24/7. On the one hand this means that we supply companies such as Lufthansa with entire corporate car sharing fleets, while on the other hand we are available on-site to consumers who have specific mobility needs. This is the case with car sharing transporters for Ikea, Poco and Roller or with passenger cars at Euromaster garages, so that their customers can stay mobile while their car is being repaired.

During the course of its long company history, Hertz has introduced many innovations to the market. Please tell us about the most significant milestones.

There are quite a few, which is why I will narrow it down to three highlights from three different decades: in 1933 Hertz introduced one-way rentals to the US market. “Rent-It-Here-Leave-It-There” was a milestone which drastically increased the number of rentals. Hertz NeverLost® was also a pioneering innovation and one of the first ever mobile navigation devices. It has been offered by Hertz worldwide since 1995. The introduction of PayPal as a payment option is a recent one. Hertz 24/7 was the first ever product in the entire car rental industry to accept PayPal in 2014.

Which innovations are next in line? What are you focusing on for the future? 

One focus is on the optimisation of the entire travel experience. How can rentals provide even more comfort and flexibility? This question is currently preoccupying us. Of course, we also deal with new mobility offers, new concepts and how to usefully cross-link them. Hertz is therefore supporting the DRIVE Innovation Center in Tel Aviv, for example. The innovation centre promotes the development of new Smart Mobility technologies, an area that is of course of interest to the car hire industry. 

What are your own personal favourites amongst the extraordinary vehicles that are currently in the fleet?

We currently have a Maserati Levante S Q4 GranSport in our German fleet. It is a highly sporty and dynamic SUV which has been part of our Prestige Collection since early August. It can therefore be booked with a guaranteed brand and model. A fantastic vehicle. But I also really like the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, the second Italian SUV from our Prestige Collection.

Which one of these would you like to hire for a weekend and where would you go? 

Oh, well that really depends on the location. In Germany I would definitely head towards the North Sea with one of the new Maseratis, in the States I would try out the Tesla Model S on Route 66 while in Sicily’s many narrow alleys I would enjoy a Fiat 500 Cabrio. It doesn’t get any more authentic than that.

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Tobias Ruoff has worked for Hertz car hire for 20 years.  His previous positions in the company include Commercial Director (2006–2012) and Operations Director (2013–2016). As Country Manager Germany he has been steering the direction of Hertz in Germany since 2017.

Picture credit © Hertz Autovermietung

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