Originally created 05/24/00

U-Save offers auto rental alternative



A small but rapidly growing "neighborhood" car rental franchise that is taking on the industry's established powerhouse has come to Augusta.

U-Save Auto Rental, which recently opened at 2045 Gordon Highway, is advertising itself as a local option in the off-airport rental market dominated by national chain Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

Keith Brown, owner of the Augusta U-Save franchise, said the company's business model gives local offices more latitude in decision-making.

"We don't have to call our corporate office if someone has a special need," Mr. Brown said.

Like Enterprise, U-Save targets customers whose own cars are in the shop (known as "insurance replacement" vehicles) and those in need of a reliable car for out-of-town trips.

The "neighborhood" rental concept, a $9 billion-a-year industry, has taken off in the past several years.

Enterprise, which posted nearly $5 billion in sales last year, a 13 percent increase from 1998, holds the majority market share in an industry still largely fragmented.

Last year, U-Save acquired 110 Practical Rent-A-Car, Freedom and All Star car rental locations.

This year, it acquired Auto Rental Resource Center, boosting its number of locations to 1,400 and putting it in the No. 2 spot behind Enterprise.

U-Save is still a small player in the industry ($180 million in sales), but it's a competitor Enterprise takes seriously, said Patrick Farrell, the St. Louis-based company's corporate communications director.

"There's a lot of competition in the business," Mr. Farrell said. "Competition keeps everybody operating at a high level."

The airport rental market, another $9 billion-a-year industry, is mostly controlled by large companies such as Hertz, Avis and Budget.

U-Save franchises are growing at a rate of 5 percent a year.

In an attempt to set it apart from its competition, U-Save does not require customers to have major credit cards to rent a vehicle.

"That helps people out who wouldn't be able to rent a car otherwise," Mr. Brown said.

The Augusta franchise maintains a fleet of 15 late-model cars ranging from minivans to compacts. Mr. Brown plans to have 50 cars within a year.

U-Save, based in Jackson, Miss., was founded in North Carolina by two brothers-in-law in 1978. The company was purchased by a franchise owner in 1996.

U-Save intends to go public by 2002, according to its five-year strategic plan.

Mr. Brown, 39, opened the franchise last month and is planning a grand opening celebration next week. A native of Augusta, he also owns First Impressions, a screen-printing shop and T-shirt wholesaler.

He said he plans to open one, possibly two, more U-Save franchises in metro Augusta on either Bobby Jones Expressway, Washington Road or downtown.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.