Bible Studies Come Before Bar Graphs At Auto Rental

Nationally successful car rental company ascribes achievement to putting God first in their business.
by Annie Peoples

Tom McDonnell

Every Wednesday at 8 a.m., about 15 employees - give or take a few depending on the week - gather in a conference room in the corporate headquarters of U-Save Auto Rental in Jackson, Miss. It's a scene repeated in companies across the country.

That's where the similarities end. This isn't a marketing meeting or a business review. It's Bible study. And at meeting's end, the participants will pray for those mentioned on a prayer list that's been circulating on company e-mails that week.

The man behind U-Save Auto Rental is 39-year-old Tom McDonnell. A devout Southern Baptist, McDonnell has built U-Save into the second-biggest player in the off-airport or neighborhood car rental market. Originally a franchisee, McDonnell bought U-Save with a partner in 1996 and has turned it into a company with 370 franchise locations in all 50 states.

It's no coincidence that U-Save's headquarters is deep in the Bible Belt, but it wouldn't make any difference if McDonnell were in Youngstown or Toledo. This former stockbroker says his Christian faith has played a large part in his business acumen.

"My faith is incredibly important in every decision that I make, particularly in business. I don't think you can separate the two," McDonnell said. "Your faith, in my opinion, defines who you are. It permeates every decision, large or small, that you make in running a company."

As head of a company with $46 million in corporate revenues in 2002, some might think that McDonnell should play down his faith. Mix religion with business? Why not throw in politics, too? McDonnell, however, sees no problem in mixing the two. To McDonnell, bringing your faith to work is no different than bringing your briefcase.

"This is who we are. It's not something you can set aside when you come to work. You can't take it off like a coat and hang it in the closet," McDonnell says of U-Save's predominantly Christian corporate staff. "We work hard, but we also want to make an impact in the community."

It should come as no surprise then that McDonnell says he can't remember the last time U-Save had to advertise to fill a job opening. "People know the culture,'" he says. "We typically fill positions without ever having to advertise for a job because people are attracted to us."

By the same token, franchisees are attracted to the system for some of the same reasons. McDonnell's plans include growing the company more widely nationally by adding new franchisees, increasing each franchisee's profits, and taking the company public within the next two years.

McDonnell's mantra is one heard often, but not necessarily in corporate cultures. It's simple. God comes first, family second and business third. Ronald Wesley, a U-Save franchisee for more than 10 years with locations in Tallmadge and Medina, says McDonnell practices what he preaches.

"The company is creating a new image with a new logo that says, 'IT'S ALL ABOUT U.' That states what Tom McDonnell stands for," Wesley said. "It's not for him. It's for you. That's not only his strategy, but I think it's his way of life. You can't fault that."

Every business meeting with McDonnell begins with a prayer, Wesley said. Each meeting ends with a prayer. "And when we have lunch, we say Grace," Wesley added. "Tom has no problem with that because that's who he is. He's not pushing it, but he walks the walk. It's been a real pleasant experience for me."

Leading a car rental company with a fleet of 20,000 vehicles in uncertain economic times is no small feat. That's why McDonnell's faith plays such an important role in his everyday decision-making. His Christianity isn't a pillar to fall back on; it's who he is.

"My faith is always out there and always out front," McDonnell said. "You rely on your faith and your grounding in faith to help you see more clearly and make the difficult decisions in this economic environment. There are tough decisions to be made for anyone in management or running a company today."

Sometimes tough decisions lead to poor judgments. Look no further than the Enron debacle. One would be hard-pressed to pull off such deception at U-Save, where employees can openly read financial reports, suggest changes and ask questions about corporate strategy.

"Business is a reflection of society in a lot of ways," McDonnell said. "The things that happened at some companies and decisions that were made were done by a very small minority of people. Call me an eternal optimist, but I'd like to think that those men and women would not make the same decisions in hindsight. Just like in life, people make some bad decisions in business."

McDonnell's imprint on U-Save strikes visitors from the moment they enter U-Save's corporate headquarters. In the lobby candy dish are Testamints; mints embossed with a cross and in wrappers with more than 170 verses from the Old and New Testaments.

"It already sets the tone for who we are and what we're about, whether you're a lender, investor, vendor or franchise prospect, " McDonnell said. "It has started conversations between employees and the FedEx guy or the UPS guy. You'll find people talking to the UPS guy and the whole discussion started over a Testamint! From our perspective it's a really small thing, and I'm sure some people would think insignificant, but it has really had an impact."

While Southern culture might more readily embrace religion in the workplace, McDonnell believes it can play in Peoria or Painesville, too. Were U-Save by some Divine Intervention to be suddenly plopped down on the shores of Lake Erie, McDonnell says he wouldn't even think of changing the way he does business.

"If I still owned the place and whether I could or not, I would," McDonnell said of intertwining religion and the workplace. "I think ultimately this is still a Christian nation. People like to be treated the way we like to treat people, with respect, dignity and honor. Who doesn't want to be treated like that?"

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