Because Larry Shulan yearned to drive a Viper - a 500-horsepower, $85,000 convertible sportscar - you can drive one too. Or you can drive a Corvette, a Mercedes SLK, a Boxster S, or a Hummer. Shulan had yearned for a spin in a Viper for years, but had been frustrated in his quest. Even a test drive was impossible. "Dealerships get only one or two a year," he says, "and they're usually sold before they hit the lot." He guessed that he was not alone in his desire to drive a special car, and so this spring he opened a new business, Exotic Car Rentals of New Jersey, based in Allentown, to test that hypothesis. From there he serves customers he describes as universally happy as they fork over between $255 to $499, less on weekdays, to drive their dream cars.
A rare combination - long-time government employee and serial entrepreneur - Shulan first considered the possibility that renting fantasy cars could be a business during a trip to Las Vegas in 1998. He and his wife, Legia, who is also a car buff, found themselves staying downtown, away from the action on the Strip. They decided to rent a car, flipped through the phone book, and found Rent-A-Vette. Renting a Viper was expensive, but Legia, using the irrefutable "you only live once" argument, convinced him that it was worth it.
The couple cruised the famous neon Strip and drove out of town for some red rock sightseeing. "It was an awesome experience," recalls Shulan. In his opinion it was well worth the several hundred dollar daily rental charge. It was also a tickler that got him thinking about his next move. "I was near the end of a 30-year government career, and I had been an entrepreneur always," he says. He liked the idea of renting unusual cars, and so did his wife, a kindergarten teacher at the Dutch Neck School, in West Windsor, but even so, the idea just idled in their heads for a few years.
After retiring from his job as head of information technology for the U.S.D.A. Food and Nutrition Service, based in Robbinsville, Shulan went to work for Caliper, the international personnel consulting company with offices at 506 Carnegie Center. He was director of information technology at Caliper for two years, and then spent another two years in the same capacity for a trucking company in northern New Jersey. At that point it was time for the exotic car rental idea to grow wheels.
"I didn't like the commute," Shulan says of his last job, "and I didn't like working for someone else." Still, despite his love for zippy cars, he didn't rush into business. He had owned other businesses and had picked up substantial entrepreneurial acumen. An almost-graduate of Monmouth University and Thomas Edison State College (110 credits), Shulan had grown up at the shore, feels the same way about boats as he does about cars, and owned a marina for some five years - while still working full-time for the U.S.D.A. In addition to supplementing his government paycheck, he wanted to "do something I knew and enjoyed." In preparation for starting a marina he sold boats part-time and worked at marinas for free "to learn the professional side of the business."
While it is satisfying to take on work you love, Shulan is quick to point out that his double work life was "a lot of hard work." He managed to fit everything in by foregoing vacation for several years before starting the marina. The saved-up vacation days, combined with a compressed work week of four 10-hour days, allowed him to spend five full days a week at the marina during the summer months. The marina required his attention after work hours during the winter, too, and he ended up with "very few days off."
"I sold it after 5 1/2 years, and made a decent amount of money," he says. "We bought a new house and invested some money." He used some of the proceeds to get into real estate investing, but his timing was off. The year was 1987, and the housing market was just entering a decade-and-a-half slump. But he soon found another business - computer consulting to small business owners.
In starting his car rental business, Shulan briefly considered - and quickly dismissed - the idea of becoming a franchisee of Rent-A-Vette, or of any other company. He wanted to be able to do business his own way, without having to follow corporate rules, and he didn't think that the help he would get would be worth the percent of profits he would have to pay in return. But he did not want to go it completely alone, so he sought expert advice and affiliations.
He paid $2,000 to Express Rent-A-Car, an Indiana company that provides its affiliates with business information, volume discounts, and help with everything from renters' on-the-road problems to evaluations of cars to be added to a rental fleet. "It was a good way to learn about conventional car rentals," says Shulan, who wanted to make sure he had the nuts and bolts of the business down. "When you open the door, you want to know what to say and do when the first customer walks in." He was aware that there would be all sorts of little things, and he quizzed Express about them. "I asked them what happens when a customer is paying with a debit card rather than a credit card," he gives as an example. "I wanted to know if there is a difference in the deposit, and there is."
He also spent money to meet with Michael LaPlaca, a Baltimore attorney who he is says is "the best car rental attorney in the country." LaPlaca helped him to craft a contract and told him, among other things, that both New York and Washington, D.C., have vicarious liability laws that hold a rental car company responsible if a customer - no matter how reckless - is involved in an accident. The attorney told him of one recent case where a rental car company was hit with a judgment of $24 million for an accident caused by one of its customers. "If a driver gets drunk and drives with his eyes closed, I would still be responsible," he learned. The upshot is that he forbids his customers from setting even one tire in New York or Washington.
He knows that he could have saved money by taking a form contract from Express, doing some Internet research, and knocking something out on his computer, but he believes that "you have to have the right tools to get the job done." In his view, "it does not pay to economize" in matters related to the formation of a business.
In keeping with this philosophy he paid substantially more than $2,000- an amount he does not want to disclose - to Cloud 9, a Chicago company that lists exotic car rentals throughout the country and "has a big Internet presence." The company has driven so much business to him that he doesn't even begin to question its importance to his business. In addition to referrals, the company gave him a week of training in renting exotic cars, and, perhaps most important of all, was able to obtain car rental insurance for him "at a significantly reduced price."
Without Cloud 9's help with insurance it is a good bet that his business would not have been able to open. "I would have had a hard time getting car rental insurance in New Jersey at any price," he says. "At the time I started NO company would do it. I contacted every insurance company. No one would write a business that did exotic cars, $100,000 cars."
Armed with insurance, a bullet-proof contract, information about everything from marketing to processing credit cards, and substantial help from his wife, Shulan was set to start building a fleet and to rent the cars out. He chose cars that were unusual enough to provide a thrill. Whenever possible, his cars are newly-designed models. All but the Hummer 2 are sports cars. While sports cars share at least one common characteristic - all cost close to $100,000 - his customers are a diverse lot.
"My first actual sale was a Christmas present," he says. "Someone found us on the Internet and gave her husband a gift certificate for Christmas." A more recent rental went to "a nice couple who wanted a special weekend getaway." They took the Mercedes to St. Michael's island on the Maryland shore. Upon returning, they told Shulan that they hope to rent a Corvette from him soon. Another customer was a would-be car buyer from Washington, D.C. He wanted to buy a Corvette with a power roof, but his dealer did not have one in stock. Before investing some $80,000 he wanted to spend a full day with a car like the one he was planning to buy.
Some customers are blue collar workers, while others are executives. Some customers are businesses. His Hummer has appeared in an HBO commercial and his Corvette has been part of an Exxon Mobil display. Businesses also have used the cars when they want to do something special for clients or for executives from the overseas office. Often the VIP is picked up at the airport in one of Shulan's cars and is then given the use of the car during his stay in New Jersey.
Shulan is hoping that local businesses will see his cars as a good way to reward employees of the month and top salespeople. His business plan called for him to knock on doors up and down the U.S. 1 corridor promoting this idea, but, says he, "I've just been so busy."
The Internet is responsible for his fast start. "Fifty percent of my customers come from the Internet," says Shulan, who pays $200 a month to Google and $150 a month to Yahoo! for paid advertising in the form of click-through ads. Each time someone clicks on his ad a set sum is subtracted from those amounts. When he reaches the $200 or the $150 his ad goes away for the rest of the month. He has been going through the money well before the end of the month, but is unable to gauge the conversion rate - that is, the number of people who click through to his site and then actually rent.
Weekends have been selling out, and business is brisk on some weekdays too. With a fleet of five cars, Shulan is kept hopping. "I wash and detail all of the cars myself," he says. Each car must go out in absolutely perfect condition. He doesn't trust an outsider to do the job and he is not yet big enough to hire an employee. He also spends far more time with each customer than does a more pedestrian car rental agency. The cars are powerful, and potentially dangerous in the hands of someone used to driving a minivan, and so he spends between 45 minutes and an hour going over every feature of the car that each customer rents.
His goal is to have between eight and ten cars, and at that point he will be ready to hire help. For now, one of his grown children, Allison, sometimes helps out by delivering cars to customers, and his wife works with customers and handles the creative side, seeing to details such as overseeing ad copy and choosing the colors of the cars they buy for the business.
As he did in his marina, Shulan is working hard most of the time, yet he says he will not make a lot of money, at least not until he is able to add more cars. The sports cars will be rented only during warm weather months, and on any winter days that happen to be fair and dry, he says, adding that "I'm a wreck when rain is even in the forecast!" He calculates that the new business will just about break even this year.
Meanwhile, he is enjoying himself tremendously. "All my customers are happy," he says. "Real happy. They're either getting or giving a present, or they're on vacation. They come back with smiles from ear to ear."
Exotic Car Rentals of New Jersey, 3 South Main Street, Allentown, 08501, 866-730-CARS. www.exoticcarrentalsnj.com