In 2013, when Pam Nicholson took the steering wheel of Enterprise Holdings Inc., the world's largest car rental firm, she was ready.
Starting as a manager trainee right out of college in 1981, Nicholson did everything from washing cars to marketing as she moved up the ranks of the company until she was named COO in 2003. Four years later, she oversaw the company's game-changing acquisition of the National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car brands. Andy Taylor, who at the time was CEO and is the son of Jack Taylor, who founded the firm in 1957, was so impressed he tapped her as his successor, the first outside the family to helm the private company.
"Just like 99% of our senior management team, I learned the business from the ground up, so I had hands-on experience in nearly every facet of our business," Nicholson told IBD from her office in St. Louis, Mo. "I truly understand the challenges people are facing because I've been there before. We're a meritocracy, promoting from within and paying for performance, so my job as a leader is to empower others to harness their strengths and reach their full potential, which helps the entire organization deliver outstanding results."
Nicholson's own results are fully recognized, with Fortune magazine ranking her No. 17 on its recent list of most powerful women in U.S. business.
Nicholson, 58, grew up in St. Louis and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Within nine months, she was made assistant manager in a local office and a few months later was sent to the Southern California market. It only had a fleet of 1,000 cars, but the company could see the enormous potential.
Her competitive instincts were honed as she entered horse-jumping contests in her 20s and 30s. Within 12 years, she was made regional vice president of the Southern California group, whose fleet had reached 27,000.
"I learned about how to hire the right people and then continually train and mentor them to provide the consistent customer service we're known for," said Nicholson. "No matter where they work in the world, they get promoted based on the same measurements of performance that reveal both ability and talent. If you don't meet your goals, you don't get promoted, and everyone embraces that."
With such attention to developing good leaders at every level and retaining the best employees, it's no wonder that Enterprise has continued to win awards from magazines Workforce, Chief Learning Officer, and Training. Nicholson is the highest-ranking woman to receive the 2017 Glassdoor Employees' Choice Award, with a 95% approval rating.
Today, some 10,000 new employees, as well as 2,000 interns, are hired each year through the renowned Enterprise Rent-A-Car Management Training Program. CollegeGrad.com ranks it No. 1 for entry level jobs, and the company prioritizes military veterans and reservists for recruitment.
Enterprise Holdings and its network of regional subsidiaries - including nearly 10,000 neighborhood and airport locations - currently employ more than 100,000 people. And every year, they rent and lease about 1.9 million vehicles, made up of 450 makes and models.
In 1994, Nicholson was brought back to headquarters as a corporate vice president. Three years later, she moved back into the rental business as general manager of the New York regional subsidiary, whose profitability she doubled in two years. She returned to St. Louis in 1999 as senior VP of North American operations. In 2003, Nicholson was appointed COO and became responsible for all day-to-day operations. Chrissy Taylor, the daughter of now Executive Chairman Andy Taylor, now oversees North American operations and Nicholson is responsible for mentoring her, just as mentors helped her master the skills she needed as she advanced.
"The late Jack Taylor used to ask me, 'Are you having fun?' " said Nicholson. "There's no reason we can't both work hard and have a good time doing it, which helps us deliver better customer service, since it's far easier to make other people happy when you're happy."
Enterprise had long specialized in offering free pickup of customers from their neighborhood offices, including providing cars for customers of insurance companies, whose own autos were being repaired. As a result, it had only 8% of the airport market. Then in 2007, Nicholson supervised the integration of two new brands: National Car Rental, which primarily served business travelers, and Alamo Rent A Car, which catered to value-oriented domestic travelers and foreign visitors to North America. After the acquisition, the three brands together had 28% of the airport market and that has now grown to 38%.
"On the day the acquisition was completed, we delivered a small book titled 'GR8 DAY' to every Enterprise, National and Alamo employee," said Nicholson. "It stated that we had all become part of a company dedicated to three things: 1) Listening to and satisfying our customers; 2) Creating opportunities for our employees; and 3) Achieving long-term sustainable growth. Just as importantly, the book stressed that we were going to take our time to carefully review all organizational, customer, and cultural issues. Above all else, we wanted to make sure that we got the integration process right, because, just like a first impression, you only get one chance to do a merger well. Ten years later, I think our deliberative approach has paid off enormously."
But she says that while the airport presence was the primary driver for the deal, there were other important benefits.
"We also learned a lot about ourselves and changed our company in ways that have equipped us for faster growth on a global scale," said Nicholson, who added the title of president in 2008. "Our biggest lesson from the integration is that our company can execute a major acquisition without risk to our fundamental values and culture."
Enterprise set up its first European franchise at the end of 2012. As CEO starting the next year, Nicholson continued the company's focus on franchising overseas. It now has offices covering 95% of the car rental market in more than 90 countries and territories.
"Our robust growth is a tribute to the strong international reputation of our brands," she said. "We have a very clear vision of how Enterprise, National and Alamo customers should be treated. As a result, we have developed a strong international network of exceptional franchise partners who share our passion for excellence across the board. Good customer service translates well in any language or culture. Yet that core competency is always balanced with an intuitive understanding of local cultures and characteristics, which means we are learning as much from our partners as they are from us. It's definitely a two-way street."
Nicholson says that the expansion needs to rest on a foundation of entrepreneurialism, where decisions are made as locally as possible. She also oversees the Enterprise Fleet Management affiliate, which has 50 offices and manages a fleet of 470,000 vehicles in the U.S. and Canada, with full-service management for companies, government agencies and organizations having midsize fleets of 20 or more. That business recently invested $100 million in its information-technology infrastructure.
"I think many people have been surprised by how quickly technology is changing the automotive industry," said Nicholson. "We believe we should let innovation and responsiveness to consumer needs determine which business models and technologies thrive in the market, allowing a pragmatic and market-driven solution to evolve, supported by infrastructure and appropriate public policies. We think the car rental industry may be one of the early adopters of autonomous vehicles, since many drivers first experience new automotive technologies in rental vehicles. While potential liability issues need to be evaluated, our industry can efficiently introduce new autonomous vehicles to millions of consumers."
During Nicholson's tenure as COO, revenue for the company and its Fleet Management affiliate more than doubled. Since becoming CEO, revenue has increased from $16.4 billion in fiscal 2013 to more than $22.3 billion in fiscal 2017 ending July 31, exceeding the combined size of its chief competitors, Hertz Global Holdings ( HTZ ), with $9.4 billion, and Avis Budget Group ( CAR ), with $8.5 billion.
In 2017, National and Enterprise took the top two spots respectively in Travel & Leisure's World's Best Awards for car rental agencies, and it also earned the same rankings by Business Travel News. Money magazine gave its top award to Alamo and second place to Enterprise.
Executive Chairman Taylor believes that the ongoing success reflects "Pam's leadership, passion and dedication to grow the business, with the help of every employee, and she continues to have an impact as a leader across all industries."
CEO of Enterprise Holdings Inc., the world's largest car rental company.
Overcame: Challenges of integrating National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car.
Lesson: Make sure all the core values of the company are clearly understood and implemented consistently everywhere.
"Don't sell yourself short. Set your goals high."