O.J., Accounting Fraud, Icahn: The Story of Hertz Going Bust

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The short version of Hertz Global Holdings Inc.’s bankruptcy story goes something like this: Global pandemic obliterates the travel business and lands an iconic 102-year-old company in court to seek protection from creditors.

The long version is a fable about what happens when a company relies on accounting and consolidation to keep shareholders happy. It’s a tale of lurching from one CEO to another and management teams failing to stay attuned to consumer tastes.

Enterprise Holdings Inc. and Avis Budget Group Inc. are suffering through the same Covid-19 drought, but Hertz’s own bad decisions and hard luck made it vulnerable at the worst time. One former top executive summed up its plight as a slow-moving train wreck.

On its Chapter 11 petition, Hertz listed $25.8 billion in assets. It has over $1 billion in cash and $24.4 billion of debt. A company that began with a dozen Ford Model Ts and was taken for a spin by General Motors, Ford Motor and a group of private equity firms as parents over the decades now faces an uncertain fate that will be decided in a Delaware court.

O.J., Enterprise

No telling of Hertz’s history is complete without mention of perhaps the most disastrous end to a major celebrity-endorsement deal of all time.

Hertz was owned by Ford in the summer of 1994 when police pursued O.J. Simpson in a white Bronco SUV for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. As a Buffalo Bills running back two decades earlier, Simpson raced through airports and past children screaming “Go, O.J., go!” on his way into the company’s rental cars.

The television ads were effective at emphasizing speedy service and boosted business. While the relationship was less beneficial to the company as their 19-year link wore on, Hertz stood by Simpson’s side even after a January 1989 charge for assaulting his wife. She personally convinced then-Chairman Frank Olson to stick with the star, the Washington Post reported.

Hertz had some good years after the so-called trial of the century that ended in Simpson’s acquittal. But in November 1994, the same month that the jury was sworn in, the trade publication Auto Rental News ranked Enterprise its new No. 1 by fleet size and number of offices.

Private Equity Era

While Hertz was by some measures slipping in the rental industry pecking order, it was still earning tidy profits for an otherwise struggling Ford. The automaker sold the company in 2005 to two private equity firms and Merrill Lynch & Co.’s buyout unit for about $15 billion.

The following year, Hertz poached the top executive at auto-parts maker Tenneco Inc., Mark Frissora, to be CEO and lead the company through a re-listing. Frissora cut costs, eliminated thousands of jobs and was paid handsomely. His $19.2 million compensation package in 2006 was more than Ford awarded its CEO last year.

After weathering the global financial crisis, Hertz started pursuing a costly and drawn-out deal for Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group Inc. It tried buying the company for $1.2 billion in 2010 but ultimately paid $2.6 billion after a two-year bidding war with its rival Avis.

The deal boosted Hertz’s market share by rounding out its business-traveler stronghold with a greater presence in the budget-minded leisure segment. But the acquisition also added to Hertz’s debt pile, which already was substantial thanks to the earlier leveraged buyout. The company ended 2012 with $20.8 billion in total liabilities.

Dollar Short

Problems abounded with integrating the two companies, according to Maryann Keller, a longtime auto-industry consultant who was on Dollar Thrifty’s board at the time of the acquisition.

The two had different computer systems that couldn’t talk to each other. Frissora lost some talented executives by moving the two companies, which had been based in New Jersey and Oklahoma, to a new headquarters in Florida.

Hertz hoped to combine airport lots for the three brands to save money, but wasn’t able to do so at many locations. The company also found that Dollar Thrifty had let the tires on its cars get thinner than Hertz allowed, and many had to be replaced at a cost of $30 million. Neither problem surfaced during due diligence.

In the end, a merger that was supposed to save Hertz about $100 million in the first year ended up costing it another $70 million, two people familiar with the matter said.

This article was originally published on finance.yahoo.com/news/.

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