Family Feud Weighs Down U-Haul : Power struggle: Founder L. S. Shoen calls his daughter-in-law’s death an ‘assassination.’ His allegation demonstrates the ferocity of the dispute between some siblings and the man who started the trailer rental business.
In the early hours of Aug. 6, Eva Berg Shoen, 44, was shot to death with a .25-caliber pistol as she slept in her deluxe log home, set amid aspen and spruce trees outside the rustic, 1880s-vintage ski town of Telluride.
Investigators were stumped. The shooting smacked of a professional hit. But why, nervous townspeople wondered, would anyone kill this pleasant, blonde, Norwegian-born woman who had moved with her family to the area for its small-town atmosphere?
Her father-in-law, Leonard Samuel (L. S.) Shoen, who founded the U-Haul truck and trailer leasing empire in 1945, called it an “assassination.” He suggested to authorities that the killing might be related to a long-running family feud over control of the company, which has close to $1 billion in annual sales. The San Miguel County Sheriff confirms that family members have mentioned the feud as a possible motive and says his department is looking into it.
Shoen, 74, noted that Eva’s husband, Dr. Sam Shoen, happened to be away, in Phoenix, the night of the murder. Sam, embroiled in the family dispute, resigned as U-Haul president three years ago. Some people here wonder if the killer might have meant to murder Sam instead of Eva.
Investigators refuse to say if they have any hard evidence linking the murder to the Shoen family dispute, although they have had long interviews with L. S. as well as Shoen family members at U-Haul headquarters in Phoenix and asked extensively about it. But the mere fact that such allegations have been bandied about demonstrates the ferocity of the feud that has gripped the founding family of trailer rentals.
The wild and woolly battle has pitted sibling against sibling--of which there are a dozen, by three different mothers--and some of these offspring against the eccentric patriarch.
In recent years, the two sides have duked it out in the boardroom and the courtroom--and literally at last year’s annual meeting, where, family members allege, some of the brothers came to blows.
The murder, in fact, occurred as the factions were readying for a trial set to begin Sept. 10 in Superior Court in Phoenix. Because of the slaying, the proceedings have been postponed until Feb. 5.
That lawsuit, filed by U-Haul International and its parent company, Amerco, contends that L. S. Shoen, his son Sam, daughter Mary Anna, son Michael revealed confidential financial information about the company to outsiders. The suit also claims the group secretly plotted a takeover, possibly with the intention of selling the company to outsiders, and slandered the company, with the result that its credit rating was reduced. It seeks $30 million in damages. Eva Shoen herself was not an Amerco shareholder and wasn’t actively involved in the dispute, observers say.
The seeds were sown years ago for this bitter battle of money, power and ego.
L. S. Shoen grew up in Minnesota and Oregon, one of seven children whose father got involved in an array of ventures, including an unsuccessful stint at farming. After high school, L. S. worked as a barber to put himself through premedical studies at college. His friends there called him “Slick.”
During the first month of his senior year, he was expelled for answering in class one day for his lab partner. He then became a Naval officer trainee. But he contracted rheumatic fever and spent the rest of World War II in bed, plotting a business he hoped to start: trailer rentals.
After a medical discharge, he took $5,000 in savings and began buying and building trailers. In the beginning, he and his wife, Anna Mary Carty, painted and stenciled all the vehicles themselves.
Driven to succeed, Shoen spent weeks on the road, developing a network of dealers and repairing trailers. He often clambered over dealers’ fences in the middle of the night to get to broken-down vehicles. Postwar America took readily to this new service, and the company boomed.
“The first day we rented a trailer, I set my sights on a 1,000 trailers, and when we got a 1,000 trailers on the road I wanted 10,000,” Shoen wrote in “You and Me,” a 1980 book that is an odd fusion of family history, corporate philosophy and inspirational quotes from such figures as Napoleon, Shakespeare and Kahlil Gibran.
Shoen encouraged his growing staff with homespun management formulas such as E x KH=R (energy times know-how equals results). He was not above grandstanding. “You and Me” contains a newspaper account from June, 1970, of how L. S. once threw $1,000 in cash from the 11th floor of Amerco’s offices as a lesson to underlings on wasteful spending.
After his first wife died, leaving him with six children, Shoen married the 23-year-old daughter of a neighbor, who bore five children. They divorced, and he married again and had another child.
Thinking that his children would eventually run the company together, he began turning over chunks of Amerco stock to his seven sons and five daughters. They ultimately held 95%, leaving him with just 2%. He had set the stage for a mutiny.
L. S. Shoen recalls a friend telling him at one point: “Your problem from now on will be the management of greed.”
In the mid-1970s, troubles began brewing among the four oldest sons--Sam, Mike, Edward J. (known as “Joe”) and Mark--who had moved into top management.
After the 1973 oil crisis led to the closing of many gasoline stations that had operated as dealers, L. S. began a diversification, renting everything from jet skis to party goods to sexually explicit videocassettes at the company’s outlets.
Meanwhile, core customers were getting turned off by the company’s aging fleet. The orange and white U-Haul vehicles, once synonymous with do-it-yourself moving, began losing ground to rivals such as Ryder System, based in Miami. U-Haul’s revenue rose, but profit sank.
In 1979, Joe and Mark Shoen resigned in a dispute over the company’s direction. Mark recalls that he and some of his siblings also resented the fact that they never received dividends on their Amerco stock holdings.
"(We) were millionaires in name only,” said Mark Shoen, now U-Haul president. “We were told we were wealthy, but we didn’t have enough money to buy a car.”
When Mark got into some financial difficulty in 1980, he said, he asked his father and brother Sam to buy some of his stock, but they refused. L. S. has said Mark and Joe set about drumming up support among their other siblings to wrest control from him because they disagreed with his management style.
Four years ago, they succeeded in booting their father out of the chairman’s post. But he didn’t give up, insisting that the rival groups of children attempt to work together at the company. The arrangement failed miserably.
In 1988, L. S. and Sam attempted a comeback coup with the support of some wavering relatives. But Joe foiled this by selling 8,099 shares to five non-family company executives, and cemented his control.
L. S. then filed suit in an Arizona state court, contending that the stock sale was illegal. The case was dismissed, but L. S. has appealed.
Then, in early 1989, son Joe, chairman of Amerco, cut off his father’s retirement compensation. “I’m basically bankrupt,” L. S. Shoen said recently. “Well, maybe not bankrupt,” he added, but he was forced to sell his big house in Las Vegas.
Once firmly in control, Joe and Mark Shoen instituted a “back-to-basics” approach, unloading the diversified businesses, scaling back the work force and investing $1.2 billion to upgrade the fleet of 66,000 trucks and 100,000 trailers.
The company has added nearly 5,000 dealerships in the last two years, bringing its total to 9,300 independent and 1,100 company-owned outlets in the United States and Canada. Michael H. Lloyd, a transportation analyst with Salomon Bros. in New York, said Ryder and U-Haul now have about equal market shares and together service more than 75% of the do-it-yourself household moving business.
For the year ended March 31, Amerco reported that profit was slashed in half from the year before, to $18.5 million. Sales rose to $951 million from $928 million. The company attributed the decline in profit to heavy spending to upgrade the fleet. And Amerco officials noted that profits have improved markedly since the $2 million reported for the 1987 fiscal year, before the back-to-basics strategy was implemented.
“Our profits aren’t what they should be because we’re digging out (and) paying for past sins,” Mark Shoen said.
He added that the company still faces several lawsuits filed by customers injured on jet skis, all-terrain vehicles and other products that the company leased during the diversification effort.
Always plenty nasty, the Shoen family feud has taken its most vicious turn with the death of Eva Shoen.
The mere implication that family members had something to do with plotting the murder has outraged those on the inside at U-Haul. They have lashed back in a response reminiscent of the cat fighting between J. R. and Bobby Ewing in TV’s “Dallas.”
Eleven days after the murder, Mark Shoen issued a statement condemning such allegations:
“The loose talk seeking to implicate the Shoens who are running the company (in) the slaying severely damages the public trust and is detrimental to employees, company operations, customers and shareholders, yet it is the kind of thing we have come to expect from our litigious siblings.”
The statement added: “The preposterous notion that some member of the Shoen family is responsible only keeps police from focusing in on the perpetrator of this crime.”
U-Haul executives haven’t put forward any firm theory of their own about the murder.
In his statement after the killing, Mark Shoen also said that U-Haul had hired private detectives to help look for the killer but that the offer of help had been rebuffed by Bill Masters, the San Miguel County sheriff who is running the investigation from his office in Telluride’s 1887 red-brick courthouse.
In addition, Mark suggested in recent interviews in Phoenix and by telephone that his father is a manic-depressive who exhibits bizarre behavior and is in need of treatment. Mark suggested that might account for L. S. mentioning the family feud to the authorities as a possible motive in the killing.
His father, reached by telephone in Las Vegas, freely acknowledges that he has been hospitalized once for depression, in 1978, after his second wife left him, and that he has taken antidepressants off and on since then. He said he is now taking Prozac, an antidepressant prescribed by his Las Vegas psychiatrist.
But L. S. Shoen maintains that he is not “manic-depressive.” As to why his son would accuse him of that, he said: “I guess it makes (him) feel better.”
Shoen said the continuing battle and the death of his daughter-in-law have left him and Sam feeling “very stressed out.”
The murder shattered the complacency of the Ski Ranches, an exclusive community in an unincorporated area southwest of Telluride, a popular resort in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado that is experiencing an influx of well-to-do newcomers like the Shoens. The last homicide in San Miguel County was 11 years ago and appeared to be a clear case of murder and attempted suicide.
By most accounts, Eva Shoen was an attractive, friendly woman who took an interest in her children’s schooling, did volunteer work and enjoyed skiing and raising dogs, of which she had seven at the log house on Skunk Creek Road. Her body was discovered by two of her children and a young friend.
After the murder, Sam Shoen, a medical doctor who no longer practices, offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. He also planned a memorial service and asked that his sibling rivals, the U-Haul “insiders,” not attend.
So far, Sheriff Masters and his 10-member staff don’t seem close to making any arrests. The investigation has so taxed the department’s budget that county commissioners recently accepted a $50,000 contribution to the general fund from L. S. Shoen, over Masters’ strong objections. Masters claimed that accepting such a donation might create a conflict of interest.
Some townspeople question whether the case will ever be solved.
Masters acknowledged that the case “seems like a tree that keeps sprouting branches.” Sexual assault and robbery have been ruled out as motives, and the case does not appear to have been one of random violence.
“I think somebody went up there to do some harm . . . that particular night,” Masters said. “But I’ve never seen anything this baffling.”