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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ENTERPRISE : Passing the Baton : Steve Greenberg Brings ‘90s Sensibilities to Truck Rental Business Founded by Father

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With 60 years or so under its fan belt, Sam’s-U-Drive is a Southern California institution, as was its colorful founder, Sam Greenberg.

Celebrating the anniversary for this Van Nuys-based truck-and-just-about-everything-else rental firm is bittersweet because it also marks the company’s fourth year without Sam. Sam--he wasn’t big on last names--died suddenly in 1991, leaving son Steve to run the family business.

Succession is always tricky for family-run companies. That the firm survived the transition, not to mention a recession that struck hard at the construction industry, is a tribute to both Sam and Steve Greenberg. And to the good timing of the Northridge earthquake.

But the company that bears Sam’s name is not the same.

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Steve has been leaving his mark all over it, carefully crafting a firm that honors concerns close to the heart of this former ‘60s radical--from environmental awareness to employee personal development to layoffs with dignity.

Steve is continuing Sam’s long tradition of community involvement but admits to committing all manner of “family treason” by taking on a little long-term debt, buying fire insurance and doing some advertising, among other things.

Oh, and the name is changing. It’s now Sam’s-U-Rent.

The name change, Greenberg said, reflects that Sam’s now rents much more than the small trucks that got the business going around 1935. The company now carries more than 1,200 items of equipment at four locations, he said, and it has moved more toward the contractor market and away from the homeowner and renter, although all can be found crowding the counter on a busy Saturday morning.

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“I love this business to a large degree because of the toys,” Greenberg said, surveying the Van Nuys equipment yard crammed with big tractors, backhoes, generators and dollies. A glass-walled showroom houses the smaller playthings, from floor sanders and carpet cleaners to rain gear and orange cones. Sam’s other rental yards are in West Los Angeles, North Hollywood and Bakersfield.

The truck that got Sam’s going was a 1925 Model T, although just which year he founded the company with his father Louie varied a bit with Sam’s memory. Sometimes it was 1930, sometimes ’33, sometimes ’35. Occasionally in the telling, a cement mixer and Sam’s brother Jake would be involved.

“History is a fluid thing,” Steve shrugged. “We picked 1935.”

The story Sam Greenberg told most often was of a man who needed a truck to move. Sam and Louie had a truck they wanted to sell for $25. But the man didn’t want the trouble of buying a truck and transferring title, so he offered “a fin” (that’s five bucks in Depression-era lingo) for one day’s use.

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“At the end of the day, they had a $5 bill in their hands and they still had a truck. The light bulb went on,” Steve said.

Thus the equipment-rental business was born, and it thrived for decades using the same principles that helped it weather the nation’s worst economic downturn.

Sam believed in paying cash for everything, so the company had no debt. Also no fire insurance on any of its buildings. Company vehicles carried only liability insurance. Sam’s-U-Drive accepted no credit cards until Steve convinced his father several years ago that plastic was a good thing, if only for customer transactions. Sam himself never developed the habit.

“Sam . . . was really, really a legend in the industry,” said Michael Roth, editor of Rental Equipment Register, a Malibu-based trade publication that has been following the industry for 40 years. “They were pioneers.”

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Sam, ever informal, was outspoken, given to profanities, generous with his money, and open, even with his competitors. The self-made millionaire contributed huge sums to many favorite causes and spent several years on the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners. Sam worked long hours, seven days a week, and he expected his employees to work just as hard.

“He used to joke that he worked half days: A day has 24 hours, and he worked 12,” Steve said. “He came in every morning at 6:30. I showed up at 7:30 and I was a slacker. . . . I’ve never been able to work hard enough and long enough to suit my father.”

Steve, now 45, joined the company shortly after he learned how to walk. He remembers playing in the sand piles and hitching trailers to the bumpers of new Chevys--1955 Chevys. But after college, Steve left the company for about 10 years to pursue other interests, something he said was an important factor in beginning the transfer of power from Sam.

“It enabled my father and me to both get the chips off our shoulders,” he said. When Steve returned in 1980, Sam gradually began to give him more authority.

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“I have to give my father a lot of credit for dealing with the succession,” Greenberg said. “Businesses often don’t make it to the third generation.”

But that doesn’t mean it was easy. Greenberg remembers one particular altercation when he gave a manager a raise without consulting his father, and Sam “went ballistic.”

So, Steve said, he used the analogy of a relay race with his ex-runner father: “You’re handing me the baton . . . now let go!”

Sam did let go, or as much as he was able, making Steve general partner in 1986. Sam vowed never to retire, and he never did. But the transfer of power was substantially complete when Sam suffered a stroke during an overseas trip in 1991. He was 81.

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“We had a few knock-down drag-outs, but family came first,” Greenberg said. “At the end of the day, we would always say: ‘Let’s go get dinner; let’s get a bowl of soup.’ ”

Still, it was not until after Sam’s death, Steve said, that he felt free to run the company as he saw fit.

“The shift that I brought was putting people ahead of the business. Before, the equipment was king,” Greenberg said.

Steve is as much a character in his own way as Sam was. Unpretentious and candid, as was his father, Steve is even more liberal in a ‘90s kind of way. He’s an environmentalist and former anti-war activist, but still enough a businessman to fit in with the chamber of commerce crowd. In fact, Greenberg is president of the Van Nuys-based Mid San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce.

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Greenberg is proud of his efforts to provide equal opportunity; company management includes women, and the firm employs the disabled.

“We have no tolerance for any kind of discriminatory stuff,” he said. “If you discriminate around here, it’s on one basis--what’s right and what’s wrong. Good and evil.

“We don’t have time for that kind of stuff. We’ve got to get on in this country.”

Sam’s is in the second year of a two-year project, using an outside consultant, to put all employees through “personal development training” that teaches workers to set goals and “find balance in their lives” and then bring those attitudes into the workplace, Greenberg said.

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Monthly task force meetings, composed largely of non-management employees, focus on eight key areas in the business such as profitability, quality control and computerization. Quarterly “vision building” meetings look at the big picture.

Family is still very much a part of Sam’s. Three sisters and four cousins are Greenberg’s partners in the business and in a related real estate firm. Little Greenbergs still play in the sandpiles.

Not exactly business as usual in the macho and competitive equipment industry, said Roth of Rental Equipment Register.

“Steve is obviously reshaping the company in his own image according to his values,” Roth said. “He is in tune with the times just as Sam was in tune with his times.”

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Two rounds of layoffs during four years of recession were wrenching, Greenberg said. The Sam’s work force shrank from 140 to about 100 as revenues plunged from $11.5 million to about $8.5 million in 1993.

“I realized that as difficult as it is to lay people off, the other person is going through a worse time than you are,” Greenberg said.

But the recession ended for Sam’s on Jan. 17, 1994. Revenues jumped 20% after the Northridge earthquake, and the company turned a profit after three years of substantial losses, Greenberg said.

Sam’s-U-Rent was among nearly 40 companies to receive a Phoenix Award last week from the Valley Economic Development Center, for its rebound and for its post-earthquake disaster assistance work with the Red Cross. Sam’s also supports several other charities with cash donations and equipment loans.

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Greenberg said he looks for growth through affiliations with other rental companies, not by opening new locations. He also is interested in providing more specialized services such as job-site analysis and help with emissions control applications. A new computer system will soon provide detailed how-to instructions with each piece of equipment rented, he said.

Profit margins are now about 4%, compared to about 20%-to-30% in Sam Greenberg’s day, Steve said. But that’s OK with him.

“The industry in general looks at revenue--bigger is better,” Greenberg said. “We don’t think bigger is better. We look at better as peace of mind.”


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