Enterprise Rent-A-Car executives call it getting an "MBA without the IOU." For a salary of up to $40,000 a year, the car rental company puts recruits through a grueling, 12-month management training program designed to teach them how to sell absolutely anything.
While not for everyone, the program is widely recognized as a boot camp for managers. The privately owned company's annual revenue has risen from $3 billion in 1995 to over $12 billion in 2010. In the same period, it also increased the number of its rental locations fourfold, with almost 8,000 locations at the end of 2010. The key to its growth is the management training program.
"It's their secret sauce," said Arthur Dong, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, who teaches a case study on Enterprise in a course for MBA students. "Enterprise is the sort of place that employers recognize as a minor league sales training camp." Bloomberg Businessweek named Enterprise among the best places to launch a career for four consecutive years, from 2006 to 2009.
When the company recruits its 8,500 trainees each year, it doesn't look for top students or bookish types. "They look for frat brothers that spend a lot of time partying," said Dong. "You're not going to see them at the Ivy Leagues." In sales, it is about developing and maintaining relationships, not necessarily about having a certain GPA, he said.
"Rental cars happen to be our business, but it's about learning any business," said Marie Artim, vice president of talent acquisition at the St. Louis-based rental car company. The program teaches recruits sales, marketing, operations and financials. "The intent is to bring someone in and teach them all the different aspects of running a business," she said.
It can also be a path to the corner office. Enterprise's CEO, Andrew Taylor, and COO, Pamela Nicholson, both started as management trainees, said Artim, also an alumnus of the program.
Karam Juneja is a regional manager at Enterprise. Based in San Francisco, 30-year old Juneja joined the company when Enterprise offered him a job on a campus visit to his college, Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Ind. in 2002. He graduated in six months instead of the typical year and got promoted to branch manager in another six months. By 2006, Juneja was an area manager overseeing a group of stores in Chicago. A month ago, he was promoted to regional manager. "I hadn't sold a product in my entire life until I came out of college," he said. "Today I can."
Juneja also said that Enterprise is a great training ground for future management positions. "When you're promoted to assistant manager, the responsibility is to teach someone else, and you'll only progress if you do that." Juneja said his favorite thing about the program is the clear path to growth it lays out for you. "They don't limit your potential here in terms of personal growth," he said. "My wife, who works for a large corporation, envies me."
The program is a sales class on steroids, said Sara Friend, a 29-year-old from St. Louis who graduated from the program in March 2007.
"The most important part was learning the different types of sales, the sales cycle, a lot of product knowledge," said Friend, who left Enterprise in 2008 after being promoted to assistant manager and now works in sales in St. Louis for Reed Elsevier, the Amsterdam-based publishing company. "My resume got to the front of the line here because they knew I was a hard worker because I had been at Enterprise."
New trainees go through two weeks of orientation and training, after which they are placed in one of 70 branches, assigned a mentor and trained through a combination of classes and hands-on work in day-to-day operations. They are paid between $32,000 and $40,000 a year depending on location.
Trainees are required to have a college degree -- anything from economics to English literature. But which school you went to and grades aren't important.
"They select from the bottom half [of university classes] and that's intentional," said Dong. "Those students are not studious but they demonstrate a lot of attributes that are important like people skills." The company recruits at over 800 university campuses across the country.
By blanketing every inch of the country, especially schools in America suburbia, and bringing on thousands of people each year, the company has "carpet bombed" the U.S., said Dong. It's the same strategy the company uses with its retail branch network: According to Enterprise, 90% of Americans live within 15 miles of a location.
One of the campus hires was Natasha Lee, 35, who got offered a position in 1999 at the company during a campus visit to her college, Albany University. She said Enterprise is more than about the hard skills.
"In my first six months I was vacuuming underneath a car seat wearing a suit and heels and thought, 'What am I doing here?' It's character building," she said.
Lee stuck with it and later got promoted to working in risk management and insurance claims. She left in 2006 to pursue an MBA at the University of Phoenix and said that she got her current job, as a VP of business development at Branch Banking and Trust in San Francisco, because of her Enterprise experience.
After the management training is complete, trainees that pass a test are offered an assistant manager position. Once they make assistant manager, graduates of the program can apply for jobs around the organization as they become available. Many apply to become branch managers, which requires applicants to pass yet another test, a series of interviews and accounting quizzes known internally as The Grill.
Jamie Kaplan, 23, is currently preparing for The Grill. The University of Central Florida graduate started her training in June 2010 and now works at an Arlington, Va. location. "It really is the path to sales management," she said.
Artim, the Enterprise VP of talent, said that the company's retention rate after training is 75%. "Our effort and goal is to keep those people in the pipeline," she said.
Greg Church left Enterprise in 2008 during the recession. Church started through the program in October 2004 in Henderson, Nev., later moving to an account executive position in Las Vegas. He was laid off when his location decided to cut down on non-essential staff due to financial difficulties. He said the experience helped his sales skills tremendously.
"I don't consider myself a salesman but if a job was available in sales I'd feel comfortable doing it," he said. In fact, Church's current job, at Neff Rentals in Henderson, picked him because he had Enterprise on his resume, he said.
But there is a dark side to the program. Many of its graduates talk about the long, grueling hours and the indignity of washing cars wearing a suit. There is an entire website dedicated to hating Enterprise -- FailingEnterprise.com -- where former and current employees discuss the job, the meager pay and the suffering. Kinney, who left Enterprise because she felt her growth had stunted, agrees with the complaints. "It doesn't come without the sweat and tears," she said. "By the time I left, it felt repetitive."
A spokesperson for Enterprise said that the company's management training program is "not for everyone."
Former employees say they are glad they went through the program. "Enterprise teaches you how to run a business and they're giving you the money to do it," said Kinney.
Church said the washing cars part is a standing joke. "I got a four-year degree so I could wash cars is something I hear a lot," he said. "But it's just one aspect of the job, and it doesn't last long."
Lee said it's a tough slog, but today, she is thankful for it. "Today, when I'm asked to stay back an extra hour or two, I don't mind so much," she said. "It's like that song: If you can make it there you can make it anywhere."
Write to Shareen Pathak