Hit the Road, Daddy

U-HAUL's founder never imagined his own kids would be the corporate raiders of his great American dream

THE LAST ANNUAL SHAREHOLDERS gathering of Amerco was more outrageous than even insiders would have predicted. Meeting at the Sands Hotel in Reno on March 4, the session quickly disintegrated into a verbal and physical thrashing. Second oldest brother Mike, who's decidedly in his dad's camp, brought a tape recorder along at the request of New Times to record the closed-door session. Opposing brothers Joe, Mark, Paul, and Jim were vehemently upset when they noticed the machine. They demanded Mike turn it over to the hotel's security guards. Mike refused and taped the entire meeting. As the session broke up, Mark--the brother known for his "hot head"--belted Mike. As they scuffled, several people grabbed for the tape recorder, Mike recalls, but he held fast. Security guards pulled Mark off his brother. Then, according to several sources, Joe attacked, pummeling Mike with both fists. Mike, an attorney who lives in Vancouver, Washington, was treated the following day at a Scottsdale hospital for deep bruises on his neck and back.

Those weren't the only bruises suffered by the L.S. group at that meeting. Joe's camp voted in lock step to keep firm control of the company. L.S. had come to the meeting with only one purpose. He wanted to force Joe to use those disputed 8,099 shares--the heart of his lawsuit against U-Haul. L.S. didn't go away disappointed in that respect: To stay in power and to re-elect his hand-picked board of directors, Joe had to use those controversial shares.

Almost forgotten in the fireworks was a short speech by one Bertram Miller.

Miller, from Dallas, Texas, owns nine shares of Amerco stock, a gift about thirty years ago from L.S. Shoen. A former U-Haul executive, Miller had a falling out with L.S. in the mid-1960s and quit the company. But he kept his stock.

A few weeks before the March 4 meeting, a U-Haul executive asked Miller over the phone to sign a proxy that would allow the Joe Group to vote his nine shares. Instead, Miller decided to fly to Reno to check things out firsthand. He tells New Times he hasn't spoken to L.S. or any of the Shoens for years. But, he adds, "I had a feeling these boys in power now were skimming the cream off the milk, and I wanted to talk to them about it."

Miller asked to speak near the end of the three-hour shareholders meeting. "Over the years, I figured the people here were capable of running the corporation," Miller started, pointing at the members of the Joe Group. "Well, after reading [the proxy], it was at times reading from a political speech--I got half a story. . . . The biggest lie in the world is from the guy who will tell you half a story. I checked around and found that they had diluted the shares by 8,099, and the people who owned it were basically on the board of directors.

"There's something wrong, gentlemen, with the Shoen family. You did not start this corporation. You inherited it, and I just wonder if you are capable--"

Mark Shoen had heard enough. "Shut up," interrupted this U-Haul executive, the fourth son of the House of Shoen. "Shove it up your ass. Shove it up your goddamn ass."

L.S. SHOEN isn't pulling a Citizen Kane routine in Vegas these days. He and his wife, Carol, started taking piano lessons a few months ago, and he's become something of a computer whiz.

The little hair he has left is white, and you could practically slip a credit card into his furrowed brow. He has a chronically bad back, so he keeps his feet up while he works. He has a direct, rapid-fire manner and the kind of belly laugh that's contagious. It's still easy to picture him as "Slick" Shoen, hawking his U-Haul trailers from town to town.

He was an uncommon combination of dreamer and doer, this man with a bagful of ideas and the wherewithal to get some of them to work. And he never had been shy about dancing with his family's demons, as if they would tell him why certain things in his life had happened.

L.S. spends hour after hour in his study, writing those painfully long letters to his kids and rehashing events of decades ago. The House of Shoen is running amuck, and L.S. doesn't know what to do.

"People might say I was a fool for letting this happen, but I was an interesting fool," he says. "It's God's will for me to get a chance to see what would have happened after my death anyway--and to speak the truth about it.

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