Hit the Road, Daddy

No one knew what U-Haul founder L.S. Shoen had in mind at his "Celebration of Love and Respect." L.S. was as unpredictable as a desert storm. I'm a 180-degree guy, he often said, and I'll change direction before you blink if I think it's right.

He had started U-Haul with a few thousand dollars and a timely idea in 1945. Now it was a billion-dollar business, headquartered in Phoenix, and a genuine slice of Americana.

But nothing in Leonard Samuel Shoen's seventy years had prepared him for this day, November 8, 1986. A majority of his twelve children, led by his third oldest son, Joe, had banded together to kick him out of power.

L.S. didn't own U-Haul anymore, just a small chunk of it. Over the years, he'd given his kids more than 90 percent of the stock in Amerco--U-Haul's parent company. Amerco had grown beyond U-Haul to include insurance firms, self- storage facilities and numerous other businesses. By now, it was among Arizona's biggest employers and one of the nation's largest family-owned businesses.

The company had made L.S. rich enough to give his kids--the products of three of his five wives--a piece of Amerco's future, as well as a million bucks each in other investments and cash. By November 1986, Amerco's stock was worth several hundred million, but L.S. owned just 2 percent. He still was worth millions, but had less stock than any of his children except the youngest.

No matter. In his heart, L.S. was creating a dynasty--the House of Shoen. He never imagined his own kids would become the corporate raiders of his Great American Dream. U-Haul's founding father had become just an employee, albeit its chief executive officer and board chairman. But a company's head honcho serves at the pleasure of its stockholders, and L.S. had handed his kids the farm. Most were now over 21, old enough to vote their stock as they wanted.

And already they'd started pushing L.S. around: A few weeks before the "celebration," they'd thrown out a board of L.S. loyalists--none of them Shoens--and elected instead the three Shoen sons most opposed to L.S.'s long reign--Joe, Paul, and Jim. It was a stunning defeat for the old man.

L.S. knew he was a goner before the family's "celebration" at a Paradise Valley resort. Before the get-together, he quickly declined the new board's invitation to stay on as Amerco's CEO. He would never, ever consider working under the thumb of 37-year-old Joe.

L.S. now says his nose was a foot long while the deed was being done, that he knew he was being slam-dunked by Joe. But on November 8, L.S. played Pinocchio. Someone dubbed it a "Celebration of Love and Respect," probably because L.S. ends his correspondence "With Love and Respect."

Niceties aside, you'd never know what the old man might pull, so everyone was edgy as he rose to give his farewell speech. "I'll start this out by saying I am not God and never have thought I was." L.S. had notes, but he spoke with his eyes closed much of the time and tugged at his bushy brows.

"I have been humbled repeatedly in my life. Humbled . . . I've had experiences that were traumatic compared with what I'm doing today. What I've found is that out of all of these experiences, instead of bad coming--good came. Through all the pain that you get, good comes from it.

"When I was kicked out of medical school, after all those years of hard work and studying, and into boot camp, I thought my world had fallen apart. I had lost everything. . . . Talk about scary! Damn near two years in the Navy, coming out with no way to support a family except to take a job as a first-aid person for Alcoa Aluminum. It was traumatic.

"This having faith in your fellow man, having trust, pays off. I don't care how many times I was victimized. It pays off. It is the best way on earth. I'd rather be conned than be a con man. I'd rather be conned than be suspicious of everybody. I'd rather have love than distrust."

L.S. ended his stream-of- consciousness swan song.
"I want you to know that this is my gift to you children. I tried hard. I do have enough sense to know that I should stop, move aside and get out of the way without abandoning ship. I do want you all to know that I trust my sons and daughters--absolutely."

The new Shoen board appointed Doc Sam--the oldest child and L.S.'s long-time heir apparent--as Amerco's new CEO. However, part of the deal was that Doc Sam would have to work side by side with Joe, the new chairman of the board. The brothers had been enemies for years.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin