Photo by Michael Roth, RER
Dan Kaplan At Ipaf

Editor’s Reflection on the Passing of Dan Kaplan – the Room Won’t Be the Same

March 13, 2021
Earlier this month, I received a call from Larry Silber, CEO of Herc Rentals letting me know that Dan Kaplan had passed away the day before.

Earlier this month, I received a call from Larry Silber, CEO of Herc Rentals letting me know that Dan Kaplan had passed away the day before. I knew Dan had not been in good health for the past year or so, but I was still stunned at the news. Dan had always struck me as somewhat larger than life. Not physically; indeed he wasn’t very big at all. But something about Dan always commanded the room, pretty much whatever room he was in, people always wanted to talk to him.

He was a man of an amazing level of knowledge and to say he was an expert on the rental industry was an understatement like, perhaps, Hank Aaron could hit a baseball. That’s as good a metaphor as I can think of and since we both like baseball, I’d say it works.

Silber was stunned as well, going back with Dan about 30 years to when Silber was with Ingersoll-Rand (or just Rand at that time). Kaplan and Hertz Equipment Rental Corp. were big customers and Dan helped introduce Silber to the world of rental, and to rental people all over the world. And of course, Silber is now piloting the ship of Herc Rentals, which is a later, independent reincarnation of HERC. As Silber put it, Kaplan’s book Service Success! is practically his bible since he took over running a rental company.

When Kaplan took over HERC in 1982, he found a disorganized company that had branches coast to coast but no cohesive structure. Kaplan knew that to turn it around he had to make it a unified company that benefited from its economies of scale, where branches cooperated with each other, where you had systems to manage assets, and to manage and motivate people. Kaplan created that, the first national rental company. He believed in hiring promotable people who had potential to grow into leaders. He believed in training – I bet I’ve met 100 or more people around this industry who either own rental companies or are in management positions who got their start working for HERC, under the tutelage, directly or indirectly, of Dan Kaplan.

Time utilization, dollar utilization, return on investment, analyzing customers’ needs, how to find the core of your business, the numbers at the core of a management system, the precise art of pricing, regional vice presidents who are activists, support systems for the workforce – pretty basic stuff, no? Maybe so, but most were not basic in the rental industry before Kaplan came along. And really utilizing your software. Why do you have software if you don’t use it to manage and control and analyze and define your business and seek to improve it he would ask. These and so many more ideas became commonplace in the rental industry thanks to Kaplan. As former NES CEO Andy Studdert put it, Kaplan really was the father of the modern rental industry.

Of course, there were good leaders in the rental industry before Dan Kaplan. Lots of outstanding ones, which is why this industry had grown so much since the early days of the 1950s and 1960s. But management on a national and international level did not exist.

Dan knew and inspired people all over the world with his knowledge, first at HERC and then as a consultant to hundreds of rental companies in Europe and Asia and South America and Australia, as well as North America. And most of the people Dan consulted for came to see Dan as a friend as much as a business associate.  

He gave what became known as a historic speech at the American Rental Association convention in Atlanta – I believe it was 1995, perhaps 1996. In it he said that the rental industry had grown to the point that consolidation would be inevitable. A couple of years before United Rentals came along and began this process, Kaplan predicted there would be more than one rental company that would come along that would dwarf HERC, that we didn’t really know what a large national rental company was yet. He turned out to be more than prophetic and by the time United Rentals came along, Kaplan was no longer with HERC and had begun his career as a consultant. It turned out that one of the companies he would consult for would be United Rentals and he helped design and explain the programs and concepts that United would use to develop into the powerhouse that it is.

Dan Kaplan’s advice and knowledge turned out to be invaluable to people all over the world. While he sometimes appeared very businesslike, a bit of a brusque New Yorker, he had a very warm personal side as well. It took me a while to get to know him, but I was deeply honored that we became good friends and that he told me that he appreciated my friendship. It was more than mutual.

He was one of a kind, that’s for sure.