Phil Schnee joined the U-Haul Team in 1953. During the years that have followed, he has amassed enough stories to fill a book—maybe two.
Here, in his own words, he recounts some of those stories and some of the historic moments he’s been a part of.
By Phil Schnee
My U-Haul adventure started more than 60 years ago, when co-founder L.S. “Sam” Shoen interviewed me in the basement of his home. His parting words to me were, “You are a young man and have your life ahead of you. This will just be another adventure, and you may not make U-Haul a career. As long as you work hard, you’ll have a future. Start work Monday.”
So, on November 3, 1953, I went to work for U-Haul at the Portland (Oregon) Trailer Manufacturing Plant on Foster Road, building FV (6 x 8) and US (4 x 7) trailers. The US model reminded me of a Ben-Hur chariot.
I had just turned 18. U-Haul was just 8 years old then and most of the people I met were young, energetic individuals, including some who went on to leadership positions such as Jack Lorentz, Dick Wrublik and Ron Green, to name a few.
A couple months later, Ron Green and I were sent to Boston to work at the East Dedham Trailer Plant for Hap Carty. There, I learned to paint trailers. Eventually, we outgrew our paint booth at the East Dedham plant and moved it to another building with more space. I could put up to eight trailers inside a heated building. My production increased and a better-looking product resulted.
After a while, I decided to move back to Portland to go to school. I did some odd paint jobs for U-Haul, including some color scheme changes for Duane Swanson. We were changing from the orange and black stenciled combination to something cleaner and brighter. After trying everything including blue, brown, green, etc., we settled on the orange and white we currently have, and the decal replaced the stencil.
My next move was to help set up the paint shop at the Van Nuys, California repair facility, where I worked for Kerm Shoen. After pestering Kerm to put me in the field, my chance came. My career in U-Haul was about to take off. I took over a field route in Los Angeles County—from Santa Monica to Long Beach. We were still a couple of years away from truck rentals, and our competition was pretty stiff. As I recall, there were five companies renting one-way trailers: Nationwide, National, Rentmaster, Allstate and Kar-Go. Within 30 days I signed up and opened 15 new dealers in Los Angeles County. This helped to set up another field route and cut down my driving time. We also kept the competition out and made it more economical for our customers to rent a trailer.
Another cross-country trip came when Hap Carty needed a rental company president for U-Haul Company of Delaware, which was based in Baltimore. I was in the Washington, D.C., area for some historic events including the Cuban Missile Crisis (our office was 10 miles from the target), Martin Luther King Jr.’s Resurrection City and JFK’s assassination in Dallas. I was working with an AFM and watched the changing of the guard in the District the day President Kennedy died.
Caught off guard
In Atlanta, Ryder Truck Rentals caught us off guard. They picked up dealers in prime locations and set them up with new trucks. Me and a few others were called upon to help counter this situation and sign up as many dealers as possible. I signed up 18 dealers in a week. Our total was 65 for the week among our four area field managers.
In 1978, I took over as marketing company president of U-Haul Company of Idaho, which included parts of Montana and Wyoming—it covered 172,000 square miles! We opened 10 new U-Haul Centers and took on several product lines including RV parts and repair, hitch sales and installation, self-storage, tool rentals, Movers World, pack and load, mailboxes, propane and gasoline sales. However, we were losing track of our basic fundamentals—renting trucks and trailers to the moving public. U-Store, hitch sales and propane sales were kept and the rest were discontinued.
Today my U-Haul adventure is still alive, working part-time in Idaho. One thing we’ve never forgotten is our Primary Service Objective. It’s allowed us to operate for 70 years. I am proud to have been a part of this success for so many years, and I hope to be around when we celebrate our 75th anniversary.