Chrissy Taylor on keeping Enterprise’s rental fleet moving—and her family’s business afloat

Courtesy Enterprise Holdings

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Chrissy Taylor took over as CEO of the world’s largest rental-car company in December, but she’s been training for the job for a lifetime. The granddaughter of Enterprise Holdings’ founder, Taylor served as chief operating officer before finally taking the wheel of the $26 billion travel industry giant and its fleet of 2 million vehicles in January.

Now, in her first months on the job, Taylor is deep in coronavirus crisis management mode. But she’s maintaining a long-term outlook, preparing for the travel industry to be forever changed. “I always knew being CEO was not easy, but this came a little sooner than I thought,” she says.

For a new series, Fortune asked female business leaders—including those who appear on Fortune‘s annual Most Powerful Women in Business list—to talk about leading through the public health and economic crisis. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fortune: What’s your No. 1 concern related to the coronavirus and your business? 

Chrissy Taylor: Our No. 1 priority and concern is our employee safety and our customer safety. Everything that we’re doing right now, from modifying our operations and our messaging—everyone is focused first and foremost on employee and customer safety. As an essential provider of transportation, we still remain open, so it’s important that everyone knows we are conducting ourselves in a safe manner.

How has the coronavirus impacted your business in the short term?

My grandfather founded Enterprise, and over the course of six decades we’ve seen many storms and recessions, but nothing has been as significant as this. The impact has been greater than Sept. 11 and the 2008 recession combined. Our airport operation, which is one-third of our business, has been impacted. Business travel is significantly down, if functioning at all. The leisure industry has also all come to a halt. Two-thirds of our business happens in the suburban market—where we have stay-at-home orders. The dealership business is closed, where we provide rentals to people getting their cars fixed, so that business has also seen reduction in rentals.

How do you expect the crisis to impact your business in the long term?

Right now, it’s crisis management, but we’re also watching how quickly our operations morph. We are learning so much about new customer expectations. How do we safely provide transportation and mobility that is essential for keeping the world moving? How can we use our digital properties more efficiently to get customers’ information up front so they don’t have to come into our store? How do we continue to improve the delivery process? We’re revisiting our cleaning processes. What’s important to the customer is going to change and we’re learning a lot right now.

Social distancing—we’re taking the the response that those will always be in place. I think there will be social distancing whether there’s a mandate or not, and we, as a customer-facing business, need to be respectful of and responsible for that. The new normal is going to be different than the old normal.

The prudent thing to do for us is to prepare. If the virus does come back, we don’t have to repeat what we’ve just done. We’ve learned something along the way. The velocity of this was unbelievable, and there was a lot of manpower behind it. So how do we now use technology, if this happens again, to deliver on customer expectations so much better than we can now? We’re doing a great job today, but obviously this isn’t the ideal situation we want to be operating in.

How are you planning for the future of your business with such immediate uncertainty? 

We’re privately held, we’re a family business, and we’ve built a strong business with a great leadership team. That’s how you prepare for future—by making sure you have great leaders and a great team. We’ve built a strong balance sheet that will help us weather this storm.

What management lessons or principles are you drawing on as you face this unprecedented crisis? What, if any, roadmap are you following?

It comes back to my grandfather’s philosophy: Take care of your customers and your employees first and everything will fall into line. It was so true back then, and it’s so true today.

How are you protecting your employees?

We’ve got a network of 10,000 stores globally. We have minimized our footprint; we’re operating out of one hub in most counties so that we reduce foot traffic for customers and our employees. In the master hub, we are limiting the number of employees at that location. It’s our job to make sure that we continue to remind and communicate to our team that social distancing and safety is our number one priority.

We’ve definitely had to make hard decisions. Some employees are on furlough right now, but we made sure they had health benefits through the month. These decisions are hard, but it’s also for the long-term viability of the business, and there is a balance there of course. [Editor’s Note: After this interview was conducted in mid-April, Enterprise laid off at least 2,000 employees, including some who had previously been on furlough.]

Is your company taking any direct measures to aid in the coronavirus response?

We have a foundation that supports our employees. We are deemed an essential business, and we continue to rent to healthcare workers, utility companies, and the government to make sure that they can get to the jobs that they need to do. That’s a big piece of our business right now; overall, other parts of our business are down, so those contracts with the government or with FEMA feel more prevalent.

What—if any—good do you think will come from this crisis?

We are learning so much about our customers and how they interact with us. Once we move out of triage mode, people are going to think about how do we use technology? How can we be more innovative to service the customer going forward? Everyone was thinking about innovation before, but now it’s been turned on its head. We’re also learning about communication—as CEO, I cannot over-communicate right now.

What data are you monitoring to gauge the crisis short-term? Long term?

We are very metric-oriented—is the business up or down, and where is it up or down. But we stopped our customer service calls—we felt it wasn’t the right time to put another call on our customers. Long-term, we have to think hard about how we measure customer service. How do we want to get the sentiment from the customer about how well we’ve serviced them and the experience we’re providing?

What’s the biggest way your professional life has changed amid this crisis? 

In the new normal, when I think about my professional life, I immediately also think about my personal life. Working at home, trying to homeschool, also trying to interact with my team—it feels like it has all merged together. Having conversations about the well-being of my team, my family, and myself—there’s never been more.

I’ve always lived and died by the schedule, my personal stuff and work stuff is all on my Outlook calendar—managing that is my little sense of normalcy.

My husband is working from home, with our 7-year-old and 10-year-old. It’s messy, it’s fun, it can be frustrating, but we will all make it through. I feel better during the day because I know every single person is struggling with this.

What does it mean for your two children to see the full breadth of running the family-run business from home? Is witnessing their family’s business up close something that will stick with them?

No question. Before this all happened, they could see my father—they know Pop Pop works for the business. They also know that I come into the business every day and our offices are next to each other. Now that I’m home, they hear me on conference calls and see my Enterprise Holdings papers all over, they really are getting a sense. They are starting to understand what it means to be part of a family business.

More on the most powerful women in business from Fortune:

—How Global 500 companies are responding to the coronavirus
14% of women considered quitting their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic
—Why “Mrs. America” and the 1970s fight over the ERA are more relevant than ever
—Inside Lyft’s coronavirus response team
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: The double burdens that hold women back

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