“I set out to earn a degree in business at university. I lasted six weeks. Then I fell in love with a hot rod.”

Ken Lawrence, president.

On the road with Ken Lawrence, president of Discount Car & Truck Rentals P. E. I.

From a fleet of eight cars in 1987 to more than 170 today, Ken Lawrence has made a name for Prince Edward Island-based Discount Car & Truck Rentals P. E. I., turning the summer experiment to an island mainstay. Despite the presence of large international competitors, the province turns to Lawrence’s company to supply vehicles for special events, such as the first state visit of Prince William and Kate Middleton last summer.

“We are Islanders,” Lawrence says. “We are known as the experts on Prince Edward Island, and we are proud that the same customers come back to us year after year. They are our ‘Discount family.’”

In order to get to know more about this family—and the way the company has shaped the community—Advantage touched base with Lawrence himself.

Advantage: Did you set out with specific goals to succeed in business? 

Ken Lawrence: Well, I did set out to earn a degree in business at university. I lasted six weeks. Then I fell in love with a hot rod. I dropped out and used my tuition refund to buy that hot rod, which I had decided was more important than school. I went to work at a service station pumping gas, became a licensed mechanic, and at 21 years old opened my own repair business.

When did you begin to see an opportunity in car rentals?

I had a good location with a large lot. One day, Terry Taylor—the Atlantic licensee for Discount Rentals, and a Ford dealer—walked into my shop and asked if he could rent space for vehicle storage. We hit it off immediately. He took time to talk to me about business, and we established a great relationship.

My shop became the Discount location for Prince Edward Island. Their staff worked from my space, and I was not comfortable with the effort Terry’s staff put into the business—arriving late, leaving early, wandering off. I made Terry an offer. I told him, “I’d like to give this a go, if you’ll give me a chance and finance me.” He did, and for two years I basically got to “go to school” and make my mistakes on his nickel. He gave me my start.

What makes Discount P. E. I. different from other rental companies?

The time and attention we give to our customers. It’s more than just cars—every rental company has cars. They are all new, and they are all clean. We know Prince Edward Island. Our customers count on us to provide them with information, travel tips, and local advice that will make their trip extra special.

For example, we have three locations [Charlottetown, Summerside, and Montague]. We employ people from each of those communities locally. Could an accountant justify that from a business point of view? I doubt it. But I believe if we want to serve those neighbourhoods, we have to be present.

Yes, we run faster and work harder to squeeze out a profit. All 14 of my staff members are Islanders, and they do a good job providing every extra service possible. That’s why customers come back.

What advice would you give a young businessperson today?

Find something that you love to do and that is fun for you. The fun will make up for the long days and the tough times. A lot of people think they should follow the money, but you won’t stick it out if you don’t have fun at work.

And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Often, I tried to reinvent the wheel when I could have asked for advice. Having a conversation with a mentor may not solve an immediate problem today, but it could really matter a month from now.

Lastly, don’t expect success to happen overnight. You are in it for the long haul.

Who was your most important mentor?

My father, chef Joseph Lawrence, who helped to build Prince Edward Island’s culinary industry. He was a modest man who taught me to work hard, never give up, and give yourself to others.

He brought me up in the hospitality industry. Summers as a short-order cook, facing six waitresses and a full restaurant waiting for orders, really taught me how to serve and how to stickhandle—skills that have helped me all my life.

What’s next?

I believe in company synergy. We have added the Cruise Holidays travel franchise and Fleet First Auto Sale to our group. Social media will play a large role, as we plan to stay in touch with our “Discount family” and keep people engaged. We’re working on that now.