Oct. 1, 2004 St. John seems to be awash with car rental agencies, but St. John Car Rental has granddaddy status.
When Lonnie and Albert Willis and their two young sons camped at Cinnamon Bay Campground back in 1974, they were so taken with the place that they decided to move to St. John from their home in Sayville, N.Y.
"If you get a chance in life to go to a place that you like, you should do it," Albert Willis advised.
The Willises enjoyed St. John's smallness and sense of community. They thought it would be a good place to raise their children, Aaron, then 10, and Robert, 7.
The Willises wanted to go into business for themselves, but there were only two businesses for sale At Your Service Travel Agency and St. John Car Rental.
They cemented a deal with Forrest Fisher for St. John Car Rental, which had been in business for several years, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Albert Willis quit his job as an engineer running high-pressure boilers and his wife gave up her teaching and computer programming jobs.
They hopped on the plane at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York with their two sons, their dog Pooh-Bear and their cat Ikie on Jan. 4, 1975.
In those days, St. John Car Rental was located in a grass-roofed building converted from a huge water tank that began its life at Trunk Bay. After a couple of years, the company moved to the Creek Bulkhead, and, in 2002, to its own location on Bay Street across from Wharfside Village.
Much has changed in those 29 years. They started out renting Mini-Mokes and Volkswagen Things, both small open-air cars with lots of character.
"The cars didn't have air conditioning. You just rolled down the windows, or they had no windows," Albert Willis said.
Now renters want all the amenities, including air conditioning.
In the early days, St. John Car Rental also rented cars for people who now have their own agencies. "They had one or two cars. I'd rent their cars and get 10 percent," Lonnie Willis recalled.
The business ran differently too. There were no fax machines, no copy machines and no credit cards. Albert Willis said people would put down a $20 deposit in cash.
Lonnie Willis said that in the old days, more people rented by the day. Now, most of the vehicles are rented to vacation villa guests who stay for the week.
While life has gotten easier, the couple still faces challenges in running their business. Albert Willis said it's still hard to get car parts, and getting warranty work done requires a trip to St. Thomas and locating the mechanic authorized to do the warranty work.
"It's like doing business anywhere, but twice as hard," Albert Willis said.
When the Willises arent keeping tabs on their various businesses at their office in Raintree Plaza, located down the street from St. John Car Rental, Albert Willis, 63, heads to the beach.
Lonnie Willis, 59, serves as president of the St. John Community Foundation and is on the board of the Girl Scout Council of the Virgin Islands.
One of their sons, Aaron, remained on St. John. He is now 40 and runs the two family-owned restaurants The Fish Trap and the Stone Terrace. Robert, 37, works in the audio-visual field in Alabama.
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