By A. Ananthalakshmi
(Reuters) - When fighter pilot Jack Taylor returned from World War Two, he started a car leasing company with just seven cars.
More than half a century later the family-owned firm, named after the aircraft carrier Taylor served on, the Enterprise, is the biggest car rental company in the world with more than a million cars and annual revenue of about $15 billion.
Enterprise Holdings provides half of all car rentals in the $22 billion U.S. car rental market, and has a big lead over No. 2 Hertz Global Holdings Inc
And in an ominous sign for Hertz and Avis Budget Group Inc
"Our focus really today is to grow our global footprint," said Greg Stubblefield, Enterprise's executive vice president of global sales, marketing and strategy.
The company is eyeing expansion in Western Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, he said.
In recent months, Enterprise has forayed into China and Brazil through strategic investments and partnerships.
Enterprise has historically grown organically in the United States except for one big purchase -- of the National and Alamo brands in 2007 -- but internationally it is not so reticent.
"There is really no opportunity for us in the U.S. market to look at another acquisition," Stubblefield said.
The pending $2.3 billion sale of Dollar Thrifty to Hertz means the top three players dominate 95 percent of the U.S. market.
While Avis and Hertz scrapped over the last big acquisition target, Enterprise hung back in the face of likely antitrust concerns and in the belief it had enough brands to service the market.
Enterprise could lose its leadership position in the airport segment to Hertz because of the Dollar Thrifty acquisition, said Standard & Poor's analyst Betsy Snyder, but its overall leadership position, held since the mid 1990s, is safe.
U.S. airport travelers may not realize just how dominant Enterprise is, when they see its brands scattered among those of its rivals.
That's because Enterprise's dominance -- 48 percent of the U.S. market according to research house Euromonitor -- has been built in other areas.
Jack Taylor noticed that his leasing customers were in need of temporary vehicles while their cars were at the body shop. He expanded the business to include auto insurers, whose customers also needed replacement vehicles after accidents.
"Because Enterprise created the market for that and really strove to dominate in that one segment that was ignored by Hertz and Avis, it has grown ... rapidly," said Michelle Grant, a travel and tourism analyst at Euromonitor.
This market is much less susceptible to the economy and the travel demand that affects airport-based corporate car rentals.
Hertz and Avis have in recent years entered the off-airport segment and tasted success, but they still don't have Enterprise's scale.
Enterprise has 75-85 percent of market share in the insurance replacement segment, estimates Sanford Miller, co-CEO of U-Save Car and Truck Rental, and a former head of Budget Group, now part of Avis.
"I cannot tell you how envious we are in a way, because we have not been able to be as good as they are (in the insurance market)," said Miller.
Enterprise has been able to maintain its leadership position in that segment because of its early mover advantage and it honors rates it promises its insurance clients, he said.
"Even if the entire city was sold out of cars, and (rental) rates were going up like airline rates do in a busy summer week, they did not mark up the car price," Miller said.
CAR SHARING PLANS
Enterprise has some U.S. growth plans. It expanded its short-term car sharing business through its purchase of Mint Cars On-Demand and PhillyCarShare over the past year, to be rebranded under the Enterprise name.
None of Enterprise's future plans, however, include the Taylor family taking the company public.
The family, which runs the company out of St. Louis, Missouri, would like to retain "the privilege of being a private company", CEO Andy Taylor has said in the past.
The family, worth $11 billion by Forbes magazine and known for its charitable works in the local community, is committed to being a multi-generational privately owned business, Stubblefield said.
The company has only ever had two CEOs -- founder Jack and his son Andy, and its strategy of growth through customer service has not changed much since its founding.
The third generation is now working in the family firm, which is ranked 15th in Forbes list of the biggest private companies in the United States.
Revenue is expected to cross $15 billion for the year ended July 2012, Stubblefield said. That would be about $1 billion more than in the previous year and about 50 percent more than Hertz's revenue even after its purchase of Dollar Thrifty, based on 2011 figures, Reuters calculations show.
Enterprise declined to reveal its profit figures, but S&P's Snyder, who has been tracking the firm for nearly 20 years, said Enterprise was the most profitable of the U.S. car rental companies.
With the U.S. market so concentrated, there are few options for Hertz or Avis to catch up with Enterprise, said Nima Samadi, an analyst with market research firm IBISWorld.
"They would have to increase the number of locations and grow over time," Samadi said. "For the foreseeable future, it looks like Enterprise will stay on top."
(Editing by Rodney Joyce)