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@Work: Discount Car Rental

Sept. 24, 2006 — Alex Belmonte was born in Argentina and raised in New York, but when he first arrived in St. Thomas at age 18 he knew he had found home.
"I looked around me riding in from the airport," Belmonte says, "and I knew I would stay forever. I don't know why, something in the air."
We are not far from that first ride today, sitting in his office overlooking the Moravian Highway at Discount Car Rental, which Belmonte now owns and manages. "The island may have changed, but not my feeling for it," he says.
Belmonte moved to St. Thomas to work for his brother, who owned a downtown store. He recalled driving past the shanties that lined the road just before Frenchtown. "That had to be the ugliest part of town, but it didn't matter," he says. "I knew I loved it."
He moved back to St. Thomas a little more than two years ago when his friend Al Perkins gave him the opportunity to purchase his car rental business. "I was in Miami," he says, "but my heart was in St. Thomas."
Belmonte was a long while getting back to the island from Miami. He and his wife, Anna, and their three children — Christine, Daniel and Martin — moved to Miami in the early 1990s because Daniel needed medical help he couldn't get on the island.
The car business is a far cry from Belmonte's former endeavors. After working for his brother, he opened his own produce business, which he ran for more than a decade. Better Roots and Fruits supplied bananas from Dominica and Guatemala to the territory's major supermarkets, Tortola and as far away as Anguilla, Belmonte says. In Miami he took a slightly different turn, winding up in the garlic-distribution business. "We peeled 40,000 pounds of garlic a week," he says.
None of those jobs exactly laid the groundwork for owning a car-rental operation.
"I had no experience at all," Belmonte says. "This was a business run by Perkins for 27 years. He helped me a tiny bit, but it was mainly trial and error."
He pauses.
"And It's a tough business. Though it's pretty straightforward, not complicated, it can be very stressful. You're dealing with machines which break down, customers who leave unpaid traffic tickets, among other things."
Discount is an independent company, one of about 10 or so on the island, so there's stiff competition between the independents and the major companies. "Almost all the rental companies are independents," he says.
Belmonte is a good-looking man with a boyish smile under a salt-and-pepper mustache. He has a genuine feel for dealing with people, which comes in handy in his business. His upstairs office is cheery, decorated with lots of old maps of St. Thomas, including an 1864 map of Charlotte Amalia.
The work isn't always cheery, of course. "The main complaint I get is the roads. Visitors come to the Caribbean and expect to find I-95s, and that's not the case, thank God," he says, laughing. "I see the roads now and I think they're superhighways compared to 30 years ago when it used to be one great big pothole."
"The thing I like best," Belmonte says, "is seeing old friends. It happens. Out of the blue somebody will be standing before you that you used to know years ago. Just awhile ago I looked up and there was this guy, Crazy Artie, from St. John. 'That's you? That's me.' We had a little reunion."
More than 50 percent of his business comes from repeat customers, Belmonte says. He doesn't know how that compares with other rental companies, but he finds it rewarding. "It's a real blessing when people come back," he says, "and you can develop relationships with people."
He has a fleet of 40 cars, some new, some used. "We have the lowest prices on the island," Belmonte says. "The business is 98 percent visitors. Though we do some local business from St. Croix, Tortola and Puerto Rico."
He runs the business with five employees. "I have one rental agent in the office with me," he says, "and one mechanic, of course, and two drivers to pick up and drop off the customers."
One of the drivers pops in and out of the office, wondering out loud about an airport pickup that hasn't shown, and when he should go to lunch. Belmonte looks like an easy boss.
"Go ahead," he says with a smile. "Take lunch."
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