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Schel Gardner has also been able to turn big profits on a small investment. The 26-year-old entrepreneur is no novice: By the time he purchased his Rent-A-Wreck territory in 1999, he had a seven-year business track record under his belt.

"I started my wrecking business at age 17. I've just done a lot of things early in life," says Gardner, who graduated from high school at 16. He says his auto wrecker service is the largest in Angier, a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Branching off into car rental was a natural extension of his existing business. "People kept telling me there was nowhere to rent cars," says Gardner. "They had to go to Raleigh or Fayetteville. It sounded like a feasible idea to me."

So after researching, he plunked down $5,000 for the Rent-A-Wreck franchise fee and put three rental cars into operation.

That small number of vehicles lasted only a week. "The demand was more than we expected, and we started adding one, two and three cars a week to the fleet," says Gardner, who rents cars for insurance replacements and to local residents.

"We sell franchises based on the population within a prospective area," explains Allan Wagner, Rent-A-Wreck director of franchise sales and development. "The least expensive one is $5,000 in a protected area of up to 9,999 people."

"We typically operate in conjunction with other businesses. Franchisees will have a tire store, or an auto body repair shop, that already brings in foot traffic," says Rent-A-Wreck director of public relations Jason Manelli on how the corporation is able to franchise so inexpensively.

Gardner fit that model. His first franchise opened at the same location as his wrecking business and rapidly grew from there. "We doubled inventory in the first three weeks, then doubled again in another three weeks," Gardner says. "We were pulling a lot of business from the neighboring town of Lillington, so I approached a gentleman there with a U-Haul dealership to see if he would be interested in renting cars under me." He was, and a second location was born. Gardner currently owns four locations with seven employees in his territory.

Gardner's goals for his car rental company have changed drastically in the past two years. "I expected to have one location maybe renting five or six units," he says. "I didn't see the community needing all that much more. But now it's grown from just something to supplement business to an entire business on its own."

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