Jermaine Johnson gets in the driver’s seat after job separation Loop Jamaica

The content originally appeared on: Jamaica News Loop News

A calculated risk led Jermaine Johnson down an entrepreneurial path to establishing a car rental company.Offered a voluntary separation package from his telecoms job seven years ago, the would-be businessman seized the opportunity of this immediate cashflow to get in the driver’s seat.

Loop News sat down with Johnson at Heyday Car Rentals’ Worthington Avenue headquarters in New Kingston, where, as the founder and chief executive officer, he maintains a 23-vehicle fleet, which includes Toyota Grace, Kia Seltos, Toyota Corolla, and Honda Grace cars.

Heyday founder and chief executive officer Jermaine Johnson (Photo: Selah McHail)

Despite his enduring love of all things auto, Johnson first envisioned helming a different venture entirely.

“Being very hands on, [from an early age] I developed a lot of mechanical skills, and my dream then was to operate a high-tech dealer-like garage.

“A friend and I had planned to start a garage, but he eventually migrated, and I got a job at Digicel, suppressing the dream,” he recounted to Loop News at his spartanly furnished office.

“I revisited the garage idea, but my biggest fear was to start and have no customers. Awhile after brainstorming, I thought, ‘What if I was my own customer?’, then the idea of a car rental company came to mind,” he said.

An active fixture on the local racing scene, where he worked on and tuned his own cars, Johnson shared:

Persons started to ask me to tune their car, and I amassed a decent customer base for performance tuning. One of my customers had a successful rent-a-car business, which allowed him to grow into other businesses. I picked his brain and did research on my own and concluded that a rent-a-car business was a safe way to invest my money.

A November 2017 goodbye to his telecoms job, and with start-up capital in hand, Johnson ordered two cars from Japan, and in February 2018, registered JMJ Car Rental Limited–the initial name of the business–with three cars: a Honda Civic and two Subaru G4s.

“The business started off very well, as referrals through friends kept the three cars busy. This start gave me the confidence to go all in and [I] added two more cars to the fleet.

“I operated as lean as possible, and once I was able to purchase a vehicle, I added to the fleet. We had a good two-year run then COVID hit!” he recalled to Loop News of the pandemic’s arrival and the ensuing fallout.

“For four months I had basically no income, as movement was restricted. When the borders reopened, I started getting calls again but not what I was used to. I know people were renting cars but not from me, and this sparked my look towards marketing,” he said.

Jermaine Johnson tuning a Honda motor car’s electronic control unit.

Maintained company social media accounts across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram notwithstanding, Johnson admitted to paying little attention then to the platforms. The sudden vacuum in business, however, demanded a solution.

“Honestly, word of mouth was [previously] good enough to keep the cars busy. When the calls slowed down, I decided to do an ad,” the now 39-year-old entrepreneur noted.

“I wrote the script, got a professional to voice it and a graphic artist to do some visuals.

“I took advantage of a popular dancehall song about rentals and had the artiste do a recording for the ad. I posted the ads on all the platforms, ran an IG ad campaign and within a week had to pause the campaign as all my vehicles were booked. Here I learned the power of marketing,” he said.

During this pivot, Johnson–a graduate of the University of Technology, Jamaica with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and a minor in telecoms–decided a name change was in order. 

“I realised how unmarketable JMJ Car Rental was. Persons were always getting it wrong, saying ‘J and J’ no matter how clear the lettering in the logo was. It took great effort for people to figure it out.

“I had gained some investor interest, which encouraged me to find a more marketable name. I went to Google and searched “words you didn’t know were words” and found a list,” he recounted. “I started to go through it and found the word ‘Heyday’, which means ‘the period of a person’s or thing’s greatest success, popularity, activity, or vigour.’

“The word and the meaning resonated with me, and in February 2022, I registered the business name [as] Heyday,” Johnson said.

Jermaine Johnson (left) and Heyday operations supervisor Jevaughn Scott pore over the week’s online bookings. (Photo: Selah McHail)

Post-renaming and refocused marketing action, Johnson’s car rental company has been a solid success. The lean company, with a working staff of only three, has built a growing clientele of locals and visitors. 

But what separates him from competitors?

“Our main distinguishing factor is convenience and personalised service,” he rationalised. “You book online or over the phone, our contracts are electronic, payment is electronic, so handover is seamless.

“We will deliver your vehicle to the airport 24/7, so if your flight comes in at 3am on a Sunday, we will be there,” he said.

As resilient and resourceful as the entrepreneur has proven, he’s aware, too, of challenges, particularly what his peers have to encounter.

“I believe two factors affecting most young businesses are capital and mentorship. The risk appetite for start-ups and young businesses is very low, and if you do get an offer, you may have to give away too much of your business or the loan payments are crippling.

“You are forced to grow organically, which generally takes longer. There is a lot to figure out in running a business, and as you get bigger, you are faced with more challenges. A mentor will point you in the right direction as you face the challenges. I have yet to find a mentor,” he said.

The sage words of business titans Warren Buffett and Michael Lee Chin serve as guiding principles in Johnson’s playbook.

He told Loop News that he was sold when “Buffet told the story of a company he wanted to buy, which started with 17 cars, and was going up against Hertz, Avis, and other big names.

“The owner could not provide any different cars, so he decided he would give his customers the best service possible. Today, Enterprise is the biggest car rental company in the world.

“Meanwhile, Lee Chin always shares his wealth creation formula and what stands out to me from his formula is ‘Use other people’s money prudently’,” Johnson said.

For the Spanish Town, St Catherine-raised entrepreneur, whose first car was a super-charged VW Golf, his long-term goal is to compete alongside the big boys in the industry by the time his 50th birthday rolls around.

“Currently, I am at the stage of putting the foundation in place, building a competent team, where each player knows their role and executes it well from front office to maintenance, to marketing,” Johnson said.

“Once the team is in place and the operational structure is replicable, we will be seeking capital via either debt or equity. Once people know we have the vehicles, and we provide exceptional service, we should be right there with them [the larger players]. We should have presence at both international airports, and operations in at least Florida,” he said.

By Omar Tomlinson