Kansas City's towing industry is a wreck.

One Tow Over the Line 

Kansas City's towing industry is a wreck.

Page 6 of 11

But Booth was a natural-born charmer, and his political instincts carried over to his work. Joe Booth Jr. says his father never met a stranger. "I remember going riding with him in his tow trucks. If we saw somebody waiting on the side of the road, we'd help them, get gas for them, change a tire. Somebody might say we just wanted money, but we were providing a service when they broke down. But that's the reason I didn't get into it. It's too much of a fight. Nobody wants to work together in this town and everybody is sue-happy. It's long hours and who's stealing from who. That's not my bag of tea."

Booth's Towing retained numerous private contracts with auto dealerships, garages, body shops, and insurance companies in an operation that managed satellite offices in St. Louis, Wichita, Springfield, Omaha, and Denver. Booth often flew by private plane to check up on things. He was no redneck grease monkey in dirty overalls.

Instead, he commanded a staff of 86 employees and required his drivers to wear clean uniforms.

"I don't go to work smellin', and I'm not braggin', I just don't do it," he says. "When I went to the office, I always had on a suit and tie. On Fridays, when everybody else was casual, I was dressed up. If my drivers didn't come to work in their uniforms, they didn't work. I took care of my accounts, and my accounts respected my company. If my drivers didn't do it my way, they didn't work for me. I don't believe in business casual and I don't believe in voice mail, either. If you call me, you are going to talk to me."

He used a fleet of more than 60 trucks painted red and yellow, exemplifying his primal business philosophy: "I like them because they are aggressive colors," he says. "You can see them from a distance."

Booth was notorious for chastising competitors who had unsavory business practices that threatened the towing industry and cheated motorists. He especially disliked the wreck-chasers.

"Wreck-chasing is not the free enterprise system," Booth says. "It's unscrupulous tow operators using a system that lets them gouge people. It's fraud." Booth began pushing for local reform aimed at Kansas City's wreck-chasers in the early '80s, but competitors worried that he would fortify his stranglehold on the market and abuse his political connections to gain ownership of the city's impound lot. He attracted enemies like John Rocker would in a campaign for mayor of New York City.

Booth held Kansas City's towing contract for three decades. He says the deal was not particularly lucrative -- the city tows an average of 15,000 cars a year, but Booth's best years saw him haul 75,000 vehicles for much higher rates.

"The city contract was a pimple on the butt of an elephant," Joe says. "I used it strictly for advertising. Whenever there was a wreck on TV, you saw my trucks."

But, Booth says, failing health forced him out of business. He suffered from severe blood clotting in his lungs and lower extremities. In 1989 Joe almost died from sudden complications of his illness; he spent 40 days at Baptist Medical Center in guarded condition.

Booth says he sold his company's equipment and holdings to other operators in 1989. Over the next 10 years, Booth says, he settled into consulting businesses and selling insurance to tow operators for the Cretcher Lynch Co. of Kansas City, conveniently located in the office right above Booth's. For all intents, the King of Towing was no more in Kansas City.

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