This is the second part of an article. See part one in the March 2007 issue to read their journal entries and notes to each other.
I suppose we’ve all done it. Maybe you’re driving home or sitting in front of the computer. Your mind starts to wander… I wonder what it would be like to live that guy’s life instead of my own, or have that person’s job. Would it be better than mine, worse, or just different? What would I learn? What would I do differently?
Two East Coast operators carried out this vision and worked in each other’s companies, and lived at each other’s homes, for two days. Eric Weiner, president of All Occasion Transportation (AOT) in Providence, R.I., and Marc Shpilner, president/CEO of Limousine Eighteen (Limo 18) in Burlington, Mass., got a brainstorm one night while eating dinner in a favorite local restaurant (Sky, in Norwood, Mass.). As they talked through the possibility, they realized that the experiment would be a great learning experience, a catalyst for making changes at their companies, and a great story to tell in the pages of LCT. Marc was at first skeptical and took a bit of convincing, but once that was done, Eric called LCT Publisher Sara Eastwood on his cell phone and pitched her the story idea while they were still finishing dinner.
The idea was a winner. Both companies knew each other well through farm-out work, association participation, and membership in a limousine operator success group. All this, plus the fact that the two companies have a lot of similarities, made the riskiness of the venture seem less nerve wracking. Both companies serve the Boston market (AOT also serves Providence and makes trips to the New York City area) and their clients are mostly corporate accounts. Their percentage of revenue produced locally versus through affiliate networks is very similar.
The differences come up in fleet sizes and number of employees. AOT uses an employee model, which is why this company has more than twice as many employees as Limo 18. Most of the AOT employees are chauffeurs. Limo 18 has an extensive IO network that it uses. As they found out from the Op Swap experiment, they also had some differences in how they conduct scheduling and dispatching and use office technology, which provided rich material for discussions and potential changes.
Opening Your Eyes to New Possibilities
Months after the initial brainstorming session, the management teams for the two companies, which included Weiner, Shpilner, AOT Director of Operations Joe Cardillo, and former Limo 18 General Manager Bill Hurynowicz, met at the same restaurant, this time for a debriefing following the Op Swap experiment. (Hurynowicz is now director of business development for Limo 18.)
“It’s easy to be critical of someone else’s business unless you’ve walked in their shoes,” Shpilner says. “I think I understand Eric much better and why he does things a certain way. It was also a great opportunity to see there are different ways to do things that might be better than what we’re doing now.”
“It really made me look at the staffing and infrastructure of our two companies,” Weiner says. ”Limo 18 is well positioned for more growth or to diversify into another business. I saw that AOT is probably understaffed and that we need to look at some strategic hiring decisions.”
The Op Swap also made a big impact on the office staff of each company, who had their worlds turned sideways by sort of having new bosses for two days. It also gave everyone the chance to see things differently.
“Eric would question why things were done a certain way,” Hurynowicz says. “It was like seeing things through a fresh set of eyes. It helped me to step back and see things differently.”
After the first day, the employees were able to loosen up and joke around more. “They wanted to know what Marc was going to buy us for lunch,” Cardillo says.
For Cardillo, and for employees at both companies, it gave them a chance to reflect on the personalities of their company presidents and compare them. “There are some differences in Eric and Marc’s styles, but they’re very similar in a lot of respects,” Cardillo says. “They both have a lot of projects going and have tremendous attention to detail. I don’t know how they do it.”
Hurynowicz made an interesting observation about the two company leaders. “Marc is more operational and analytical — focused on how and why things work and on customer service,” Hurynowicz says. “Eric is more creative and marketing driven. Everything has a marketing spin for him.”
What Has Actually Changed?
Besides providing new perspectives and colorful stories, what concrete changes have been made at these two companies? There were no radical changes made by either organization. Some of the changes that occurred had been contemplated and planned before the Op Swap. However, the experiment certainly provided a catalyst for change.
Nothing takes the place of experience. It wasn’t until Shpilner and Weiner worked in each other’s companies for a couple of days did they intuitively begin to understand why making certain changes might be constructive, and help them accomplish larger company goals.
The following grid lays out the specific changes implemented by AOT and Limo 18.
What Was Changed:
Heather Libby was hired as operations manager, freeing up Joe Cardillo to focus on big picture projects like managing the affiliate network and DOT compliance. AOT will also be hiring another full-time res agent to bring its staffing up to where it needs to be.
Limo 18Phone system
Purchased and installed Avaya IP Office System. The company was already going to make this purchase, but seeing how AOT uses its own system, especially the voice recorder used for retrieving calls from client miscommunications and for training purposes, motivated Limo 18 to take action. This, in turn, prompted AOT to purchase the same phone system soon after; one reason was to gain control of where phone calls are routed and not have all the phones constantly ringing throughout the office at AOT.
AOT Trip closing
Watching Limo 18’s system motivated change. Weiner and Joe Cardillo used to close all the trips, taking them away from other valuable management activities. Now another staff member has taken over these duties.
Limo 18 has purchased and installed a second computer monitor for five work stations in reservations and dispatch. AOT has been doing this for a long time, allowing for more productivity as employees manage livery software functions on one screen and email/instant messages, flight tracking, and other functions, on the other.
AOT Using IOs
AOT has always operated under the employee-chauffeur model, but seeing how Limo 18 works with its independent operator partners prompted AOT to start out using two local IOs, to see how this would work and could help AOT grow.
For both March Shpilner and Eric Weiner, the Op Swap experiment was a great experience that taught them lessons and energized them to make positive changes with their teams. It took them out of their daily routines and forced them to see things differently.
For Shpilner, a married man with two kids, it provided an opportunity to learn more about his friend Eric’s life. He’s happy that Eric’s company is in solid enough shape for him to take off more vacation time, turning the reins over to his trusted employees. Weiner, a bachelor, also gained valuable perspectives through staying at Marc’s house and observing how Linda Shpilner has the family well organized around meal times and the kids’ activities. He appreciated taking more time to start his day, having breakfast, and not just shooting out of the house to work.
“I don’t just go to the office and jump right into my work anymore,” Weiner says. “I spend a little more time when I get in talking to people and saying hello.”
Company Stats at a Glance
Fleet: 32 vehicles
(7 are house fleet, the rest are IOs)
Market served: Boston
Revenue: 65% local/35% affiliate network
Markets served: Providence, Boston, NYC
Revenue: 70% local/30% affiliate network
Would this Experiment Work at Another Company?
This experiment could be duplicated at other limousine companies, if done properly. The benefits gained from the experience could be powerful and well worth all the prep time. For those interested in carrying out a similar experiment, what elements need to be in place?
1.Mutual trust and respect between the companies, especially the top executives.
2.A history of working together through farm-outs, association projects, etc.
3.Key staff members should also know each other prior to the experiment.
4.Employees should be informed and oriented.
5.You should be prepared to carry it out for a few days with little-to-no intervention beyond phone calls to discuss important decisions.
6.A clear idea of objectives you’d like to accomplish, such as learning how the other company performs certain functions.
7.A thorough debriefing discussion with key players all together, and then back at the home offices.
8.A plan to implement changes and lessons learned after the exercise is completed.