Getting the best deal possible on every vehicle and finding a reliable service center to help keep those vehicles on the street significantly affects an operator’s profits, which is why it’s essential to develop a solid working relationship with a car dealership.
While operators in large urban areas have more options, their needs are the same as those in smaller cities: priority service, price, experience and honesty. Whether they find it depends on how hard they look and a little bit of luck.
Service or Price?
Price is always a top issue. But it becomes less of one to an operator who has had a vehicle out of service for any length of time.
According to Louis Geiger of Atlantic City’s Atlantic Limousine, fledgling operators shop on price alone. Those who have been around the block a few times understand the importance of good, reliable service.
“Particularly for the guys who do mostly weekend work, it’s tragic to have a car break down on a Friday night with no one to turn to until Monday,” notes Geiger.
Adds Jacob Salem, an industry veteran who recently launched a Boston-based network called Chauffeured Services International: “You need to find [a dealer] who takes what you do seriously. They need to understand, if a car is not running, it’s losing money.”
Over the years, Salem has visited more than a half-dozen dealerships in his area, looking for the right one. A hard negotiator, he currently uses one for service and purchases vehicles from two.
He looks for honesty, consistency and discretion: “You don’t need them blabbing around to the whole neighborhood that you just ordered 20 cars so they can increase their business. It lets your competition know what you’re up to and I don’t want that.”
As with most operators, a quick turnaround time for repairs is at the top of Salem’s priority list. He also warns against using a service center that’s not equipped to handle the volume of vehicles it sells. A dealer with one bay and two mechanics “can’t sell truckloads of livery vehicles and expect to get them all serviced,” he says.
Ask the Coachbuilder
Finding an honest and reliable mechanic is not an easy task – there are those who compare it to meeting the tooth fairy – so it’s smart business to hold onto one once you find him.
“Call the coachbuilder and ask if there’s a local dealership they trust to do their work,” says Geiger. “You have to make sure your ducks are in a row ahead of time.”
The best-case scenario, Geiger notes, is when you can find a dealer that has a close enough relationship with a coachbuilder to work on its limousines without authorization. This is particularly handy if it’s after hours, the coachbuilder is closed for the weekend and a big wedding job is in 12 hours.
For most operators, finding a conveniently located service center with 24-hour service and a solid connection to the right coachbuilders is still a pipe dream.
According to Barbara Curtis, president of Two Step Limousine in Littleton, Colo., until recently it was hard enough to find a shop in her area with a lift equipped to handle a 120-inch stretch.
It was only recently that Ford named Burt Lincoln-Mercury in nearby Englewood, Colo., a LimoCare dealership, which means Burt is required to give livery customers priority service.
Before that, getting good service was no easy task, Curtis notes. “It’s one of those situations where you can’t remember how you lived without it.”
She notes that her No. 1 priority in the dealer/operator relationship is getting financing from someone she can trust.
“We have our limousines serviced at Burt, but we’re still buying from multiple sources, so our most important relationship is with our financing people. We need to know we’re getting the best rates and it’s worth being loyal to them because they know our history and who we are.”
A Fair Trade-In Price
While Bob Harris, president of Family Limousine in Haddonfield, N.J., agrees that getting the best possible interest rate is important, he is also concerned about getting a fair trade-in value on vehicles.
“I run my Town Cars for two to three years and end up with 180,000 miles on them,” he says. “A lot of dealerships don’t want to give you anything [on trade-ins] so you’re stuck selling them on your own or taking a big hit. I have started to buy all of my sedans from one dealership, Westwood Lincoln-Mercury, because they give me a fair price for my trade ins.”
Because Westwood is almost two hours away in Emerson, N.J., Harris has his sedans serviced at a local Rice & Holman Ford dealership and his limousines and buses serviced at Lakeview Custom Coach, an independent dealer serving the livery industry.
Lakeview, based in Oaklyn, N.J., has gotten Harris out of a pinch more than once, because the company rents limousines and buses and Harris has a direct line to the dealership’s owner, Peter Corelli.
“I can always get a hold of Pete,” Harris says. “He also steps up to bat if there is something where it’s questionable whether it’s under warranty.”
Ask Other Operators
There may be plenty of dealerships in large cities, but it’s not always easy to figure out whom to choose. Barry Trabb, president of Universal Limousine Distributors in Wayne, N.J., suggests that operators take the time to ask around.
“Ask [other operators] if they would recommend the dealer they recently used and why,” Trabb says. “And don’t just ask one person. Look for a pattern, whether it’s good things or bad.”
According to Sean Duval, owner of Golden Limousine in Ann Arbor, Mich., just as the limousine industry has been maturing over the past 10 years, so have the dealerships that service its vehicles – even if it has been a little too slow to happen, at least for his taste.
Duval and his wife, Donna, bought out Golden, a failing business devastated by the recession, in 1992, and were forced to overhaul the fleet. He went in search of a one-stop sales/service dealership and came up empty-handed.
He has seen some significant changes since but is still looking for the ideal dealership. He buys many of his vehicles from Acton Lincoln Mercury in Massachusetts, not only because that’s where he gets the best price, but because none of his local dealers have developed comprehensive livery programs.
Local dealers “just haven’t been interested in getting us the 535 [heavy-duty livery package] vehicles we need, although I think they are beginning to see the error of their ways,” says Duval, who took the step last year of seeking bids from local dealerships.
His Request for Proposals described his 22-vehicle fleet of sedans, limousines, vans and minibuses, and noted the importance of priority service. He says he received no responses from dealers but he did end up establishing a relationship with a local dealer that offers same-day service on most mechanical issues.
“They answer our calls when we need them and get the car in that same day, sometimes the same hour. No one else was willing to do that for us in Ann Arbor,” says Duval.
For his limousines and minibuses, Duval has an on-site mechanic who often spends time on the phone to California getting advice from the technicians at Krystal Enterprises, a coachbuilder he has built a strong relationship with. For his sedans and vans, Golden’s mechanic diagnoses problems before they are sent for service at the local dealership.
“Before we had our mechanic, we had to rely on the dealer for every diagnosis. And when you rely on the dealer you are at their mercy,” Duval explains. “We have saved thousands of dollars by having our mechanic oversee what the dealer is doing, to make sure time is not being wasted or that we’re not being taken advantage of.”
In a perfect world, an operator would have access to a one-stop sales/financing and service center that delivers the best price on vehicles, the best financing rates available and treats every operator with priority service every time they need a repair done.
Unfortunately, it’s just not realistic. Even at Lincoln LimoCare and Cadillac Limousine dealerships — which offer priority service to operators — things can get backed up. Even those dealerships can give priority service only to a restricted amount of people when it’s a busy time of year.
Still, operators who cannot find an all-in-one dealership should not give up hope. Ford and Cadillac continue to expand their networks of livery sales/service centers.
In addition, operators doing their homework and playing a little hardball, when necessary, are often getting priority service – along with fair pricing and good financing rates – even if they have to go to multiple dealerships to make it happen.
Ford’s Largest Limo and Livery Dealers
1.Acton (Mass.) Lincoln Mercury
2.Rusty Eck Ford Lincoln Mercury, Leavenworth, Kan.
3.Springfield (Mo.) Lincoln Mercury
4.Plitt Ford Lincoln Mercury, Wainscott, N.Y.
5.Napleton’s Park Ridge Lincoln Mercury, Park Ridge, Ill.
1.Acton (Mass.) Lincoln Mercury
2.Wayne (N.J.) Lincoln Mercury
3.Westwood Lincoln Mercury, Emerson, N.J.
4.Manhattan Ford Lincoln Mercury, New York
5.Baron Lincoln Mercury, Bayside, N.Y.
6.Don Kott Lincoln Mercury, Carson, Calif.
7.White Plains (N.Y.) Lincoln Mercury
8.Steve Baldo Lincoln Mercury, Amherst, N.Y.
9.Cherner Lincoln Mercury, Annandale, Va.
10. Perillo Lincoln Mercury, Chicago
These rankings represent the largest dealers based on units for Ford limousine or livery vehicles. Rankings are based on sales for 2002/2003 and were supplied by Ford Motor Co.
10 Warning Signs of a Bad Dealer
1.Your service-related phone calls are not returned promptly.
2.You find out you’ve been overcharged.
3.You are told to bring in the car at 9 a.m. but no one has looked at it by 4:30 p.m.
4.Your dealer says you need new brakes and that he is currently having a sales promotion.
5.You are offered a “special deal” on a service or product that is more than what you previously paid or what others are paying.
6.The dealer tries hard to sell you all the expensive extras.
7.The dealer only shows you cars with all those expensive extras.
8.Service work is not done properly.
9.It takes an extended amount of downtime to get your car fixed.
10. The dealer stalls on giving you a firm offer on the value of your trade-in.