When it comes to legends in the limousine industry, perhaps one of the best known would be George Jacobs — a man who overcame a debilitating gambling addiction to become the largest single-city operator in the U.S. He has also served as president of the NLA an impressive six times, taken on the IRS and won, and testified in hearings before Congress. In 1998, Jacobs sold his $20 million company, American Limousine, to Carey International.
He remained with the company until his retirement seven years later.
However, his retirement was short lived. The industry he had so much passion for was calling, “not to mention I was driving my wife nuts by being home all the time,” jokes Jacobs. That’s when he got together with other industry veterans to form Windy City Limousine. Shortly after Jacobs and his team started laying the groundwork for the new company, he made a promise — “We are building a company that will gross over $2 million in the first year.”
When a person makes such a claim, generally it’s no more than that, and people don’t usually take the statement seriously. However, since it was George Jacobs, a man known for his unusual ability to “turn lead into gold,” the industry watched intently. By the end of that first year, Jacobs’ promise was not only met, but exceeded. Yet in typical George Jacobs fashion, he attributes the uncanny success of Windy City to his team.
“Sal Milazzo and the rest of our team are the real success behind Windy City,” he says. “It’s just like sports; the only way to win is through a team effort. A team will never win if the players don’t work each other’s strengths and support each other’s weaknesses.” Yet, how did the team at Windy City accomplish such a feat? George Jacobs gives us an insight into how they went from no vehicles to a fleet of dozens in just 18 months.
GETTING THE WORD OUT During recessions Jacobs finds great opportunity to grow. “I’ll purchase other companies and increase my advertising when everyone else is stopping theirs. It’s about keeping your name out there,” he says.
On day one, Windy City had no vehicles, no chauffeurs, and no clients, yet the company payroll was nearly half a million dollars. “That’s a huge incentive to go out and get some business,” says Jacobs. “That’s rule number one; you have to recruit the business.” Of course, the basic rule of thumb is that although you cover your fixed costs, when you increase your income you also increase your variable costs.
Jacobs also stresses that you must be willing to spend money to make money. He adds that it’s foolish to sit and wait for the phone to ring. “Advertising is the most important thing you can do if you want the business. It’s not cheap, but it’s the most necessary part of your business.”
A few of the advertising strategies Jacobs began almost immediately were the following:
- He hired a professional baseball catcher as a spokesperson.
- He paid to have his company in first position on Internet search engines.
- He invested in billboards.
- He sponsored the White Sox major league baseball team.
- He advertised on radio and TV spots. • He utilized print ads (such as LCT Magazine).
- He used barter arrangements, obtaining billboards, TV ads, radio spots, and much more through these types of trade-offs, a great way to make advertising dollars go further.
NOTE: One form of promotion Jacobs isn’t fond of is Yellow Pages advertising. “I think it’s pretty much worthless,” he says. “You can go try it if you wish, but I believe it’s a waste of money.”
ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE Jacobs is a firm believer that in order to obtain your company’s maximum growth potential, you must be versatile. He says many companies cater only to the corporate market, while others do weddings or certain types of tours. “The more types of services you offer, the more clients you can accommodate,” he says. “It just makes sense.” He adds that with more customers come more profits.
Jacobs says diversifying your fleet can be expensive, but the potential rewards are worth the added expense. “Of course, being all things to all people is tough to do,” he adds. “It’s more advertising, more staff, more paperwork, and more vehicles, but it’s the best way to get the most revenue from your markets.” He adds that if a client calls looking for:
- wedding transportation...
- transportation for 800 people staying in three hotels...
- a party bus for a prom...
- an SUV for a large party
- a sedan to take clients to the airport...
...you can say you’ve got it! Many companies that specialize in one type of transportation or another will most likely have to turn away the work or farm it out. Either way, it’s revenue lost. “I try to provide anything a client could possibly want,” he says. “Granted, every once in a while, equipment sits because all vehicles can’t move all the time. So what? It’s far better to have that situation than it is to have customers you can’t take care of because you don’t have what they want!”
When first starting out, it’s wise to purchase vehicles that can be used for diverse purposes. Some limousine manufacturers offer vehicles that are subtle enough for corporate transfers, yet glamorous enough for the party crowds. “You can be a penny-pincher and decide that you don’t want to take the chance on a diverse business,” he adds. “But the flip side to that is you’re not willing to take the risks necessary for real success. My motto is: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
Check out our January 2008 issue for part two of George Jacobs’ secrets to spectacular growth.
KNOWING WHAT YOU REALLY WANT TO DO “I’d like to give you ideas about how to increase the size of your company, or even how to stay small,” says Jacobs. “You have to determine what’s most important to you.” He adds that some people are more comfortable staying a smaller operation, covering their certain niche, and doing it well. It’s not always about the numbers of vehicles or the gross profit margins, but more about the percentage of satisfied clients. Jacobs recommends asking yourself several questions:
1 What do you have in you? 2 Is growth right for you? 3 Should you stay small? 4 Will growth negatively affect the service your clients get? 5 Will staying small limit the service you provide to your clients?
“It’s important that people realize that I started at the bottom,” says Jacobs. “While my friends and classmates were having families and normal lives, my gambling addiction had me living in a self-made hell.” When Jacobs started his road to recovery, he tells of a fire that began to grow inside of him. “I wanted to make up for lost time. I wanted to have everything and I wanted it right now!” That fire enabled Jacobs to maintain the mind-set to overcome roadblocks that most people encounter.