Bill Wheeler Sr. and Bill Wheeler Jr. of Black Tie Transportation in Pleasanton, Calif.
PLEASANTON, Calif. — One on-my-job lesson that keeps popping up is the one about getting out of the office.
In my situation, I learn many useful things and get into a better mood when visiting a limousine operation that succeeds against the odds. I should do that more often. Despite dealing with all the endless tasks at the office last month, I forced myself out and spent time at two three-decade-old companies, one run by a father-son-and-daughter team and the other by a father-son team.
The companies, Gateway Global Transportation in Burlingame, Calif., and Black Tie Transportation in nearby Pleasanton, sit on opposite sides of the San Francisco Bay. In my view, the Bay Area is the most challenging place to run a limousine company, given that San Francisco-Silicon Valley hosts the most innovative, tech-driven region in the world and serves as the incubator of transportation network companies (TNCs).
In the limousine industry, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere — with all due respect to New York City.
We’ll publish more about these companies in future issues, but for now I’d like to sum up three approaches gleaned from my visits with father-son-and daughter team Sam Amato, Joel Amato, and Gina Amato-Bonelli at Gateway, and father-son team Bill Wheeler Sr. and Bill Wheeler Jr. at Black Tie:
- Both companies capitalize on the booming bus business, which is one of the biggest resets in the chauffeured transportation industry. The most profitable bulk of their business now comes from charter trips, employee/commuter shuttles, airport shuttles and hotel courtesy shuttles. Black Tie runs five Temsa motorcoaches and Gateway just ordered its first two Van Hool motorcoaches. The Bay Area has an insatiable demand for luxury bus transportation. These companies have repositioned themselves to serve growing group transportation markets.
- Both teams expressed more concern about promoting consistent, high-quality client service and experiences than fixating on the latest app gimmicks from TNCs. The operators emphasize service aspects that TNCs can’t provide or do very well. They strive for stand-out excellence, knowing you have to do best in business areas you like and are good at.
- To achieve high performance, both companies invest in qualified and experienced full-time chauffeur trainers and managers. James Lilley at Gateway and Larry Dennis at Black Tie train, hire and correct chauffeurs, while constantly maintaining rigorous standards. In a transportation world now saturated with formulaic, volume-driven TNCs, enhancing the human touch proves critical to viable chauffeured service.
These are just a handful of the ways in which Gateway and Black Tie ensure they will stay around for future family generations. Readers of my column know I have a weakness for 1-2-3s, so if I can boil down the lessons of the Amatos and the Wheelers: Invest, invest and invest in: 1) Bus markets; 2) Impeccable, flawless client-first service and attention; and 3) Chauffeur training and positive reinforcement.
Gina Amato-Bonelli, Sam Amato and Joel Amato of Gateway Global Transportation in Burlingame, Calif.
Speaking of generations, one theme in my visits relates to continuity in a family business. This is a big topic for LCT Magazine, as we host the LCT Fast <40 group
of under 40 operators and vendors that provides a forum for new ideas coming from future industry and company leaders. We hear too much speculation in the media about Millennials that often degenerates into stereotypes about distracted selfishness and slacker-dom. As I recall, the same things were said about my generation (X) when we watched all those 24/7 MTV videos growing up in the 1980s and early 90s.
After spending just a few hours with the Amatos and the Wheelers, I could tell the fathers instill solid character and strong work ethics in their kids. They raised them right, as the saying goes. The takeaway lesson here is that no matter how difficult or challenging a business environment, such eternal traits matter far more than any vehicle brand or piece of technology.
Gateway Global and Black Tie show how to double down in a tough TNC business environment, and put the future into good hands. That should be encouraging news in an industry planning its survival.