Mark Zimmer offers value-added services to corporations and travel agencies.
Mark Zimmer of Lakeshore Coaches Executive Limousine in Howards Grove, Wis., had no idea he would follow in a tradition that dated back more than 100 years when he opened his funeral home 16 years ago. “It’s not uncommon for funeral homes to have livery services,” he explains. “Even back in the late 1800s, the larger funeral firms had livery stables with funeral hearse-wagons and other livery equipment for rent. Actually, the limousine business and the funeral business have been hand-in-hand for over 100 years.”
After six years in business as a successful funeral home operator, Zimmer “followed tradition” by purchasing a limousine for his business. When demand for the vehicle swelled from the general public, Lakeshore Coaches was born.
Even though this seven-vehicle company is located in a town of 2,300, Zimmer has been able to use his knowledge of running a business to operate Lakeshore more like a large livery company that might be found in any major metropolitan area. His concentration on the corporate market, as well as a personally designed computer program were just two of the reasons Zimmer was recently named as L&C’s Operator of the Year in the small category.
In fact, Zimmer calls his computer his “secretary” because it enables him to track maintenance, mileage, chauffeur performance, and job costing. It also provides a valuable service to clients by running reports and breaking down orders for travel agency commissions.
ZEROING IN ON CORPORATE
Even though he operates in such a small town, Zimmer considers his company to be state-based rather that just city-based. His company is centrally located to Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Moreover, there are a number of large corporate entities in this area. But still, he faced a unique challenge when trying to garner these accounts when he first started the livery company.
“One of the things that’s always hard for smaller operations in rural areas is that over the years other companies have tried to provide livery service and for some reason failed. This can leave a bad taste in the mouth of corporate customers. But, when they do find a legitimate company, they tend to stick with it,” he explains.
Not being sure of the livery market when he first entered it, Zimmer began to research it. “We started doing research into what type of services were needed by the general public and the corporate possibilities for our area and the state of Wisconsin, as well as Illinois for airport runs. When we started, we were doing a few airport transfers, but it was very minimal,” he adds.
Today, 85 percent of Lakeshore’s work is corporate. Approximately 65 percent of that corporate package is made up of airport transfers to Chicago’s O’Hare airport—which is two-and-a-half hours away. “We’re usually there two or three times a day,” he says. The remaining 15 percent of the business comes from serving the general public. He meets these needs with a fleet that includes three limousines, a 14-passenger Zimmer motorcoach, one hearse, one sedan, and one 12-passenger van. He is also restoring a 1928 Model A Ford that he anticipates renting out for anniversaries, parades, and grand openings.
“We service some of the largest corporations in the world. In fact, I got a fax the other day from a food marketing agency in San Francisco. The woman who booked the service said we came recommended to them. We’ve gotten orders from London and we’ve had diplomats from embassies. We have an Indy-style race track in our backyard. For that, we have had racing stars like Mario Andretti and other celebrities such as Gene Hackman, Paul Newman, and even Egyptian generals and Saudi Arabian diplomats. We have quite a variety of clients that we serve,” he admits.
Zimmer chalks up his ability to service this type of clientele to the fact that he operates well maintained, late model, conservative limousines equipped with all the amenities corporate executives come to expect, such as professional chauffeurs who know the area, cellular phones, etc. Even though his is a small operation, Zimmer goes one step further to service his clients.
“We’ provide corporate planners and travel agents with customized computer report summaries for at-a-glance reservations, as well as bimonthly professional invoicing and business phones that are answered from 7:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. by a professional reservationist. We also work with business planners. We determine what their transportation needs are going to be and suggest what type of vehicles they will need,” he adds.
One service he is able to provide to travel agents is a multiple client summary report that shows the client names, pick-up addresses, departure times, flight numbers, job number, as well as the agent who booked the service. “Every 15 days when we invoice a particular travel agency, we send this report along to the accounts payable department. The report allows our clerical staff to automatically go down the list and find out which agent should get the commissions.”
STREAMLINING WITH COMPUTERS
Four years ago, Zimmer developed his own computer software for taking orders and invoicing. He gives much of the credit to being able to operate like a larger company to this program. “Computerization is an essential life-blood to the success of the operation I can almost call my computer my secretary because it has added another person to my staff with its ability to do mundane tasks quickly and effectively. Just the time-saving aspect has a dollar value to it. We wouldn’t be able to handle the kind of orders we have now without it,” he explains.
One of the most basic changes Zimmer has found in his operation since instituting this program is the ability to make the business “lean and mean.” The program is capable of generating reports on fleet maintenance, average miles per gallon, total costs, and average cost for a specific type of move. “For instance, in a 12-month period, our total gallons of gas consumed were 3,202.75 which we paid $3,545.27 for. Our average miles per gallon are 19.05.
“I can tell how long it takes a certain driver to do each type of job. We look for variances. Does it take one driver 5.2 hours to do the same job another driver does in 5.6 hours? This also helps with our corporate clients. We have several travel agencies that book hundreds of international transfers out of O’Hare. At any point, they might ask for an updated list. We can print that up immediately and fax it over. We’ve done moves with 30 people coming in at different time of the day at one airport without any problems at all,” he adds.
Zimmer also credits his low breakdown rate to the computer. “We have had very few breakdowns in the more than 750,000 miles that we’ve driven since starting the business. I’d say our percentage of breakdowns is less than 2 percent. I owe a lot of that to the computer keeping tabs on the maintenance cycles.”
Another area where Zimmer deviates from other smaller companies is in creating a long-range outlook for the company. He is currently working with a consultant to devise a five-year business plan and is doing a total analysis of his operation.
PIONEERING LIVERY SERVICE
Zimmer purchased the limousine for use in his funeral home back in 1985—the same time limousine services were beginning to pop up in the rural Wisconsin area. “We were getting calls at the funeral home for wedding cars and we didn’t think anything of it back then. But eventually, my insurance agent told me I would have to set up a separate business because the limousine rentals were becoming too substantial. The first year we were mainly doing weddings and proms. We started doing a few airport transfers, but that was very minimal,” he says.
As one of the first livery companies in the area, Zimmer believes he has had a hand in pioneering the industry in Wisconsin. “When we first started here in Wisconsin, we were in uncharted waters. We didn’t have anybody else to rely on for information because there wasn’t anyone else doing this. That’s why I felt it was important to read trade magazines like L&C and to eventually become active in the National Limousine Association. Sources of education were few and far between.”
Eventually, Zimmer learned by trial and error about Interstate Commerce Commission regulations regarding crossing state lines and about dealing with Chicago’s O’Hare Airport Any operator transporting passengers across state lines must be registered with the ICC and carry a minimum of $ 1.5 million in insurance. “I will admit, in the early days I was not aware of all the regulations. I was made aware of these things by the Illinois Limousine Association, and we took steps to remedy the problem right away.
“One of my goals as president of the Wisconsin Limousine Association has been to educate our membership on these legal requirements O’Hare is now mandating a departure tax stamp for vehicles. Without the stamps, vehicles can be impounded. The vice president and I attend monthly O’Hare task force management meetings where we try to keep our association up to date on everything,” he adds.