Empress Elite Limousine’s Maria Priestly was the chauffeur for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and all the Irish counsels at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2012.
HOW SHE GOT STARTED: “I had a full-time job at the time and still do,” Priestly says, “but I wanted to make additional income and didn’t want to work for anybody else, so I thought this would be a good idea. I didn’t know a thing about the industry, so I started doing research on some guys here in the Atlanta area who had been in business for about 15 years.” She researched online and found forums and blogs where she could ask limo operators questions. She learned about things such as Limo Anywhere software and insurance advice, and looked into every other facet of starting a limo company. In about three months, Priestly had done enough research to commit.
START-UP COSTS AND METHODS: In February 2010, Priestly bought a Lincoln Town Car 2007 stretch limousine and had it driven out from California to Kennesaw, Ga. Once all the business permits were in place, Elite Empress fielded its first prom in May and started garnering more business through word of mouth. Priestly did all the driving back then, even with her full-time job. The hours were flexible enough for her to make runs before work, at lunch, and then in the evening. Priestly made the time for it to profit, but it was a lot of work. “Sometimes it would be 20-hour days,” says Priestly, “and the first two years I did most of the driving. Then I added a full-time driver and another vehicle and said, ‘You take over everything and I’ll take the overflow.’” She now has two full-time chauffeurs and two others part time, and she still drives if needed.
BEST MARKETING STRATEGIES: To get the word out on Empress Elite, Priestly joined the local Kennesaw Business Association and found success networking there. With corporate clients and solid farm-in work, Priestly has allowed her strong customer service to propel word-of-mouth advertising.
MISTAKES/SETBACKS SHE HAS LEARNED FROM: “I think the biggest challenge was to learn how to delegate and not burn myself out trying to do everything,” Priestly says. “I think when you have a small operator like [me], you feel pressure to do everything, so I’ve learned now to just step away and delegate to others, because you might be so stressed out and worrying about something else like washing cars or getting gas you miss out on a reservation.”
STEPS TO GROW FLEET: After starting her company on retail work and developing a good reputation, it wasn’t long before clients requested airport runs. To obtain a license for access, Priestly needed to have at least two vehicles in her fleet. Not to be deterred, she promptly sold her Toyota Camry and bought a 2007 Yukon Denali. As the business grew, she bought her third vehicle, a 2012 Chevy Suburban. “I keep the cars at my house,” Priestly says. “I have a very long driveway, so I keep the stretch and the two SUVS there and the keys are in a location the drivers know. I work full time during the day at my other job and at night I get all the vehicles ready: Washing them, refilling gas, and cleaning them for the next day.”
TYPES OF CLIENTS: Empress Elite serves mostly corporate clients who travel on a weekly basis, mainly to the airport, and on the weekends the stretch rolls out for a variety of retail events such as proms, birthdays, bachelorette parties, and nights-on-the-town. “In the summertime I get a lot of people who find me on Google,” Priestly says. “I would say Google and Yelp have been the biggest thing(s) for me, and both of them are free advertisements.”
FUTURE PLANS: “I want to continue to update and maintain the fleet, and I think in the future potentially grow the size, but ideally I don’t want to have more than 10 vehicles, maybe seven tops.”
ADVICE: “I would say as a business find that one thing that makes you unique to other businesses, something that makes you different from the others. You can still provide the same service, but what makes you different is what makes people come back to you.”
Empress Elite Limousine
Location: Kennesaw, Ga.
Owner: Maria Priestly
Main service region: Cobb County/Atlanta
Vehicle types: stretch limousines, SUV
Fleet size: 3
Annual revenues: about $160,000
Information: (678) 431-7222