Ralph Zobel served Rose Transportation as a chauffeur for 18 years, and defines excellence in a chauffeur.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Ralph Zobel retired earlier this year after 18 years in chauffeured transportation, he left a legacy that grows deeper with every client and every chauffeur who drives one.
Zobel ran the chauffeur training and management department at Rose Chauffeured Transportation in Charlotte, where his courteous, dedicated approach to his second career turned a routine job into a consistent craft. His experience with every type of vehicle, client and trainee has left the operation with an emphasis on providing the highest caliber of customer service.
“Well, I’ll tell you, courtesy is a talent,” says Rose owner and founder H.A. Thompson of his star chauffeur. “Everybody thinks they have good customer service but most people don’t even know what that is. It’s an ability to communicate and see the needs before the customer even does. It’s an attitude. It’s about not being ticked-off at the world because your lot in life is tough. Now I don’t know if there’s any magic formula to it but you’ve got to get past all that, and I’ll tell you, I hire an attitude way before I hire experience. An attitude is everything in this business.”
Zobel was a natural fit for the role of chauffeur already at an early age. His father first equipped him with routine car knowledge as a boy, teaching him how to change oil and tires and maintain a vehicle. As he entered high school, he took up racing Legend Cars in his home state of Pennsylvania and nearby Ohio.
Zobel eventually settled into a teaching job and marriage with summers free, enabling him to connect with a friend who drove tour buses as a way to make extra money. “I figured I could do both for a while,” Zobel says, “and since I liked driving anyway, I figured I would try it out during the summer when I was off teaching — and I loved it.”
Zobel drove every car in the fleet, from the sedan to the full-size coaches. “I wasn’t in the same car, or even same type of car for two days in a row,” he says.
Time For A Move
The late 1970s were a hard time for tour bus companies in the Pennsylvania area, and when business dried up in the Rust Belt, Zobel moved his family to Charlotte, N.C. He opened up a gift shop named after his wife, Emily, and enjoyed the patronage and southern hospitality of the local community for 10 years.
Thompson at the time was finishing up his career as a well-known radio disc jockey in the area and had started a transportation company. His wife was a frequent customer of Zobel’s gift shop and had talked to him about her husband’s company. As the neighborhood started to change for the worse, the quaint store became a target for theft and robbery. Out of a desire to leave the retail business and a fondness for the driving business, Zobel asked the Thompsons about working as a chauffeur. Thompson already was impressed with Zobel’s demeanor and figured he’d be right for the job.
Tom Holden, director of operations, Andy Thompson, and H.A. Thompson, ran the office and company while Zobel kept the chauffeurs sharp out in the field.
Back Behind The Wheel
Zobel started out driving sedans, and as the business grew, he got his motorcoach license and started driving the big buses again. With growth came office turnover, so Zobel moved over to dispatch and carried the office duties while still keeping an active driving schedule.
The toll of the office work combined with duty on the road started to wear on Zobel. “I told H.A. after about a year and a half that you’ve got to get me out of here and back on the road. You’re going to get big so let’s get serious and find some quality people. You get someone in here on the books and dispatch and I’ll manage the drivers.”
From then on, all Zobel wanted to do was drive. He took customers to locations all over the country. In fact, one of the complaints that his wife had upon his retirement was they couldn’t fully enjoy the novelty of vacation spots because Ralph already had been there. But Zobel jokes that now in retirement they’re going to be making frequent trips to some of his favorite destinations he’s driven to over the years.
With so much experience on the road, Zobel became an expert on chauffeur training. A skilled chauffeur requires a number of skills and the ability to process information quickly while multitasking. He would take all new drivers out on runs, making sure they pay attention to the specifics of various locations and details of customer service.
Creating A Legacy
Fellow long-time Rose chauffeur Gerry St. Onge on his 80th birthday and eve of his retirement from the company. St. Onge was trained by Zobel to give the same level of customer service the company prides itself in.
Longtime Rose chauffeur Gery St. Onge, who also recently retired from the company at age 80 after 12 years of service, recounts how Zobel took him out on his first training sessions when he started. “I learned all the ins and outs from Frank. He was the first one doing training and he showed me the laws of the city for where the black car can stop and where it can’t. And then sometimes we also had to go out and pick up big shots from the tarmac at their personal planes, and he showed me how to do that. After a couple months, I had it all mapped out.”
Zobel’s approach to chauffeur training jibed with Thompson’s mission statement. “This business is not about new vehicles,” he says. “I mean, you can’t drive junk and you need good equipment that runs well, but it’s all about the person behind the wheel.”
Zobel’s influence on Rose Transportation extends into the local community. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson personally asks Zobel to chauffeur him to and from games in town, even having Zobel drive him in his personal collection of vintage and antique vehicles.
“My favorite thing was driving the Town Cars and sedans and getting to know the people,” Zobel says. “It’s more of a personal one-on-one thing, and I’ve met so many wonderful people through this job that I never would have met had I not been on the road. And a lot of them have now become my good friends.”
Service Tips From a Veteran Chauffeur
• The number one thing a chauffeur must know is where everything is in town. You have to study your maps, and if you have a question about a place, get in your car and find out about it.
• Concentrate on your surroundings. Know the locations of other cars around you. If there are two cars behind you and then all of a sudden only one, know where it went, if it’s on your side, or in your blind spot.
• Focus on the task at hand. So many accidents can happen when the chauffeur becomes distracted, such as by something as simple as the piece of paper on the passenger seat, eating something while driving, or being on the phone.
• If you can’t see clearly behind you, don’t back up. If necessary, get out of the car and make sure there’s nothing behind you.
• In the case of any size accident, file a police report. And take pictures to account for it. Even if the person you hit says everything is okay, call the police and file a report.