COLUMBIA. Mo. — As young men just out of their teens, one an intern and one a student, brothers Tim and Ted Littell probably never thought two professional wrestlers would play a part in their decision to launch what would become a multimillion-dollar company.
But, indirectly, that’s exactly what happened.
In the early 1990s, Ted Littell was looking to make some extra cash as a chauffeur while studying to be a commercial pilot at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. His first vehicle was a limousine formerly owned by Hulk Hogan; he and his mother, Shirley Littell, bought it for $19,000.
Meanwhile, Tim Littell was working as an intern at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
When Jesse “The Body” Ventura took over as Minnesota’s governor, Tim Littell said, he decided to leave the department, which was undergoing changes, and join his brother in the chauffeur business in Warrensburg.
More than a decade later, White Knight Limousine and Bus Co. has a fleet of more than 30 buses, limos and sedans and a customer list that includes punk rocker Billy Idol, television host Dr. Phil McGraw and rock star David Lee Roth of Van Halen.
Four years ago, Tim Littell met his future wife, Tracey. She later joined the family business as director of business operations and secured travel contracts with her former employer, the University of Missouri-Columbia Athletic Department. White Knight is the official bus company for all MU sports teams.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Tim Littell said. “It’s a crazy business. We work 24/7.”
Ted Littell said he first got the idea for the business when he took advantage of a package deal that included a reduced-rate limousine ride offered by an American Indian casino. “I was in school in Warrensburg, and no one had a limo and the closest place to get one was Kansas City,” Ted Littell said. “I decided to try it out to see how it would work.”
The brothers would take customers on shopping trips and Christmas light tours of the Plaza in Kansas City in their first limousine, Tim Littell said. “We always had to have something new or creative,” he said. “There are always proms or weddings, but to keep business consistent we had to think of things to do. We even did Halloween tours of haunted houses in Kansas City.”
Though the business was run out of a house, with no offices or garages, Tim Littell describes those first years as “the good old days.” “We’d make $400 or $500 a night, and that was all the money we needed in the world,” he said.
After three years, the brothers moved the company to Columbia, partly because their parents decided to retire here. “It seemed like an area that was not saturated, so we thought, ‘Let’s take a shot,’ ” Tim Littell said.
They stored their limousine in their parents’ garage, despite the fact that it was too long and the back end stuck out into the driveway. “I would wash the car, and my brother would dry it before the water froze,” Tim Littell said.
After entering the Columbia market, the Littell brothers decided to purchase sedans to transport customers to Missouri airports. Tim Littell said the airport service mainly was used by businesspeople who wanted privacy to work and more ability to control their schedules. In addition to airport service, White Knight provides transportation in and around Mid-Missouri for people who fly in and need to get to hotels, meetings or other cities in Missouri.
About seven years ago, the company moved to its current location and began to purchase coaches. Ted Littell said there was no room to grow in the limo and sedan business in the Columbia market, so to keep their business moving forward, they decided to invest in buses. Tim Littell said coaches usually run between $400,000 and $500,000, and VIP coaches can run anywhere from $600,000 to $1.5 million.
“We were young, starting out, and wanted to buy something new as an investment in the company,” Littell said, explaining why the company started out buying the new, more expensive coaches. White Knight consistently buys the newest models available, Tim Littell said, and customers notice. Mark Alnutt is the associate athletic director of administration at MU, which contracts with White Knight. “The buses are clean, newer-model buses,” Alnutt said. “We haven’t had any significant experience with breakdowns and never had a situation where buses arrive late.”
Alnutt said the company is service-oriented and “puts the customer first.”
“The good thing about it is they are located here in Columbia, which gives us reassurance,” he said. “If there ever was an issue, Tim or Tracey would call us.”
Tracey Littell said White Knight takes pride in customer responses such as Alnutt’s.
“We have clean and well-serviced buses, and that’s so important to us,” she said. “We have crews here at 2, 3 and 4 a.m.” to clean and service buses after they pull in, Tracey Littell said.
Both Tracey and Tim Littell said keeping the buses in top condition is a priority. Gerald Hamel has been the director of maintenance operations for two years. He has worked on engines since he was nine, he said, starting on vehicles in his father’s garage in Massachusetts.
“One thing I can say that I’ve noticed — and I’ve worked with quite a few people — they spend more on maintenance here than any other operation,” Hamel said. “They spend more on upkeep to keep them looking like new.”
Hamel said he performs a comprehensive checkup every year, in addition to routine maintenance every 3,500 and 10,000 miles. The company does 3,000 to 4,000 trips a year, Ted Littell said.
Tim and Ted Littell said their customer base is diverse. In addition to the seven college and university athletic departments that contract with the company, high school sports teams, church groups, and senior clubs rent out buses for trips. Ted Littell said in the months after Hurricane Katrina, groups from Columbia rented the smaller buses to make the trek to Louisiana to help clean up. Newlyweds, couples, and people celebrating their 21st birthdays most often rent the limos and stretch Hummers, Tim Littell said.
Ted Littell said several aspects — including the length of trip, number of miles driven, and the days the vehicle is in use — are factored into the cost of renting a bus or limo. The company often rents buses to groups wanting to travel to St. Louis or Kansas City for the day to see a ballgame, Ted Littell said, and that can cost between $1,200 and $1,500. Tim Littell said for shorter trips in the 30-seater mini-coaches or the large buses, the company will charge between $1.80 and $2.20 per mile or $50 to $70 an hour. The stretch Hummer costs about $200 an hour, Tim Littell said.
Ted Littell said the company is working to get more customers from the entertainment business to take White Knight coaches on tour. David Lee Roth is one of White Knight’s repeat customers, Ted Littell said, and the company customized a bus with a 52-inch plasma TV, a queen-size bed and special windows for Van Halen’s current nationwide tour.
“We provided good service for a friend of a friend of a friend of David Lee Roth,” Tim Littell said. “But then it’s up to you to succeed or fail.” The crew “worked awesomely hard; they worked their tails off.” In the end, Tim Littell said, the rock star was just “a customer like anyone else.”
Ted Littell said the company first ventured into the entertainment scene with help from a couple in Nashville who sell buses and gave him pointers about which trade magazines to advertise in and how to modernize the company’s website.
“The entertainer end of it is a very small world,” Ted Littell said. “It’s all word-of-mouth. A lot of different artists have the same management and the same travel agencies. You make a couple of friends and do a good job, and it goes from there.”
Tim Littell said he has been kicking around the idea of opening up a satellite branch of White Knight in California to get into the entertainment market there.
Looking ahead, both Tim and Ted have ideas to improve the business here in Missouri. Tim Littell said the company is developing DVDs that include safety and emergency procedures to show on the DVD-equipped buses. Ted Littell said the company has bought land in Springfield to set up a hub to be close to the three colleges for which White Knight provides travel service.
Ted Littell said he has enjoyed working with his brother as the business has grown.
“Tim and I, we lived together in college, and we’re really tight,” Ted Littell said. “He’s started a family in the past four years, and I actually don’t get to see him as much as I used to.”
Tim and Tracey have a 22-month-old son and are expecting another baby in mid-November, Tim Littell said.
Hamel said everyone works together for a common goal. He works more than 16 hours a day, he said, and has come to be part of the family. “It’s good. I have no complaints about it,” he said. “They are a real nice company to work for.”
Source: Columbia Tribune