The story of George Jacobs’ gambling affliction and subsequent redemption are well known in the industry. As part of his personal renewal through Gamblers Anonymous, he’s found that public confession is good for the soul—and so is being in the limousine business. As with so many operators, his journey started in 1974 with one small step, with just one car. They say recovering addicts often simply substitute one addiction for another (albeit a healthy one), and he’s quick to admit that he liked the action of running dispatch, which he compares to gambling without money. He also would put the hustle on people standing at the limo booth at O’Hare airport. (Hey, you know he must have learned something useful from all those years at the gaming tables.)
In 1979, he began working for American Limousine, and within five years, began to feel the need to roll the dice with some new approaches to the business. The elderly owners of the company didn’t like the stakes, however, so he bought them out. Some of his ideas included working directly with the hotel general managers to get them to use just one limousine company for their guests. “They don’t let the maids pick the guest towels,” he points out, “so why should the bell cap pick which operator to use?”
This strategy of getting the hotels to care about their service really paid off. When Jacobs took over the operation, it was doing $2.3 million a year with 40 cars, but by 1998 when Carey purchased it, he was doing $20 million with 240 cars. This Carey-owned subsidiary now includes two additional subsidiaries, American and My Chauffeur, and Jacobs has his eye on five more acquisitions in the Chicago area. He also put a great deal of energy and money into getting city license plates–required to run cars into downtown Chicago–which gave him an ace up his sleeve. Acquiring new hardware and technology has also stacked the deck in his favor. After enduring a disastrous weekend when he lost access to his radio channel, he decided to get a FCC license for his own six-channel radio system. Even worse, one time a telephone switching station burned to the ground, and he was forced to go without phone service for an agonizing three weeks. Vowing to never let that happen again, he now has a system that allows going to another station at the flip of a switch. He also has enough backup batteries to fill a room so his company can run several days on its own power grid—talk about being prepared for disaster!
As with the livery industry generally, sedan service is now the mainstay of Carey Chicago, but when Jacobs started out, limousines were everything. (Today, the company still has the most limousines of any operator in the country, and has maintained that distinction for nearly all of the last 10 years.) Times have changed for recruiting chauffeurs as well. “It’s the worst time I’ve ever seen for hiring,” he admits. He handles this new challenge by offering various employee incentives for accident-free service, and also swelling the ranks of female chauffeurs, who now comprise some 30 to 40 percent of his independent operators, and are actually preferred for their generally better safety records and people skills.
To cut costs, Jacobs is able to use fewer reservationationists by routing overflow calls to other staff during peak demand. For greater efficiency, he relies on zone dispatching to distribute workload to three dispatchers. Jacobs is well known for helping others get into the business, and is generous with advice. He highlights the importance of starting out small and also networking. He compares the latter to the NASCAR tactic of drafting, where two race cars running together can go faster than on their own. He also has high words of praise for the benefits of National Limousine Association, and strongly encourages all newcomers to join. And that’s no gamble.
Fleet: 398 (266 limousines, 110 sedans, 5 vans, 17 buses)
Staff: 150 office personnel; 300+ chauffeurs, mostly independent operators
Software: custom in-house system
Management: George Jacobs, executive VP John Parkinson, GM Sal Millazzano, GM