Charlie Horky established CLS Transportation in 1980 when he was just 19. His company went on a growth spurt throughout the 1990's. Horky has become one of the largest and most formidable operators in the business. Like most operators, Horky started his business with one car, serving one town. Today, he owns a fleet of more than 500 vehicles and has a network of affiliates from coast-to-coast.
Horky's "below-the-radar" style causes many to speculate about the man behind the business. For instance, not many know that Horky competes competitively on the Professional Rodeo Tour. In a rare and candid moment, Horky discusses the industry with LCT's Publisher Sara Eastwood.
LCT: How does a guy with one car turn his business into a 500+ fleet operation? Horky: Hard work, perseverance, consistent service delivery and luck.
LCT: What steps did you take? When did you add more cars, who did you find for customers and how did you sell yourself when you weren't big? Horky: You have to remember that I have been in this business since 1980. Our success did not happen overnight. CLS was a 1-to-10 car company all through the '80s and grew in the early '90s. It then exploded like the rest of this economy in the mid '90s. In the early '80s our business was mostly rock'n'roll music entertainers. In 1985, CLS became the limousine service of choice with Southern California's largest concert promoter. As other operators in similar situations can identify with, this account put us on the map. I would say the first step that I took was that I started as a chauffeur and continued as such until I couldn't effectively be a chauffeur and run my company. I found other chauffeurs early on who enjoyed being a chauffeur as much as I did. Word of mouth was my biggest selling point. In the early '80s my competitors were generally older gentleman who were on their way out and who didn't take the extra interest that I believe customers demand today, like providing newspapers, cold water, etc.
LCT: Did you personally go into places like the Four Seasons or hire sales people? Horky: I've never had sales people, per se. My strongest suit has been my own personal relationships and networking. I had been pursuing the Four Seasons for a couple of years. Actually, I was in a restaurant when this particular general manager told me that he had a vision for a certain type of service, which involved using Mercedes Benz sedans. To my good fortune, the in-house competitor at the time decided not to fulfill this general manager's wishes and I did. The rest is history.
LCT: Did you get a financial backer? Did you ever have to take in a partner? Why? Would you recommend operators get partners? Did you get your family involved in running the company? Horky: No, I've never had a financial backer. Early on I had a partner who was bought out in the early '80s. I don't have any partners now. However, I listen to and respect what my upper management has to say with regards to running the company. No, I've never had my family involved in running the company other than my sister working for me part time in the early '80s and my brother, who has been with the New York operation for the past eight years.
LCT: When does an operator move from home to building? Horky: I worked out of my apartment in the beginning. I wouldn't recommend ever working out of your home. I think it's important to have an office to go to and home to live and relax in. There is something to be said for having your own space.
LCT: How'd you figure out the business side of growing a company? Did you hire consultants? Take businesses classes? Or did you teach yourself things like financing/accounting, budgets, planning, advertising/marketing and managing people? Horky: Those are all good questions, and I didn't do any of those things. Having not pursued college, I am a direct example of having learned the business the hard way. My strongest suit is that I am able to surround myself with people who know a lot more about specific business operations than I do. I have the ability to take in a lot of information without involving my ego and run my company.
LCT: What sales/advertising works best? What don't you do? Horky: My experience at CLS is that word of mouth, by and large, is the single best advertising. However, in the last couple of years, we've been able to advertise our name in various publications. We often contribute to various charities that have a targeted group and we always advertise in their charity programs. I don't do television; I don't do radio. I'm not too interested in appealing to the masses as much as I am interested in being known in circles of people that require this kind of chauffeured transportation.
LCT: How did you get from the special occasion business to landing big corporate accounts? Horky: Well, we were never really in the special-occasion business. My first account was in the commercial film business and subsequently that branched off into individual celebrity business, which as I stated earlier, brought me to Southern California's largest concert promoter. We never really made that transition, because it wasn't from the beginning what we did. We began with servicing high-end celebrities and Fortune 500 corporate business.