The concept of owning vehicles to make money giving people rides has always attracted ambitious and savvy business minds. For most of this decade, the chauffeured transportation industry has seen an influx of next-gen operators starting companies or moving up within ranks of established family-run businesses.
The low barrier for entry into this industry — have car, license, permit, and will drive — entices a wide swath of entrepreneurs. The explosion of TNCs has forced operators to compete for quality chauffeurs. Meanwhile, the limousine industry is seeing its reliable corporate traveler with a secretary who pre-books transportation year-round shift to a younger Millennial-aged executive who prefers to summon luxury cars on-demand from anywhere.
As chauffeured luxury transportation evolves and adapts, younger owners and managers are tinkering with the traditional business model to find creative ways to get results and please clients.
Harry Dhillon (L) accepts the LCT Operator of the Year Award with his teammates at Ecko Transportation
, Marco Romandia and Dustin Baker. Dhillon says relationships with teams are vital to success. “Every afternoon we have a lunch in the office for chauffeurs or employees around, and if there’s a game on we watch it together,” he says. “If anybody needs personal transportation, I just take care of it. They tip the chauffeur. I think perks are important. When you make employees feel like they are a part of the team and not just an employee, that helps them like you and stick with you through the good times and bad.”
Coming To America
CEO Harry Dhillon has been instrumental in growing Ecko Transportation into an established chauffeured car service in the greater San Jose area in Northern California.
When he stepped onto the stage at the 2015 International LCT Show to accept the award for Operator of the Year in the 1-10 vehicle category, it was one of the biggest accomplishments of his career, he says. For Dhillon, who started Ecko with a single car in 2009, seeing his company get such public recognition from his peers validated all his years of hard work.
As he expands his company with nearby acquisitions, Dhillon appreciates the team around him. He has always had the entrepreneurial spirit ever since his first job in the states. Growing up in Calcutta, India, and coming to America when he was 19, his first gig was at a fast food restaurant and right from the start it triggered Dhillon’s imagination for business ownership.
“Every job I had before the limo industry, I wanted to work as an owner. From my first job I thought, ‘I want to own a restaurant,’ and from there I went to liquor stores, and wanted to own my own chain. But the investment and cost of startup in those industries is so high. I started driving as a chauffeur for a local company, and it was a natural progression to where I am now.”
Dhillon, whose combined chauffeured operations include 27 vehicles and 23 full-time chauffeurs, credits his success to the relationship skills he has cultivated throughout his career with clients and employees.
Dhillon personally trains all new chauffeurs and pays well to make sure they represent his company with his type of passion and zeal. For corporate clients, Dhillon says he takes extra efforts to make them feel like they are working with a competent professional and a well-trained team. “The main thing that helped me grow is my relationship with every single person I meet. I keep it honest and try to work for the relationship and not the money. If an affiliate needs help, I’ll do the job and worry about the money later. That’s how I built my affiliate reputation.”
Sabina Numanovic of Crystal Limo Chicago
attended her first industry trade show at the International LCT Show in March. She has been working as a sales and marketing executive for two years at the company, which her father started 15 years ago after emigrating from Bosnia. “He started with one car and always had the business mindset,” she says. “I’ve been able to help grow the business, and coming to the shows has been more my idea, to go out and meet people and expand our affiliate work.”
Making Lasting Connections
Sabina Numanovic’s father started Crystal Limo Chicago 15 years ago, where she worked as a young teenager in the office, helping with paperwork and payroll. During school, she became a car enthusiast, and now two years into her position as head of sales and marketing, she says she’s becoming more interested in the limousine business. “I never expected to be a part of this,” says Numanovic who is finding her place as a young Millennial with ideas and enjoys working with her family. She has taken up social media and digital marketing duties and seen positive results from her efforts.
“I’m trying to move advertising more to social media,” she says. “I’m a Millennial and I know what clients want and what they’re looking for. People from my generation are always on Facebook, and when we need a service, we go to Yelp or social media and ask advice from friends.”
Numanovic reports that business has grown significantly during the last two years. “We always had a steady growth rate however it really picked up in the past couple of years. We have a lot of people from my generation who are entering the professional world, and they are traveling — a lot.”
Going to LCT shows has helped Numanovic meet affiliate partners and increase farm-in work. “Chicago has so many companies, unless you partner up you’re not going to do well,” she says. “My motto is ‘Don’t fight it, just embrace it.’ So we’ve partnered up. The International LCT Show was my first show and I had a great time, and I’m definitely coming next year. My generation loves seeing faces and making a personal connection, so I think it’s really important.”
“We definitely came to this from two different sides,” says Aces Town Car Service
co-founder Johanna Miller (R). A self-proclaimed qualified backseat passenger from years of work travel, Miller was friends with co-founder Timm McIntosh (L), who five years ago was enjoying the time of his life at his new chauffeur job before it abruptly ended. “I had no idea about the limo industry,” says McIntosh, who worked in the music industry before chauffeuring. “The more I drove, I realized this was my favorite job.” Photo/Caroline Walker Evans.
Big Lessons Learned
When considering the frequent turnover, chauffeuring can be seen as just another job, another way to earn a check. But for Timm McIntosh, it was the best job he ever had.
The only problem was he worked for an illegal operation.
After an enlightening detainment from a police officer at the Seattle airport, McIntosh learned the company was not following proper licensing and procedures. Not to be discouraged, McIntosh figured he could start his own company, and run it correctly the way he saw fit.
When a friend, Johanna Miller, an experienced chauffeured car traveler and fellow Millennial expressed interest in co-founding, Aces Town Car Service was born. That was five years ago. Now, Aces runs four vehicles and has expanded work with local I/Os. “We’ve really been fortunate to come full circle,” McIntosh says. “I’m no longer in the car, even though it’s still my favorite job, but now I’m helping get people into our vehicles with full licensing and credentials, and helping them enjoy the job the way I did.”
For Miller, the motives for co-founding Aces were in part self-serving. “At the time I was traveling about four times a month and selfishly knew starting Aces was a way to guarantee pickups for me at 4 a.m. or late nights at the office.” But her experience as a seasoned corporate traveler and her Millennial age provided valuable insights for the company’s growth.
Aces was an early adopter of custom-made technology to help improve business efficiency. McIntosh, with a friend, designed a custom back-end booking system that sends all new booked rides out to chauffeurs, with each having the freedom to accept or decline the job based on availability and location. “It puts the power in the hands of the chauffeur and it’s been working out great,” he says.
The custom back-end booking system also paved the way for clients to text their desired pickups to the company. “That was one of the first things I noticed as a Millennial,” Miller says. “Our clients did not want to pick up the phone and talk to us. They wanted to text. So the system we’ve adopted allows clients to text us quickly, and our chauffeurs can accept and book the ride quickly. It’s really a seamless process.”
The team focuses on corporate travel in the local area. Although business is growing with favorable comments from customers, the co-founders want to move slowly and not sacrifice quality. “We charge more than the lowest priced competitor, but not as much as the higher-priced companies,” McIntosh says.
Harry Dhillon’s chauffeurs at Ecko Transportation
have been vital to the success of the company, he says. From left to right, Sunny Singh, Sher Singh, David Alvarez, Lalo Fernandez, Riz Sarwari and Andy Quantero.
How to Hire & Keep Chauffeurs
Two areas booming for professional “for-hire” drivers are Seattle and Silicon Valley. Both are seeing a rise in Uber-like, on-demand startup companies. It seems everyone needs a good driver. But they are hard to find.
“Seattle is in alignment with Silicon Valley right now, and there’s a lot of Uber-esque type of positions,” Miller says. “Anything you can imagine delivered to you in an instant — it exists. The competition also has investor money right now to further entice pro-drivers.”
Dhillon and McIntosh both have experience behind the wheel that helps them connect with the chauffeurs they interview and manage. “I try not to be bossy on every single thing,” Dhillon says. “But I explain to them why things are important. When I hire a new chauffeur, it’s me teaching them for two days. I get suited up, and we go over everything. That keeps my chauffeurs happy.”
Aces Town Car Services puts safety and comfort as first priority, and goes through a lengthy vetting process for new chauffeurs, McIntosh says. “We’re looking for personality because you can teach someone how to drive, but you can’t teach them personality.” At Aces, chauffeurs are encouraged to be friendly and cordial with clients. “It’s part of the experience,” McIntosh says, “and it’s been one of the service features that’s made Aces stand out from competitors.”