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Kansas City operator Diane Forgy has beefed up Overland's mix of mid-sized 8-12 passenger vehicles to include Turtle Top standard and executive conversions, and Mercedes-Benz Sprinters with both executive-style seating and limousine interiors. (All photos by Josh Mais
of 7x Design
As a full-time operator for 24 years, and President of the National Limousine Association for three years, Diane Forgy has dealt with about every challenge for a business owner and leader in the industry. What stands out about her leadership can be observed within minutes of seeing her conduct a board meeting: “I am a great listener, peacekeeper, and problem solver,” she says. Those traits complement her low-key, unassuming and congenial manner.
As NLA President from 2010 to 2013, Forgy navigated a difficult job description, most notably, conducting unwieldy NLA board of director meetings and conference calls. That requires adroit abilities to diffuse distractions, tame tangents, balance views, contain bubbling egos, and calm frayed nerves — all while moving things along. She did this while leading an industry during a major recession, the disappearance of the Lincoln Town Car sedan, a changing market preferring buses and vans instead of stretches, and the emergence of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs).
Since then, Forgy has remained on the NLA board and expanded her business, Overland Chauffeured Services in Kansas City, Mo. She grew up in the company, founded by her late parents, took what was given to her, and multiplied its success and scope. Just this year, Forgy bought and is moving to a new headquarters as her fleet reaches 43 vehicles, the most since the company started with one stretch in 1979. She spoke at length with LCT in June about what she’s learned leading a business and an industry.
Question: How would you characterize your leadership and management style?
Answer: I am very approachable and I believe in an open door policy. I respect and care for my employees and desperately want them to do well with my company, feel like a part of the team, and enjoy their time at work. I want them to be proud of our company and excited about taking care of our clients every day. As the NLA President, I felt I emulated the same leadership and management style.
Q: What business leadership resources or tools do you recommend?
A: I get some of my best advice, inspiration and ideas by collaborating with peers in the industry. These relationships don’t happen overnight, so be patient and develop a trusted group of allies you can turn to and support. I have attended both Ritz Carlton and Disney Institute trainings along with most of my management team. That was one of the best investments I have made in recent years. I seek out articles online, subscribe to countless newsletters, and follow business leaders on social media. We have no shortage of resources. It’s just a matter of searching your topic of interest and diving in head first. As the Show Committee co-chair, I have to suggest attending the LCT/NLA shows, as well as other local and national industry events. One of the NLA’s main goals is to provide top-level education to our members. Get involved in your local chambers and related trade groups, and soak up their educational offerings. Be a sponge and never stop learning and seeking out ways to grow as a leader.
Q: Who are some of your most inspiring leadership role models?
A: At the top would be Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. You never questioned where they stood and what they stood for. Among business leaders, I am most inspired by Walt Disney, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. In terms of guts, risk taking, imagination and ridiculously high standards, they are in a league of their own. I respect and admire Oprah Winfrey for her incredible business and personal accomplishments. My parents instilled in me old fashioned hard work and high ethical standards.
Q: What leadership failures have you learned from?
A: “A leopard never changes its spots.” There are always exceptions to that rule, but unfortunately I have been guilty of believing a person will change or I can change them for the better if I give it more time or give them another chance. Most of the time, it doesn’t work out. Other than that, I probably try too hard to please everyone and it just isn’t possible.
Q: How do you set and maintain a high standard of ethics in your operations?
A: It starts at the top and I walk the walk. Otherwise, I have no credibility. I say nothing that I cannot stand behind. I don’t make empty promises. I don’t burn bridges and I never compromise my ethics. You don’t just decide one day to have high standards of ethics. Either you have them or you don’t. Your employees, vendors and clients will see right through you. As will your friends and family. You can’t let it creep into your business on any level. And you cannot compromise your standards.
Q: What are ways you invest in quality employees?
A: I seek out the very best employees who have a great attitude, the most applicable skills, and those who are willing to work hard and continually learn and grow. We tell the story of how our company has evolved to what it is today and where we are going. We train them properly and reinforce our expectations and those of our clients. Our pay levels and benefits are on par or above those of our peers in markets with much higher costs of living. There is no other way to attract great people to our industry. And we invest heavily to have the most impressive fleet in the market and the best technology solutions in the industry. We never stand still in how we are innovating and evolving. Many of our employees feel part of the “Overland Family.” That is just who we’ve always been. I want that feeling to stay the same no matter how large we get, and I will do everything in my power to maintain that.
Q: How have you taken the lead in determining the precise makeup of your chauffeured fleet in the last five years?
A: This is a highly individual decision. You have to understand your market and position in it, and your clientele. Kansas City is a second-tier market but our plan was to be the big fish in a small pond — a one-stop shop for our clients, so we have to be active in all sectors of the market. For us, I could not turn to low price substitutions for a luxury sedan that some operators went with. I also want maximum versatility out of my fleet mix. That said, this has been by far the most challenging few years to make intelligent choices. I thought long and hard on the best strategy to satisfy my local clientele and cater to my affiliates, and remain successful and profitable. Our replacement sedan of choice was the Lincoln MKT Town Car. I felt we had to stick with an American luxury brand that provided the most spacious passenger interior and luggage space. We needed AWD, tech and safety features, a livery warranty and a trusted fleet maintenance solution, all at a reasonable price. With few exceptions, the response has been fantastic. We added a flagship vehicle, a 2015 Mercedes-Benz S550, to cater to our affiliate requests for this caliber vehicle and have a full-size luxury sedan option for our local clients. To bridge the gap between now and the time the Lincoln Continental will come to market, we are evaluating a couple of other sedan options.
In terms of overall fleet mix, what works for us is to have more than half of our fleet consist of luxury sedans and full-size SUVs for our corporate and affiliate business. Last year, we did over 42,000 trips, mostly in sedans and SUVs. We beefed up our mix of mid-sized 8-12 passenger vehicles to include Turtle Top standard and executive conversions, and Mercedes-Benz Sprinters with both executive-style seating and limousine interiors. And we were the first in the country to take delivery of the new Ford Transit Van. We also have a few mini-coaches for group and shuttle business for both corporate and retail. We have one limousine coach that caters primarily to our weekend clients but is built out tastefully enough for corporate trips as well. Unfortunately, the traditional stretch limousine is a one-dimensional vehicle now so it is difficult to fit into our future plans.