Building the Bottom Line - an Interview with Cullan Meathe

Posted on January 1, 1990

William Meathe drove and maintained a Packard limousine for a prominent lumber baron of Grosse Pointe, MI, in the ‘Thirties. When his employer died in a hunting mishap, Meathe inherited the Packard and used it to provide service for other affluent Grosse Pointe residents.

“Pay your chauffeurs 20 percent gratuities and pay them a dollar more per hour than the competition,” advises Cullan Meathe.
“Pay your chauffeurs 20 percent gratuities and pay them a dollar more per hour than the competition,” advises Cullan Meathe.

Meathe’s two sons also drove the Packard occasionally. When the car needed service, one of the three would drive it to the Packard factory in Detroit. Private limousines were fairly common among Grosse Pointe residents, but William Meathe was one of the first commercial limousine operators in the area. When Williams died in 1945, however, both of his sons pursued other professions and the Packard limo was sold.

Cullan Meathe, William’s grandson, revived the family tradition when he started driving a formal limousine part-time while studying liberal arts at a Detroit college. In 1978, Meathe opened an office for Statewide Limousine in the basement of his parent’s home. First year revenues were about $18,000. Ten years later, Statewide is Michigan’s largest limousine service with annual billings of over $2 million. Today, the company is based in the refurbished Packard building where Meathe’s father and grandfather once had the family’s limousine serviced.

“From my beginning in this business,” Meathe recalls, “I always had a sense of urgency to be the biggest and the best. I bought my first limousine from the biggest service in Michigan, and I passed him up five years ago.

“I have a simple business philosophy,” he continues, “and that is to treat customers the way you want to be treated. Probably the most important thing I do on a daily basis is to be available for my customers and make sure they are satisfied. I am there when they want to talk to me.” At one point, Meathe hired a general manager and delegated some of his customer service responsibilities. “It didn’t work out to my satisfaction,” he says, “so I came back and took it over again.”

Meathe feels that chauffeurs are the key to customer satisfaction. “Pay your chauffeurs 20 percent gratuities and pay them a dollar more per hour than the competition,” he advises. “That way, you get the cream of the crop and they come knocking on your door. You can operate a 24 carat gold limo and it doesn’t mean a thing unless you have a quality chauffeur who anticipates their needs and performs like a professional. All of my chauffeurs carry business cards that say ‘professional chauffeur.’” Chauffeurs receive a commission of $50 for each new customer they bring the company.

“One word of advice I have for other operators,” Meathe says, “is that we all need to raise our rates. And we all need to play by the same rules. We shouldn’t be operating our vehicles under private insurance policies.” Meathe advises every limousine service to carry at least $1 million in liability coverage. “Million dollar lawsuits are very common in our courts and to be under-covered is a real liability. And we all ought to pay our taxes and pay our workman’s compensation.” Statewide is self-insured for collision and has facilities to handle most of its own bodywork.

As the State of Michigan debates insurance requirements and other limousines regulations, Meathe has found himself at odds with the Michigan Limousine Operators Association of which he was a founding member. He has subsequently hired a lobbyist to represent his own interests. “Get involved in politics,” he advises. “Get to know your government officials. Let them have your constructive criticism. And support regulation or this business will only become larger a melting pot than I is currently.

“We have a lot of very good operators here in Detroit who deserve to be protected from the suburban operators who come in and service the retail sector. We are getting much less retail business than we used to. The limo is becoming a sophisticated taxi business. We need better regulation and better enforcement in order to protect the consumer as well as the legitimate operators.”

To protect his share of the retail and corporate market, Meathe has a full-time sales director to call on prospects and maintain contact with special events in Detroit. Corporate and airport businesses are Statewide’s primary markets.

Statewide is the Michigan affiliate of Carey Limousine. This has been a source of business as well as a very useful support network. “Carey Limousine is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” says Meathe. “I have met many of the Carey affiliates and I’m very impressed with them as individuals and as business associates.

“Carey is very sophisticated in its marketing efforts and in its day-to-day operations. We all work together and Don Dailey (president of Carey Limousine) is the veteran of veterans in this business. He has been very helpful in looking to the future. You couldn’t ask for a finer network. My sales director is on the Carey Marketing Committee and Carey provides him with assistance on a daily basis.”

Meathe feels that the limousine industry in Detroit has reached a saturation point. “I don’t feel that there is much potential to grow in this business anymore,” he says. Finally, Meathe sees an industry trend toward owner-operators. “I’m going into independent operators within the next six months,” he says. “I want to be a management, marketing, and dispatch company. I’m getting out of the new car acquisition business, the used car disposal business, the oil change business, the gas business, the reprimand business, and all of those other things. I’m going to stick with what I’m good at which is marketing the management.

“I plan to give my chauffeurs a piece of the pie,” he continues. “This will improve customer satisfaction as well as the appearance of the vehicles. It will also eliminate some of my fixed operating costs. We feel we’ll be a lot more successful at what we do if we just concentrate on what our business is and not get into anything else.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be satisfied with my bottom line,” he continues, “but I keep working at it and I think an independent operator program has great potential.”



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