“If you want to, you can see my new 30-econd commercial,” said Lon Kaufmann enthusiastically as we began a scenic ride in his midnight blue ’84 Moloney stretch. “It’s already been on local TV,” he said proudly. We watched the commercial, which was filmed for Kaufmann by a local video company, and were impressed by its slick style and appealing content. Like every other aspect of Lon’s Limo Scene, Kaufmann’s one man limousine service in Santa Rosa, CA, the commercial was clearly designed to attract the upper income customers from Santa Rosa to San Francisco.
The story of Lon’s Limo Scene unfolded as we rode past redwood trees and vineyards toward one of many wineries which attract visitors to the Sonoma Valley. Kaufmann moved to the Santa Rosa area thirty-six years ago and spent time as a salesman for Kraft Foods, and later for a motorcycle dealership. Four years ago, wanting to start a new career, he investigated the limousine business and found that there was only one other person with a limousine in his area. Because he liked to drive, and knew the Sonoma Valley like the back of his hand, Lon got an operating permit from the City Council and rushed to meet the deadline for placing an ad in the Yellow Pages.
It took Lon three weeks to decide that his 2-door Oldsmobile was not going to be adequate as a limousine. Not wanting to jump right into a stretch-limousine without knowing how strong the market would be, Kaufmann bought a Cadillac Fleet-wood Brougham sedan and equipped it with a 2 inch TV and a champagne bucket. Even though it took four months for his first ad to appear in the Yellow Pages, business began to grow and the Fleet-wood served Kaufmann well on most of his runs during the next nine months. On special occasions, such as when he drive Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows to the opening of a new Performing Arts Center, Kaufman borrowed a formal limousine from a funeral home. Business was good and Kaufmann was hooked on limousines, Cadillac limousines in particular, and he bought an ’83 Cadillac formal which he feels established Lon’s Limo Scene as the best service in the area.
One of the things Kaufmann did in the beginning was spend about a thousand dollars to have a logo, business cards, letterhead, and a rate sheet designed and printed. “It was the best thing I could have done for the business,” he says, “because I have a background in marketing and I know how important it is to have a good company image. This is an image business and you’ve got to be serious about that. Now, when people see my logo, they know immediately who I am. It’s really paid off.”
After four years of experience, Lon has a very professional manner as a chauffeur, but he confides that he had to learn on the job, and that mistakes occasionally cost him customers. “Discretion is very important in the limousine business,” he says, “I learned that in the beginning when some customers told me they didn’t appreciate something I said about some other clients, and they haven’t used me since. You have to watch everything you say. Another mistake I made was when I drove some people to a party in Sausalito and they invited me to stay in the house overnight. I accepted their invitation and later realized it was a mistake. What I should have done was sleep in the car because they never called me again and I know that is the reason.”
Kaufmann kept his ’83 formal in perfect condition and diligently provided high quality service which brought increasing business from upscale residents and visitors to the scenic Sonoma Valley. As a one man company, he maintained and stored his limousine at home did his own promotional work, and also handled all of the driving. Phone calls go directly to his home. Business grew slowly during the first year, but his volume quadrupled in the second year and has not stopped growing.
After Lon had driven his formal for about a year, some competitors brought stretch limousines into the Sonoma Valley and Kaufmann knew that he had to buy a stretch in order to keep his service at the head of the class. “I couldn’t even wait to special order one, “he says, “I went to a dealer and bought my ’84 Moloney right off the floor. I love the midnight blue color because it looks black at night, but it doesn’t look drab at a wedding or during the day. This is my company color. I have the only dark colored stretch in this area.”
With his stretch in use for corporate clients, wine tours, weddings, transportation to the Luther Burbank Performing Arts Center, and the famous Bohemian Grove retreat. Lon’s Limo Scene grew another fifty percent in the past year and Lon added a second vehicle—a custom white Cadillac Eldorado convertible which has become very popular for weddings and scenic trips. Because the stylish Eldorado is easily recognized around Santa Rosa, it has become a tool helping Lon to help publicize his service.
Kaufmann charges fifty dollars an hour for his distinctive vehicles, the highest rate in his market, but feels that his cars and his attentive and reliable service will appeal to discriminating customers who want the best limousine available. “Fifty dollars is enough to turn a lot of the public off,” Lon admits, “but I don’t particularly want these customers. I want people who will appreciate a consistently clean car and are delighted to pay an extra five dollars an hour. Because I’m expensive, everything has to be perfect. My cars are always clean, all of the accessories are in perfect working order, I carry my own label of champagne, and I’m a fanatic about being on time. My service and my knowledge of the area justify my rates.”
Running a company singlehandedly requires a heavy commitment from Kaufmann who has no family and works seven days a week to build his business. During the spring and summer, he sometimes does as many as four jobs a day, “I’m dedicated to this business,” he says. “I love to drive, I love people, and I love this area. I enjoy taking people through the Sonoma Valley and showing them the wineries, the scenic lookouts, the redwood forests, and the little hideaways.”
Kaufmann is possessive of every aspect of his operation and is resisting the idea of hiring a second driver even though one of his vehicles is always idle, and there are frequent times during the busy season when he cannot handle all of the work himself. He not only wants to guarantee that customers will be satisfied with his company’s service, but he also feels that there is a mystique surrounding a one person operation where customers deal directly with the owner of a company. “It’s like when someone goes to their hairdresser and they wouldn’t go anywhere else,” he says. “Or like going to a restaurant where you know the chef who is preparing your food. I feel there’s something to be gained by that. Eventually, though, maybe when I reach the five year point, I’ll probably want to have a relief driver. I won’t necessarily add another car, but I would like to find a person who would give the same kind of service I do.”
Kaufmann loves the recognition that comes with being the elite service in his area. He is called by celebrities who visit the Sonoma Valley and has driven Milton Berle, the Smothers brothers, Cheryl Tiegs, Ralph Lauren, and Brenda Vaccaro among others. It took Kaufmann three years before getting his first call from the Bohemian Grove, a retreat visited by ex-presidents, celebrities, and many of the most powerful people in the world. “There’s an unwritten law that they don’t endorse local businesses,” according to Lon.
Despite the fact that the Sonoma Valley has become a fairly competitive market for limousines, Lon feels that there will always be a demand for the most meticulous service and the finest limousines available. The local Yellow Pages show that some of the lower priced services have folded, but ’85 has been Lon’s best year thus far. “I’m here to stay,” he says convincingly, and he has already picked out his next limousine – an ’86 Moloney Grand Flagship. It has not always been easy to run his own service, and he incurred some heavy debts in the early years by buying expensive vehicles, but Lon is satisfied with his prospects for the future and appreciates having a business that he genuinely enjoys.
“If you would like, we’ll stop here at the Korbel Winery where you can take a little tour and taste champagne,” offered Lon in the latter part of our tour. Because he operates an upscale service, Lon takes champagne seriously and noted that Korbel is the country’s largest champagne producer, “It was served at the Presidential Inauguration,” he added. This pleasant stop was part of an enjoyable ride during which we were very impressed with Lon’s professionalism. It was easy to understand why he has been successful thus far, and he offered a fine example of how much can be accomplished in a one-man limousine operation.