Savvy Business Tactics: Dawson Rutter

Posted on August 1, 2003 by Rebecca Christiansen, LCT staff editor

Commonwealth Limousine Worldwide today has annual revenues of nearly $10 million and is one of the three largest limousine companies .serving Boston’s Logan Airport. “It is known for serving high-end corporate accounts and founder and president Dawson Rutter has a reputation for being a stickler for holding price.

This thriving enterprise started in a taxi during a sticky Boston summer. In 1981, a friend asked Rutter, then a Bean Town cab driver, “Are you going to sit in that cab and sweat or are you going to come with me and get a nice air-conditioned job driving a limousine?”

So, Rutter, having measured the options, signed up for a one-time deal with a limousine company to chauffeur the Mexican president’s entourage.

The job, unfortunately, was cancelled, but since Rutter had already invested in a suit, he decided to “figure out what this is all about.” Two months after taking a job as a full-time limousine chauffeur, he was promoted to operations manager.

He stayed with that company for nine months and then, on May 24, 1982, bought his first car and created Commonwealth.

Four months later he had a second car; a third and a fourth came months after that, and by the late 1980s the company had grown to 22 cars.

A decade later, shortly after negotiations to sell his company fell through, "I decided that I needed to grow my business if I was ever going to have an opportunity to sell it or to have a retirement plan,” Rutter says. In 1998 he hired his current senior salesman, Ralph Duncan, an investment that has proved worthwhile.

The company grew from $1.5 million in annual sales to 56 million in 2000 and is now approaching $10 million.

He notes that every operator should invest in a quality sales staff because “there’s nothing that beats having salespeople in the field.”

“If you look at the successful limousine companies, you will see strong sales departments with highly motivated and effective salespeople,” he says.

Today, Commonwealth runs 61 cars and placed No. 64 on LCT’s Top 75 list. Along with his sales staff, Rutter credits much of his success to hard work, a good management style, and especially, the company’s awareness of customer service.

Many operators fail to understand customer service, he says. “There’s a big disconnect between what customer anticipates he’s going to get, versus what the limousine company thinks is adequate for the customer.”

Many operators believe customer service is about making sure the car shows up, he says. In reality, customers expect a lot more and operators should strive to go beyond those expectations, he advises.

That motto has brought Rutter plenty of success with tough critics like top corporate and university executives.

He says he has lost business to competitors who undercut him on price but that the clients have come back complaining of the service they received.

Clients receiving impeccable customer service no longer have price as their No.1 priority, Rutter says. And clients who are satisfied with the services they receive carry a company through bad times, as has often been the case with Commonwealth.

“Our corporate philosophy of going after [high-end] business insolates us from pricing pressure,” He explains.

Even before the recession. Commonwealth marketed itself to senior executives who travel a lot. “They tend to be more discriminating in the service they receive rather than the price they are paying.” he notes.

These types of travelers don’t get their car privileges removed even during a recession, while those lower in the corporate hierarchy are very price sensitive and are far more likely to have spending cutbacks imposed on them. 

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