One of the toughest aspects of operating a limousine service is maintaining a ready staff of trained chauffeurs. The nature of the job lends itself to part-time employees who are working their way through college, struggling to find a job in another field, or just driving to earn some extra spending money. Consequently, an operator – especially one in a big city – really has to hone his business acumen in order to attract and sustain a staff of quality chauffeurs.
Bob Verdi, president of Bermuda Motor Car Company, Inc. In Manhattan, NY, has developed a proven program of chauffeur incentives designed to keep chauffeurs as well as improve their performance. Bermuda’s incentive program involves a benefits package, earned bonuses, paid overtime, and penalties. Operating 75 vehicles including limousines, sedans, a couple of vans, a station wagon, and a 20-passenger minibus in the heart of Manhattan, Bermuda is nearly 50 years old. Started by Verdi’s father in the 1940s, the company currently operates with 90 to 100 chauffeurs, eight dispatchers, six reservationists, office staff of eight to ten, and six to eight car washers. With this large number of personnel Verdi’s incentive program needs to work efficiently. Located in the highly competitive atmosphere of Manhattan, the company needs to offer an attractive and profitable working environment.
“We have very few people who leave,” Verdi says. “As a matter of fact, we don’t have many people leave at all. We have many people who have been with us for 20 years. We believe the men are the key to the operation – I never see the customers, the drivers do. They are the key so we do everything we can for them.”
The company’s incentive and benefits programs did not appear overnight, but have been gradual additions to Bermuda’s operation. “We started a profit-sharing pension plan for the men about a year ago,” Verdi says. “We supply all of the uniforms, hospitalization, paid vacations, and a bonus plan. The nuts and bolts of the bonus program are simple. Bermuda’s chauffeurs have a standard 40 – hour work week with 10 hours of guaranteed overtime, which pays time-and-a-half. Consequently, on a quarterly basis a chauffeur will work at least 650 hours during the 13-week period. If a driver works the required 650 hours, then he is rewarded with a $0.50 bonus per hour – which works out to at least $325 in additional pay. Every chauffeur is afforded time off for paid sick leave and paid vacation days. However, the incentive program works both ways. If a chauffeur does not work at least 600 hours, then he does not receive a bonus. Also, there are monetary penalties which act as a quality control mechanism. For instance, if a chauffeur misses a customer and it is determined to be the driver’s fault, there is a $25 penalty deducted from his bonus. If a driver receives three penalties or more, then it’s possible that we’ll let him go. We don’t need a guy lousing up three customers in three months,” says Verdi.
Verdi also spells out three conditions that will result in the loss of a chauffeur’s entire bonus immediately. First, if there is a serious complaint from a customer regarding the attitude of a driver. Second, if a driver is involved in a front-end accident. And the third condition is if a driver does not wear his hat on the job. “It’s a quirk of mine,” admits Verdi. “I don’t dog these guys, I don’t chase them around, but if I happen to see him with a customer and the driver is not wearing his hat…he loses his bonus. I feel it’s part of the uniform, it’s part of the job. I’m not saying they have to wear their hats just don’t work here and not wear it.”
Bermuda has also developed a year-end bonus program that rewards employees between $0.25 and $0.75 per hour, depending on the prosperity of the year. The incentive program has been well received by the drivers according to Verdi.
“Chauffeuring is a strange type of job; it’s both skilled and unskilled at the same time,” he says. “It’s considered an unskilled job, but you can’t just walk in cold and be a chauffeur. It’s a skilled job. Women drivers? I don’t know. That’s a tough situation basically because it’s still a chauvinistic society.”
Incidentally, all of Bermuda’s chauffeurs are men because Verdi feels uneasy about sending women on runs in crime-ridden areas of the city, and also some of Bermuda’s male corporate clientele expressed embarrassment by the possibility of a female chauffeur opening the limousine door for them.
“I think chauffeurs’ wages will go up tremendously in metropolitan New York and I assume it will be the same for any major urban locale for the next few years,” Verdi anticipates. “The chauffeur work force is shrinking. It’s getting tougher and tougher for a moderate income family to live in the city. If you want to get them into New York to work, you have to pay them – so I can see wages going up.”
Previously, Bermuda covered its employees immediately with 20 percent of hospitalization costs, and after each ensuing year of employment, the company assumed an additional 20 percent of the cost – so after five years there was complete coverage. However, costs soared so astronomically that Bermuda now offers a flat rate and the men are responsible for the remainder of the coverage.
Bermuda also gives its employees an active role in some of the company decision-making. About five years ago, Verdi considered converting his business into a franchising arrangement, but his chauffeurs rejected the plan. “We sat down and did a survey calculating how much income a franchise operator could make as opposed to one working as an employee. And then I brought the results to the men,” recalls Verdi. “I said very simply, ‘Tell me which way you want to go. I’ll go either way.’ And they decided not to franchise.”
Contrary to what some others in the industry believe, Verdi is convinced chauffeuring as an employee can be more advantageous than franchising in New York City. “A guy working in my company can make the same income as a fellow who has his own vehicle with a franchise company – doing the same amount of hours,” he says. “A guy with a franchise vehicle in Manhattan better put in six or seven, 12- to 16-hour days every week or he’s not going to make a living.”
In order to more suitably deal with customers, Bermuda has representatives stationed at both Kennedy International and LaGuardia Airports. The reps act as hosts for incoming and outgoing passengers at the airport. Verdi estimates the representatives cover about 85 percent of flights. “It helps the chauffeur because now you have two people out there looking for a customer,” he says. Some of the service reps provide include meeting the car at curbside, having a red cap waiting to gather up luggage, directing the passenger to a lounge and checking in tickets, and finally escorting the passenger to the plane. For arriving passengers, the rep will meet the passenger at the gate and escort him or her to the chauffeur. The rep will also inform the chauffeur when his pick-up’s plane has arrived. Unfortunately, the reps are not allowed to wear uniforms on the airport property, but despite this rule, Verdi claims the reps have greatly reduced the number of missed passengers.
The airport reception also acts as a safety mechanism in case problems arise. “On occasion a car’s late getting out to the airport. At least our rep is there with the customer to lie if he has to,” admits Verdi. “He can tell the customer, ‘There’s a lot of traffic, the car broke down, it blew up, the bridge fell.’ It makes a big difference to have someone there.” In order to afford the extra cost of employing these airport reps, Bermuda drastically reduced its advertising budget.
Bermuda does not assign its chauffeurs to cars by using a seniority system, but merely rotates the drivers between stretches and sedans. “We tried to keep our men in the same cars a long time ago and it created havoc,” says Verdi. “The only way we can really make any money is to keep these cars on the road, and we can’t keep a man on the road all those hours. There was a ‘Don’t let anybody use my car tomorrow’ attitude.”
Each driver must fill out a check-in and check-out form when using a vehicle. This allows a chauffeur to document the cleanliness, dents, and general condition of the vehicle.
Drives cannot request specific customers, but customers may request a specific chauffeur by phone. There is a seniority system established for drivers’ hours. New chauffeurs usually begin working during the 7 p.m. shift and on weekends, while experienced chauffeurs get weekends and holidays off. “We try to give each man the same day of the week off every week so he can plan some sort of a family life,” Verdi comments. Senior drivers also earn more vacation days.
The company’s employment package has also reduced turnover among dispatchers. Verdi estimates the newest dispatcher at the company has been there for five years. By adhering to the rotation system, favoritism by dispatchers to certain chauffeurs is virtually eliminated.
The intense competition that Bermuda must face every day in New York City has spawned the company’s successful personnel management system. Verdi’s son, Peter, is now involved in the business and hopes to carry on Bermuda Motor Cars for another 40 profitable years. Bob Verdi anticipates hard times ahead for limousine operators. “The limousine market is shrinking,” he predicts.