“New York City and Los Angeles are two different worlds,” says Harold Berkman whose limousine service, Music Express, serves both of these busy market areas. “My clients are the same in both cities,” he continues, “but you just can’t compare what it’s like to operate in those two places.” Berkman started Music Express on the West Coast in ’75 after retiring from MGM Records as a senior vice president. Having used limousines for many years in the music business, Berkman started Music Express with the simple concept of trying to provide the best limousine service possible.
Four years ago Music Express opened an affiliate company in New York City. Although their philosophy is the same in New York as it is in Los Angeles, they had to develop different operating procedures. Weather, traffic, and the needs of clients are some of the primary differences between New York and Los Angeles. Berkman claims that the conditions in New York make it much more difficult to provide the kind of service that they do in Los Angeles where a limousine can routinely arrive fifteen minutes before a scheduled pickup. “In Los Angeles, we know that a car should leave a few minutes earlier if it is raining,” he says. “It’s much harder to plan for possible delays in New York, and there are very few places to park if a car arrives early. The drivers have to time their arrivals very closely.”
The most difficult job in starting the New York service was finding the right person to run it. Berkman wanted someone with the same concern and philosophy about limousine service as himself. He turned to long-time friend Lenny Scher who was also a veteran of the music business. Together they have built the New York operation into a fleet of fifteen limousines, five sedans, and one fifteen-passenger van. The van has removable seats and is used to carry luggage and, frequently, the equipment of bands, and entertainers traveling in New York. In Los Angeles, Music Express operates a slightly smaller fleet with fifteen limousines and 4 sedans.
“We started by serving some of our Los Angeles clients when they went to New York,” says Berkman, “and we just expanded from there. New York is a far bigger limousine market than Los Angeles,” he continues, “and we have grown extremely quickly. Now we are starting to develop contacts in other major cities who can serve our customers and trust us to give our customers excellent service when they’re in our cities. We have been advertising a little bit within the trade and it is paying off. We will probably have to add more limousines in both markets in the next few months.”
“New York and Los Angeles are both nightlife cities,” says Berkman, “and many of the customers want stretch-limousines. We also do a lot of sedan work for business travelers and airport runs because sedans have a lower profile and better mobility. We use Cadillac sedans and Lincoln Town Cars for sedan runs in both of our service areas.” Airport trips are another example of the difficult of operating in New York City according to Berkman. If the traffic and weather are relatively normal, it takes about an hour to go from Manhattan to Kennedy Airport. When the traffic is heavy in Manhattan, though, Scher says that it can take thirty minutes just to go around the block. The dispatchers and chauffeurs in New York are always aware of weather conditions, road conditions and road closures, and because of this, the company’s reliability is as good in New York as it is in Los Angeles.
Music Express actually started as a courier service, in ’75, with Berkman answering the phone and making the runs himself. His first customers were many of the people that he had worked with in the music business for many years. One day a friend said, “Harold, get me a limo,” so Berkman called the company that he had used as an executive in the music industry. As more people asked Berkman to arrange for limousine service, he negotiated a ten percent commission from the livery operator and began to promote limousines among the customers of his courier service. Before long, a commission check arrived for the amount of $2,500 and, realizing that this represented $25,000 worth of limousine business in a period of a month, Berkman decided to buy his own Cadillac formal.
“I knew how I wanted my service to be,” he says, “because I had been a limousine user for many years. I wanted the best cars, the best drivers, and the best maintenance program. We treat our customers like the King and Queen of England and we have had many of the same people since we began. I’m very proud of the caliber of our service.” Scher points out that New York streets are always filled with people and the company grains excellent exposure as pedestrians observe the professional manner of Music Express chauffeurs when they pick up and drop off clients. The company also advertises in the yellow pages, hotel publications, consumer magazines, and publications reaching the entertainment industry. “The Yellow Pages mostly produce calls from price shoppers,” says Scher. “Our best source of business is really referrals from our customers.”
Berkman and Scher follow the same maintenance schedules for their fleets. Limousines are replaced every eighteen to twenty-four months and are serviced every three-thousand miles. Because the New York vehicles operate in a difficult service area, with heavy traffic and rough roads, Scher says that they require more suspension and body work than the Los Angeles cars, but that is the only difference in the company’s maintenance programs.
Berkman has always felt strongly about the value of having full-time chauffeurs. When hiring chauffeurs, Berkman looks primarily for intelligence and a good, professional appearance. He prefers not to hire chauffeurs who have been trained by another company because of problems they may have adjusting to a new operation. Drivers are on-call twenty-four hours a day for five days, and then off two days. They are instructed not to be overly familiar with clients request a particular driver on a regular basis, and will sometimes invite them to join a party at meals or for a drink. Drivers are not allowed to smoke in the cars, or at any time on a run, and they always refer to clients by last name. Punctuality is one of the most important rules at Music Express. If drivers are not at least ten minutes early, they are considered late. “If someone can’t expect us to be on time, then they don’t need us,” says Berkman.
Music Express chauffeurs are always assigned to the same limousine in Los Angeles. They keep the vehicle at home and are responsible for keeping it clean and serviced. Because they always use the same vehicle, drivers stay attuned to their car’s performance and can recognize signs that service is needed. Berkman figures that this produces a thirty percent savings in maintenance costs and also gives drivers the assurance that their car will not have a problem because of someone else’s negligence. Because of the traffic and the elements in New York, the company finds it more practical to keep the vehicles in a Manhattan garage where they can be easily serviced, and are located near the usual pick-up points.
“We have very little turnover and all of my drivers are experienced enough to train someone new,” Berkman says. “Most of the drivers have regular customers who ask for them and know when they will be available. Chauffeurs are really the heart of a limousine service and I tend to look out for their interests in the number of vehicles we have. I’m usually one car short of what I need so they are always busy and will make a good living.”
I know that a lot of people are buying stretch-limousines, but formals are still the majority of our business. I think formals will be around a long time and, in fact, I just replaced some of my cars with new formals. When I buy a stretch limousine, it’s usually a forty-eight or fifty-inch stretch. I think longer cars are uncomfortable and I don’t need a car you can play baseball in.”
“Another thing,” says Berkman, “is that people don’t need a stretch-limousine for a morning ride to the airport. I want people to trust us, and when they call for an airport run, I always suggest a Town Car. I will probably never be the biggest limousine company in Los Angeles or New York, but we will always strive to be the best. I want to keep building our reputation for honesty and good service. It gives me peace of mind about my company. That’s also the reason I have a reservationist in the office twenty-four hours a day instead of using an answering service. It makes me feel good to know that someone can call at any time and be taken care of. I may be naive to feel that this is the way to do business, but this is a service industry. I’m not selling door knobs, I’m selling a concept of quality service and it has brought us many loyal customers. A lot of other limousine companies have come and gone, but our concept has worked very well so far.”