Whether he is battling government regulation, airport restrictions, or gypsy operation, Ted Wisniewski has never been one to shy away from a fight. In fact, his 10-year tenure as a limousine operator has been a series of battles of one cause or another.
Indeed, Wisniewski’s battles have introduced some fruitful results. Among other things, he currently owns and operates Teddy’s Transportation System, Inc. (TTS), a successful family limousine business in Norwalk, CT. He also was instrumental in the organization of the Limousine Operators of Connecticut (LOC), a group of state operators united to represent the state’s limousine industry. Through the organization, Wisniewski has fought for exemptions for Connecticut operators in New York, established a channel of communication with the New York DOT, and participated in a successful “sting” operation to rid the Norwalk area of illegal gypsy operators.
On the other hand, there have been obstacles to Wisniewski’s success. But heart bypass surgery last year didn’t dampen his fighting spirit, and neither did a series of death threats, vandalized limousines, and a shot out window (apparently perpetrated by gypsy operators). Needless to say, Ted’s combative vitality has spiced up his family limousine business, which began humbly in the late 1970s.
Wisniewski derived some of his fighting spirit from the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1950s. After his honorable discharge in 1961, he spent years driving nearly every truck made – dump trucks, trailer trucks, etc. – both locally in Connecticut and cross-country. He also ran his own trucking venture in the early 60s. In the late 70s, Wisniewski was working for a local limousine company when the area began experiencing an influx of corporate headquarters. Many of these Fortune 500 corporations were attracted to the southern Connecticut area because of its proximity to New York City. During this period, Wisniewski witnessed a local limousine company grow from four to 14 cars in just two years.
In 1978, he purchased the permits from a local limousine company for $55,000. The Westport, CT, company had been in operation since 1932 and at the time had no limousines, but was a taxi company. Ironically enough, the company was already named “Teddy’s Taxi” and was based a mere 1.3 miles from his home of 20 years.
“The biggest problem was that I couldn’t buy cars at that point because it was in between the model year for the new limousines on the market,’ Wisniewski says. “I ended up flying to Springfield, MO, with a driver and buying a used limousine from Executive Coachbuilders. It got me into the business.”
He and his wife Shelly began operating the business out of the family dining room – Ted drove and Shelly answered the phone. The first week, the business received only five calls. Today, the business is a $1.6 million operation consisting of 17 sedans, five stretches, two 14-passenger vans, one station wagon, and a vintage 1940 Packard limousine. The business employs 18 full time chauffeurs, five family members and the family dog.
“Everybody is involved, including our dog. My wife does everything. She’s the most indispensable person in the business,” Wisniewski says. “We try to run it as one big family. My whole family is involved and chauffeurs are like members of the family.”
Other family members active in the business include daughter Linda, who is in charge of the billing and computer entry; son Teddy, who handles the maintenance on the vehicles; son Charles, who is in charge of marketing and promotion; and bull dog Jasper, who Wisniewski says handles security.
Nearly all of the company’s business is from corporate clientele. Located less than 50 miles from New York City and just eight miles from Stamford, CT, TTS is surrounded by lucrative businesses.
“Our clientele is 99 percent corporate,” says Charles Wisniewski. “Our bread-and-butter is all these hundreds of consulting companies that are flying out to see corporate clients. We don’t even do proms. We can’t afford to – we can’t lose the vehicle form a corporate client.”
Ted Wisniewski cities “service” and the key factor in attracting and maintaining corporate customers. “They are not price conscious, they are service conscious,” he says. “Our drivers are instructed to be on the job 10 to 15 minutes early, no matter where the pickup is. Our clients rely on the fact that there will be a Teddy driver there.”
“All our drivers react the same, stand in the same place at the airport, and dress the same,” Charles says. “I’ve got 106 competitors promising service. We’ve got a fleet power. We’ve got a fleet that can recover from any mishap. If a tire should break down, we’ve got another care there two minutes later taking passengers to the airport.”
The entire TTS fleet is Lincolns, with three of the stretches manufactured by Armbruster and the remaining two built by Allen. Ted is extremely pleased with the performance on the vehicles and considers his operation a proving ground for other Connecticut operators.
“We are a good test market out here on the East Coast. We put about 100,000 miles a year on a car. That’s a compilation of highway driving and New York City driving,” he says. “We get up to 100 degrees in the summertime and down to 10 below in the wintertime. We are a proving ground that can’t be matched by any car manufacturer.”
As a result of concentrating on corporate clientele, TTS suffered tremendously when the stock market crashed in October, 1987. “After Black Monday, we lost 50 percent of our business,” Ted says. “That’s when we were hurting the most because we don’t do proms and weddings, we are mainly corporation. We had to increase our client base and reach our distance-wise to cover the people who we lost.” He adds that it took well over a year to recuperate from the devastation of the crash.
In order to regain the clientele lost in the crash, TTS utilizes some interesting marketing techniques. Wisniewski avoids using the yellow pages, display advertisements, and radio and cable television spots. Instead, Charles Wisniewski has developed an elaborate direct mail program.
“We have an in-house computer and use extensive mailing lists of all kinds,” he said. “We reach all of the new people who move into the area that fit a certain profile. Basically, we get a list of those who move into the area and paid more than $350,000 for a house.” Subsequently, a short welcome letter is sent to each person. “It is definitely direct mail. It is all done in-house. It is dirt cheap and it really, really works.”
Many times TTS garners business through incidental associations. For instance, when Wisniewski, 52, had heart bypass surgery last year, he became friends with the surgeon who performed the operation. As a result of that association, TTS now provides complementary rides for children from Third World countries brought to the U.S. for complicated surgeries. The company is also connected with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and periodically provides limousine rides to critically ill children.
Wisniewski’s battles have resulted in numerous positive consequences for the limousine industry, as well as Wisniewski’s limousine business. For instance, as a direct result of his fight to curb the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission’s edict to tax out of state vehicles conducting business in New York, Wisniewski and his fellow operators formed the LOC in 1985. Today, the association has 20 members representing 255 vehicles. Wisniewski is currently president of the LOC and on the board of directors of the National Limousine Association.
According to Ted, the TLC began issuing $1000 citations to limousine operators who did not have a NYC sticker on the window. Rallying behind his leadership, the operators organized and hired a lawyer. Eventually they prevailed in court and exemptions were issued because Connecticut companies could legally operate in New York under interstate Commerce Commission authority, according to Wisniewski.
Unfortunately, the battle with the TLC is not over yet. New commissioner Jack Lusk has determined the exemptions null and void and citations are once again being issued. Again, Ted is leading the battle.
“Our Connecticut association lawyer is going to meet with Westchester County, Nassau-Suffolk, New Jersey and Manhattan association lawyers and develop a game plan, and then bring it to federal court,” he says.
The LOC provides some valuable services to its members. One example is a list of parking tickets that have been issued in NYC. According to Charles Wisniewski, the City of New York’s Department of Transportation issues tickets daily to limousine operators illegally parked. However, many times the chauffeurs are not personally handed the ticket by the traffic policeman and the DOT is under no obligation to send a copy of the ticket to the owner of an out of state vehicle. Therefore, the LOC established a program whereby its members receive a computer printout of the tickets issues to their companies.
“We’ve had one meeting with the head motor vehicle commissioner and the head DOT commissioner,” says Wisniewski. “We’ve talked to them about the problems in the livery industry and what they can do to help us and to work together in the future.” The group is trying to open a channel of communication with the DOT through a series of regular meetings.
Another service provided by the LOC is a list of suspended licenses. “In Connecticut, we have a regular driver’s license and a public service license strictly for driving livery vehicles,” Wisniewski says. “Our drivers have to have physicals once a year, and to get the drivers license initially they have their fingerprints taken. It’s really a check to make sure that anybody who holds a license is not a felon or anything else. To keep these licenses active, they have to keep a fairly clean record. So we get printout from the motor vehicle department about once a week showing the suspended licenses for that period of time. We can keep track of our drivers this way and we can keep track of our tickets in New York too.”
The problem of illegal operators is certainly not unique to the Connecticut area. In major markets across the nation, limousine owners without proper operating licenses and insurance conduct business illegally. The gypsies, as they are commonly referred to, are able to undercut the prices charged by legitimate businesses. According to Ken Gambardella of the Connecticut DOT, the gypsy services may account for up to 40 percent of the limousine companies on the road.
The situation bothered the Wisniewski’s, so they set up a “sting” operation last summer with the cooperation of the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Using the local yellow pages, members of the LOC picked illegal operators in the area.
“We actually hired the car, put a passenger in it, and paid for the trip. At the drop off location we had them scheduled every 15 minutes,” Ted says. “A gypsy would pull in with a passenger, the passenger would get out of the car with a receipt that he paid the driver and hand it to a DOT official. The motor vehicle inspectors would also move in on the car and check out all the plates and permits.” All five illegal operators were cited.
The operation garnered immensepublicity for TTS and helped business. However, the sting had drawbacks also.“ Someone shot a hole through a window in my house and we’ve received death threats,” Wisniewski says. “I had about 35 tires ice picked, they tried to set one car on fire, and they got into a stretch limousine with a hammer and smashed everything inside. It was a costly operation to us.”
Charles adds that “the worst part is that the state is supposed to be doing this work, not us. They are supposed to be taking the risk.”
TTS plans on expanding more in the future, depending on the amount of corporate travel in the area. Wisniewski suggests operators join their local associations and stay aware of all the issues affecting the industry. By not cutting corners, providing reliable service, and fighting for the limousine industry, Ted Wisniewski has energized his business and carried the battle for limousine operators in Connecticut.