When the Illinois Limousine Association was announced as the winner of the 2001 Association Award of Excellence, association president John Sokol skipped up to the stage. However, he immediately did an about face, and asked that all of the members of the ILA Board who were present join him to receive the prestigious honor, which is presented jointly by LCT and the NLA. It was an apt metaphor for the ILA itself. It’s an association with a strong president, and an active board working together with its 73-member companies to vigorously represent the interests of the local limousine industry.
“It all starts with Karen Renk, our fantastic executive director,” Sokol says. “She handles the nuts and bolts of keeping our members informed and facilitating our meetings.”
The ILA Board of Directors includes Vice President Paul Jasko, Secretary/Treasurer Karen Rasmussen, Directors Kevin Foss, Tracy Hodge and Sue Knutson (vendor member), Legislative Liaison Jon Simon and past president’s Marty Olliges and Barb Simkus.
The board and the membership consist of a combination of large and small operators. Their accomplishments include establishing a strong working relationship with Chicago Consumer Affairs Commissioner Caroline Schoenberger. A previously antagonistic relationship with the city has evolved into a strong working partnership, where the ILA works directly on impacting policy decisions that affect the industry.
The ILA has been involved in impacting parking regulations at both O’Hare and Midway airports. The ILA was instrumental in reducing the city of Chicago’s airport tax from $4.50 to $3.50 per day. “The Legit Kit,” a guide to operating a legal limousine service in the state of Illinois was produced by the ILA, and is a monumental timesaver in navigating the often confusing rules that govern the limousine industry in the state.
“The most important thing we do is that every single day and at every single meeting, we try and help our members succeed,” Sokol says. “We care deeply about our members and about the industry itself. We are very proud of the award and we are grateful to LCT and the NLA for this recognition.”
Nelson Overwhelmed by Operator of the Year Award
There must be two Carolyn Nelsons. It is the only logical explanation. She is a loving mother (now grandmother), owner of a growing business, active in her local limousine association (A-Limo), strong NLA director and a dedicated association liaison. But as busy as she is, Carolyn Nelson has the remarkable ability to make every person in her life feel like the most important person in the world. She is the ultimate “people person.”
She can take a reservation, handle a billing question and help the new South Carolina Limousine Association get started with just a few flicks of her call-waiting button. Nelson, owner of Belaire Limousine in Bel Air, Md., was a popular choice for the 2001 Operator of the Year award in the small-fleet category. Her company has seven vehicles and a staff of 12. Nelson called her daughter Melissa from the stage at the Venetian, and, with her new grandson Christopher Xavier listening, she shared her joy and thanked her dedicated team at Belaire Limousine. She also acknowledged her mentor, the late Harold Berkman, president of Music Express. “A fantastic human being that encouraged me greatly, I owe so much to him and his family,” she says.
“The bottom line for me is that I am blessed with my daughter and a team of chauffeurs who really care about our customers and my family,” Nelson explains. “They treat the vehicles and our clients like gold.”
Belaire Limousine has maintained a better then 20 percent per year growth pattern. The company continues to provide service to some of the country’s largest networks. Nine of the company’s dozen chauffeurs are celebrating more than three years of service with the company.
“I guess I break every rule of management,” she admits. “I treat my employees like I treat my family. I care about them, and I want them to be happy. I never let anyone abuse my staff and they appreciate that.”
As NLA association liaison, a position she created, Nelson has traveled tens of thousands of miles in support of local associations. “It is important that local leaders do not feel isolated, and I believe it is extremely important to travel and help promote these associations.”
When Nelson returned from Las Vegas, her office was filled with eight-dozen flowers, balloons and numerous messages from her customers and her peers. “That was the other crowning moment for me, my chauffeurs, my clients, and my fellow operators were genuinely happy for my family and me,” she says. “It made it very special.”
Maxwell Credits Staff for Victory
Jeff Maxwell, owner of Palos Verdes Limousine in Palos Verdes, Calif., was so surprised at receiving the Operator of the Year award for medium-sized fleet that it took him a few minutes to reach the stage. “I was absolutely shocked that I won,” Maxwell admits. “I kind of thought you needed to be nominated a few times so I wasn’t even prepared to speak.” Maxwell received a loud ovation from his large staff and family who were present. He thanked both his staff and his family, and was genuinely touched by the honor he received.
“Tim Rodriguez, my operations manager, and Billy Pignataro, my dispatch manager, are the two best guys in the country at their jobs,” Maxwell says. “Tim, Billy and the rest of my staff treat this company like it was their own. They are supportive of me and tremendously supportive of each other. They make our company work.”
Maxwell believes that one central belief has guided Palos Verdes Limousine through 17 years of success. “The employees are your number one customers,” he explains. “Make them happy and they will make your customers happy. I always tell people that my staff works with me, not for me. It is a very important distinction.”
Maxwell’s staff is well known for servicing major national limousine networks. A company employee answers the business phone 24-hours a day. Music Express, Carey and CLS all use Palos Verdes Limousine as one of their preferred vendors in Southern California. Maxwell has also established a mentoring program for smaller, local operators. “We not only show up on time with a clean car, but we have genuinely fine chauffeurs and a very competent back-office staff,” he says. “We get the billing done and we serve our network clients. But by the same token we care about our industry and we always reach out to help young operators.”
Maxwell has 19 vehicles and a staff of 25. “We are just at the right size that we can still manage every account in a hands-on manner,” he says.
The company has a strong internal safety program and a detailed preventive maintenance program. “This business is all about being prepared,” Maxwell says. “It means preparing and educating your staff. It means preparing your vehicles and dedicating yourself to be ready to respond to your clients needs,” Maxwell says. “The Operator of the Year Award just reinforces that the way we have done things since 1984 is the right way to go.”
Regal Limousine Energized by Award
Richard Ford is a serious New Englander. Talk to him about Regal Limousine, and the 2001 Operator of the Year in the large-fleet category will give you serious, thoughtful answers about the company that he and his family have built over the last 18 years in North Hampton, N.H. He will discuss technology, on-time performance and the cleanliness of the Regal fleet with the studied focus of a college professor.
But as Ford stood on the stage at the Venetian Hotel basking in the applause of his fellow operators, his smile was the brightest light in the large room. “I was absolutely overwhelmed with joy and filled with pride over our accomplishment,” he admits. “I think I was happiest for my staff. It is the crowning achievement for our company.”
As Ford acknowledged brother/partner Paul, wife Dee Dee and his right-hand man Lyndy Burnham, he pinpointed some of the reasons for his company’s success.
“When we grew to a 40-car operation with more than 90 employees, it was no longer possible to be ‘hands on’ in all phases of our operation.” He explains. “I don’t always know what the ride count is every day or exactly how many drivers we have available. I have a team of great managers who execute our plan every day and who believe in what we believe in. What this allows me to do is to be creative and focus on the growth of Regal Limousine. It encourages us to work smarter not harder.”
Richard Ford has also found the time to serve as an active board member of the New England Livery Association. “Again, thanks to my staff for giving me the time to be involved with the NELA.”
The Fords have also been active participants in the “20 Group”, a group of industry leaders who benchmark their companies in quarterly meetings with a group of their peers. The group, organized by consultant Charles Tenney, has been a positive experience for Regal.
“It’s a fantastic group of people who have given us a wealth of ideas,” he says. “It’s allowed us to focus outside our little world in New Hampshire and learn from some great operators. It’s also brought us some incredible friendships.” Many of the 20 Group members were in attendance at the awards banquet, and their pride in the Fords’ achievement was evident.
Immediately after winning the award the Fords hosted a party for their staff, complete with Operator of the Year t-shirts and remembrances. They also sent a thank you letter to both the Regal staff and its customers. “It isn’t about the owners being recognized by our peers,” he says. “It is about our team taking care of our clients every single day. This award was a tremendous honor. It has given every one of us a tremendous lift. We are looking forward to more great things for Regal Limousine.”