Big Apple Insider

Posted on May 1, 2003 by Neil Weiss, LCT

  • Stephen Spencer
    Stephen Spencer

It was 20 years ago when Stephen Spencer became the first operator to be profiled in what was at the time called Limousine & Chauffeur magazine. Al­though the fledgling publication had just climbed unsteadily to its feet and was only starting to spread its wings, Spencer already had more than 23 years in the industry, running the highly successful London Town Cars in New York.

Since his first appearance in the magazine, Spencer would win the first ‘‘Operator of the Year” award at the March 1990 L&C Show in Las Vegas, remain steadfastly devoted to keeping the industry moving forward and continue to stay “dialed in” at New York’s notorious Taxi & Limousine Commission.

So what’s changed over the past two decades, according to Spencer? His company’s fleet, for one thing.

London Town Cars ran primarily Cadillac limousines in 1983, with Buick sedans making up the remainder. These days, it’s overwhelmingly moved in the other direction.

“At one time, we had 30 Cadillac limousines and a couple of sedans,” he notes. “Now we have 10 Cadillac limousines and 98 sedans. And our limousines are typically of the shorter variety.”

Also, the relationship between the New York’s TLC and local operators has seen a significant evolutionary change these past 20 years.

In 1983, limousine operators were subjected to a number of seemingly punitive - and sometimes contradictory - restrictions, with enforcement often varying from block to block.

For example, limousines at times were being ticketed for standing in the loading zones in front of hotels and theaters while waiting for clients. And one New York government agency ruled that limousines were allowed on 49th or 50th streets, which were express streets for buses and taxis, while another agency ruled that limousines were not allowed on those streets.

Despite Spencer’s work with the TLC at the time - both individually and through the Association of Private Limousine Operators in New York (which he helped found in 1967) - most operators clearly believed they had an adversarial relationship with the authority.

Fortunately, the situation has changed dramatically, notes Spencer, who now has a lot of positive things to say about the TLC, particularly its new commissioner.

“I think Commissioner [Matthew] Daus is being very innovative,” he praises. “He recognized the mistakes of the past and has tried to correct them. I would say we have a very good relationship with the TLC now.” So good a relationship that Spencer lends his considerable experience to one of the most critical issues currently facing the commission: reciprocity.

“They just formed an intrastate committee and asked me to be on it to try and work out reciprocity issues be­tween counties,” he explains. “There is already reciproc­ity between states, but not between counties ... yet.”

As far as the local corporate market is concerned, Spencer, in his 1983 profile, described VIPs moving out of the five boroughs and into suburban areas in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

If that felt like a gloomy picture of the corporate market at the time, consider this update: “So many of the corporations that were providing transportation for their employees [back in 1983] have cut back on that sort of thing. We have companies that used to use us every day. Now they only use us once or twice a month.”

One thing that doesn’t seem too different from what it was 20 years ago is the maze of regulations New York area operators face.

What hasn’t changed at London Town Cars - it was founded in 1959, and Spencer started managing it in 1960 - is the fact that Spencer remains the central figure at the company, even after his son came onboard. The company, like most others in the industry, faces lean times and must hustle to slay on top.

“My role with the company hasn’t changed over the last 20 years ... I still can’t get out of the office,” laughs Spencer, “but I’ve always had great people working around me, which has been key to our success.”

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