Every chauffeur dreams of one day owning and operating his own limousine business. What usually stops these individuals, whose bread and butter typically consists of farmouts from larger operators, from attaining this ultimate goal is a lack of basic business knowledge.
Greg Casteel in Portland, OR, is one chauffeur turned entrepreneur who succeeded in the livery industry. After studying economics and accounting in college, Casteel found himself using his 1954 Bentley R-type to chauffeur when he wasn’t working in the logging industry. Casteel started by handling the overflow from two other operators.
In 1979, Casteel opened his own operation — Prestige Limousines. Using skills learned as a chauffeur and refined as a subcontractor, he has developed a sophisticated marketing strategy. Casteel uses a 7,000-square-foot showroom, a responsive problem-handling policy, solid referral program through local civic and business organization memberships, and direct sales that cater specially to secretaries as well as other decision-makers. The program has enabled Prestige to grow from that one 1954 Bentley to a fleet that includes seven stretches, two vans, two sedans and a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.
Making Marketing Plans Work
Casteel believes first impressions are important in marketing. He uses that to his advantage in a specific plan designed for secretaries of large corporations. For example, the secretary for the CEO of one of the largest corporations in Portland recently needed a limousine to pick up an important client from the airport, recalls Casteel.
When she called for an estimate, Casteel offered to have a limousine pick up the secretary and drive her to his showroom. At first, she refused, saying she didn’t have time, but he explained that in order to get an idea of the style she wanted, and to grasp an idea of what she’s paying for, she needed to see what he has to offer. She agreed to let Casteel send the limousine.
When she arrived at the large showroom, which features Prestige’s full range of vehicles, she immediately picked out the limousine she wanted to impress her boss and the client.
“We feel if they come over, we get them. They just don’t leave until we have them,” Casteel says.
The showroom is a way to exhibit the rides offered in a glamorous setting and spotlight certain accessories to make the ride appear sexy, claims Casteel. “When people call for costs, we encourage them to come to the showroom,” he says. Casteel believes the showroom is a way to let customers see what they’re paying for before they make a commitment.
The showroom displays a white van with blue-and-silver stripes on the sides. It has circular seating for 11 and if the bar is removed and replaced with seating it fits 14. “Most people come in with their mind set on a limousine. They wouldn’t think to get a van. Sometimes, they’ll see the interior and decide on that.”
Because the prices per hour for the vehicles vary, Casteel prefers to get the customer to the showroom and to explain the different cars and amenities available. The prices range from $35 per hour to $100 per hour. Prestige has had the showroom location for about eight years.
Honing Business Skills
The development of the large showroom as a unique marketing tool seemed unlikely when Casteel first started. He learned to restore cars in college and when he graduated ended up with his 1954 Bentley. Chauffeuring was a hobby that he says took him over. “I didn’t depend on it for my livelihood. If it made money, great. If it didn’t make money, great,” he says.
His main business came from two operators — John Case from Classic Chauffeur and Don Valentine from American Limousine. Like all subcontracting situations, the key to its success was honesty. As a farmout, Casteel maintained the integrity of the company he was representing. This developed a mutual respect among the three businesses and eliminated the competitiveness that might otherwise have been destructive.
Owning his own business gave Casteel the freedom to run it the way he wanted. “I never really thought I would be in the limousine business; at least not to this degree,” he says. Casteel started with a Bentley Archive, an old Cadillac funeral car, and a 1977 Bradford Lincoln stretch.
“The first three years, [Case and Valentine] gave me 75% of my business. I think that’s been a real benefit to us, because if we have a 30-car job, I know who to call and they do too,” he says. When first starting up the business, Casteel struggled to apply basic business principles, such as budgeting for the cost of vehicle operation per hour. One thing he did know was how he wanted to treat his clients and employees. He wanted to be sure he had happy employees so all who treated themselves to a night out would recommend Prestige to their friends.
Now, Prestige grosses anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 per vehicle per month and the company operates 12 to 20 vehicles. In addition to the showroom, some of the reasons for Casteel’s success are his relations with other limousine companies in the area and with the community.
Personal Touch Boosts Revenue
Casteel’s advertising is done by word of mouth, networking, his showroom, and an ad in the yellow pages. He is a firm believer in person-to-person business tactics.
“Iwanted to be able to answer the phone full time and not have an answering machine,” he says. “Sometimes, I’d be logging during the day and driving a limousine at night.” When the business first opened, Casteel’s wife helped out by answering the phones while he was managing the logging business he had inherited from his father. Even now, Casteel tries to be around to answer the phone personally rather than have an answering machine. He also writes personalized thank you cards to all of his clients.
Also, Prestige hosts an annual Hospitality Industry Ball. The event is a night for hotel industry employees to relax. The doormen, bellmen, and concierge’s of local hotels are guests while often the owners and managers serve as waiters.
“We try to recognize the people who don’t get a lot of recognition otherwise. These are the people that send us a lot of business. The concierge and bellmen often ask a guest if transportation is needed while they’re in town. Sometimes that sentence is enough for someone to say yes,” he explains.
Casteel is a firm believer in being active in his community. He is on the board of the Portland Oregon Visitor’s Association and is a member of the Metropolitan Business Association, the Portland Chamber of Commerce, the Raphael House, which is a shelter for women and children, and many other community organizations. “It’s important to give financial support to your community, but it’s equally important to be actively involved,” he says.
High Morale Is Key
Casteel credits part of his success to maintaining high employee morale. Prestige’s employees arrive early and change at their own lockers. The chauffeur’s lounge is a place for them to read the entertainment section of the newspaper so they can be ready when the passenger asks what’s happening in town.
“We have never advertised or looked for help. We get the best people one could imagine and they just walk through the door,” he says. The showroom is eye-catching and attracts many of the potential employees.
Once he has the employees, he tries to establish some unity in the way they work by having meetings three or four times a year and giving them pep talks. They discuss one aspect of the business, like winter driving, in a classroom setting. “I try to be animated, but it always turns out to be a pep talk,” he says Casteel thinks this setting is most efficient when a couple of the well respected senior chauffeurs have a story that relates to a text book situation. It gives the teaching some meaning, he says.
Casteel also offers incentives to keep morale up. He might make a contest where awards are given to the chauffeur who has the most letters of commendation or brings the vehicle back the cleanest the most often. In another contest, the salesman who has the most sales wins a trip to the Limousine & Chauffeur Show. Most of the incentives are related to customer satisfaction and performance. “I have a stern belief that employees make or break the business. I try to talk to the chauffeurs before every job so I know who the client is so I don’t feel out of touch. I’m a little closer to my employees than others might be on a daily basis,” Casteel says.
Casteel also pays each chauffeur for an extra hour of work for every run. This gives them incentive to be on time and get everything set up for the client. If the chauffeur is late, he doesn’t receive the extra hour of pay.
Casteel guarantees the chauffeur is always on time for a job and always works to attain customer satisfaction. If the client is not satisfied, which rarely occurs, he offers whatever it takes to get the customer to recommend Prestige to their friends — a free night in the limousine, dinner, or both.
What the Future Holds
In the future, Casteel foresees the company with a growth in volume by 25% to 30.%. “We spent the past year and a half computerizing, delegating and building a plateau to jump off again,” Casteel explains. “I always try to do a better job with the same amount of resources. I think that’s called streamlining.”
Casteel offers advice to newcomers to the limousine industry. He says to approach it like a business with a plan, gather as much information as possible before getting into the business and don’t expect to make it right away. “I think there’s always opportunity. Stay close to your customers and write thank you notes. One thing I like about the limousine business is that a logger could do it.”