In 1970, business was slow for electricians, or “juicers,” at the Hollywood studios, prompting Don Grabowski to buy his own limousine after first taking part-time work with various limousine companies. Today, as president of Starlite Limousine Service in Sherman Oaks, California, Grabowski commands a fleet of 35 vehicles; stretches, formals, sedans and minivans, in a 24-hour-a-day operation. According to Grabowski, “I think we’re about the biggest in Los Angeles, in fact the whole West Coast.
Spawned by the recording industry, particularly rock stars, as clients, Starlite grew with great leaps and bounds in the last decade and now finds itself enjoying the fruits of its labors. What goes into building a successful operation in one of the most competitive limousine markets in the country? Maintenance programs, careful hiring of chauffeurs and prompt and reliable service are the keys.
“We have a weekly (maintenance) record that we keep track of,” Grabowski explained. “Also, our maintenance man keeps the same records. Our maintenance man is in an outside garage and we’re his largest customer, spending $20,000 a month.”
And that figure does not include any body work on the limousines. “That’s additional. We have a body shop for that,” Grabowski said.
“We have a regular schedule of what every car needs every 3,000 miles. Then every Monday, or on Sunday, we check the mileage of every car, write it down and we see what group of servicing the different cars need,” he said.
“When I had three and four cars, I didn’t want any breakdowns, so I made up a maintenance schedule from what I could learn, from the Cadillac people. I made my schedule even stricter than theirs because I didn’t want to have a belt breaking in the middle of a run,” he explained.
“I decided to change all the hoses and all the belts every 30,000 miles whether they needed it or not. Who wants to be going over a canyon and have a water hose break?”
Engine maintenance isn’t the only concern Grabowski occupies himself with on a regular schedule. Care for the interior of the vehicles, particularly the passenger compartment, is of more than passing interest to him.
Cigarette burns in the upholstery, the replacing of carpeting, complete reupholstering when necessary, as well as the reinforcing of the springs in the back seats are looked upon with a careful eye. “Every day we have one of our cars polished, with rugs and upholstery shampooed when necessary, vinyl tops detailed and the leather cared for.” Each car sees this comprehensive attention about once a month, he said.
A well-tuned limousine is incomplete without the right person behind the wheel. Finding the employee that will fit into one’s corporate structure takes time, but it is well worth that time spent in screening prospective chauffeurs. “We find that you get your best chauffeurs by being careful when you first hire them. You don’t just hire anybody. You use good judgment in hiring people and the results are usually better. “Our new chauffeurs are on a 90-day probationary period. Once they pass the 90 days, we figure we’re willing to keep them. If we don’t feel they measure up to what we want, we’ll let them go even before the 90 days are up. There’s no point in wasting time with it,” Grabowski explained.
“We run a tight ship, we’re very strict. A chauffeur cannot go to the car wash in the morning not dressed in uniform and ready to go to work. If we page him on the way to the car wash and he says, ‘Oh, I left my suit at home,’ no way. He has got to be in uniform. He’s got to be ready. As long as he’s manning the car, he has got to be ready to go on a moment’s notice.”
The difference between a chauffeur and just a driver has been discussed many times. Grabowski feels the difference is in one’s attitude and level of professionalism.
“It’s the service they render the client. They have to act like a chauffeur; they have to be willing to open doors, to go out of their way to give them service because this is a service business.”
Starlite issues a handbook to its chauffeurs, outlining what is expected of them. “When we hire chauffeurs, we would rather hire one who’s experienced, who has worked for other companies. Then we can tell them what we expect of them.
“Our senior chauffeurs make between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. We’ve had some here since 1977 and 1978. Our highest turnover is among the new chauffeurs who haven’t been here that long. But once they become senior chauffeurs, they stay because we have company benefits. They get an increase in salary every year. The longer they’re here the more they make per hour. This is good for us because we get to keep our experienced chauffeurs.”
Starlite chauffeurs work four days consecutively and rest two days. When chauffeurs turn in their limousines after their four days, the incoming shift chooses which limousines they wish to drive. First choice is made by the employee with the most seniority. During their four-day tour of duty, chauffeurs are on call 24 hours a day, Grabowski said. However, they are not worked to the point of exhaustion. “We make sure they get enough sleep at night. Somebody that drops (a client) after midnight is not going to get up at five in the morning. We’re going to give the early morning orders to the drivers who dropped early in the evening. So it’s like rotation.”
Grabowski imposes rules on employees the same as any other service-oriented business. “I don’t allow my chauffeurs to smoke in the limousines. If they’re caught smoking in the limousine, whether a passenger is in the limousine or not, it’s an automatic two-week suspension for the first offense.”
In order to expedite efficiency at congested Los Angeles International Airport, Starlite uses two representatives who meet passengers at the gate. “The chauffeurs don’t go up to the gate,” Grabowski outlined. “When the representative has met the passenger, walked him down and helped him with his luggage, he then will call the limousine using his two-way radio. It will be there by the time he and the passenger get downstairs.”
Dependability, especially for a client obtained through referral, plays an important part in attracting repeat business. Most of Starlite’s referrals come from fellow members of Limousine Operators International. “We’re the LOI company in Los Angeles. We get numerous referrals because we give a good deal of referrals to the rest of the organization,” Grabowski said. “We get thousands of dollars worth of business every month from the rest of the group.”
Out-of-town referrals are welcome business, but the daily bread-and-butter comes from steady clients who have used Starlite and keep coming back for more.
“The most important accounts are the corporate accounts and management companies who have entertainers as clients. We have a public relations person to present ourselves to clients as well as drum-up new business,” he said. “Clients know what they’re getting here. They know they can depend on us. They know that if they want a limousine at 6:15 in the morning that it will be there at 6:15.”
Each piece of rolling stock is equipped with a two-way radio monitoring two frequencies. One transmitter sits atop Mount Wilson and one atop Mount Lukens, both situated north of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains.
“If a limousine is near an area where Mount Wilson is better, we use that frequency. Mount Lukens is good for the San Fernando Valley and Wilson is good for Beverly Hills, Century City and Santa Monica. Farther south, either one is good for Orange County. Our radios will reach Santa Barbara as well,” Grabowski said.
As most operators are finding, limousine service continues to thrive and prosper. In Grabowski’s words, “People in industry are using limousines more now as a necessity rather than as just something to show off. It’s a business tool.”