This year Limousine and Chauffeur magazine held its first Operator of the Year Competition to recognize an operator who has made a significant contribution to the livery industry not only through management of his own business, but also involvement in issues facing all limousine operators.
The winner, Stephen W. Spencer of London Towncars, has made his mark on the industry during his 30 years in business. Tall and soft-spoken, Spencer is keenly sensitive to his New York market and works with regulating agencies as they develop legislation affecting the livery industry.
Spencer’s management ability was evident from the time he took over London Towncars, which was begun in 1959 by three of his friends. The group had originally planned to use only London taxicabs in its business, but Spencer found that giving customers what they wanted made the company flourish.
“When we started, our English cabs were the only small cars you could rent with a chauffeur in New York City,” says Spencer. “We had three London taxicabs and a Bentley sedan.
“Our first corporate account was TWA, which asked us how many limousines we had,” Spencer continued, “so, in March of 1960, I added six Cadillac limousines to the fleet, because we needed them to get corporate accounts.”
But limousines were not always popular in New York. “Limousines were used primarily for weddings and funerals,” Spencer says. “Some people had private limousines. Within one or two years of starting the business we added sedans to the fleet because we saw that people who used the London cabs wanted something more substantial, but not a limousine.”
Today, 70 percent of London Towncars’ business is with sedans. The fleet consists of Fleetwood formals and Buick sedans and station wagons. By adapting to the needs of his customers, Spencer has increased his fleet from the original four cars to 125 vehicles.
Spencer attributes the success of London Towncars to the diligence with which the company built its clientele. “Because of my airline connections, I got limousine work immediately,” he says. “You have to have a clientele and build slowly before expanding your fleet.”
Occasionally, unexpected opportunities enabled Spencer to increase his business during its early years. “The first weekend that I took over the business, there was a snowstorm,” Spencer explains. “We had spent the weekend mailing brochures and they were delivered Monday when Mayor Lindsay closed the city to all traffic except for-hire vehicles. We got a rash of calls that first week.”
Besides managing his own business, Spencer became involved in issues affecting the industry. During the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, a committee was organized to investigate regulation of medallion taxis. The result was the Taxi and Limousine Commission which went to work in 1971, replacing the Police Department Hack Bureau. The city council had wanted to take regulation of private business out of the Police Department and place it in the hands of a non-political independent commission. This commission would establish an overall public transportation policy governing taxi, limousine, car, and wheelchair-accessible van service. It would also establish certain rates and standards.
“When we learned the city council had
authorized the formation of the T&LC, I organized the Association of Private Limousine Services and hired an attorney,” he remembers. “Originally the commission was just for medallion taxis, but the advisory committee recommended at the last minute that limos be added. It took the administration a long time to figure out what the rules would be. We were consulted by the various officials designated to draw the rules. We did not always agree, but we had some influence in how the rules were written.”
Spencer feels that he can talk to the members of the T&LC and notes that often, communication between the commission and operators is hindered because operators are confused about which agencies which regulations. “Some rules are not T&LC rules; they are New York City rules or the Department of Finance regulations,” he says.
Perhaps Spencer communicates well because he takes advantage of the opportunities for it, in his business as well as in the industry. Technology has provided his company with many ways to improve communication and service. His was one of the first companies to use two-way radios in its cars. Today, a computer helps him run the business. It is a necessity in a company that owns 125 cars, employs 220 chauffeurs, and receives 200 to 400 calls a day.
“We’ve had a computer system for about 10 years. We started with state-of-the-art equipment, which quickly became obsolete, and has had to be updated ever since,” he says. “It does everything — reservations, the billing, the rate sheet, tying in reservations with the driver, who can just push a button in his car to put information into the computer. It reduces radio talk by 80 percent and it leaves a permanent record of what the cars do. The dispatcher can look at the screen and immediately see the status of the fleet.”
After 30 years of business, Spencer has learned much about the industry and advises new operators to plan their growth carefully. “My advice is to try to plan beyond the purchase of a vehicle and see what the market is. Don’t jump in with both feet,” he cautions. “In New York, there have been fellows who bought 10 limousines and an ad in the phone book and thought they were in business. But it’s important to build slowly. Also, you have to be insured for at least $1.5 million — any less is a dangerous risk.”
New companies have some benefits not available to Spencer when he took over London Towncars. While there are many regulations to be learned and followed, there is help available from the regulating agencies. In addition, national, state, and local associations provide information, legal advice, and professional support.
“When we first started, there was no one to tell us how to do it,” Spencer says. “We had to call the DMV to find out what we were.
“Most businesses fail because of the lack of working capital,” Spencer continues. “In our case, it was a matter of five to six years of real sweat before the company was profitable.”
The “sweat” has paid off, not only in a successful business, but also in being recognized as Operator of the Year. “I am honored to be recognized by people in the industry,” Spencer says. “I am gratified and surprised.”
As Operator of the Year, Spencer will receive the following prizes: a Panasonic 10-inch color television with remote from Allen Coachworks, a VCR from Royale Limousine, a set of Michelin 225 limousine tires from Lakeview Custom Coach, a $100 gift certificate from Dornan Uniforms, an executive desk set from Dillinger/Gaines, photo business cards from Create-A-Card, and a 1/8-page ad in the Official Airline Guide Travel Planner. In addition, donations of $500 each have been made in Spencer’s name to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Starlight Foundation. Both foundations grant wishes to critically and terminally ill children.