The annual Limousine Association of New Jersey fundraiser has long served as a role model for industry togetherness.
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Among big-city limousine operators, Neil Goodman belongs in that exclusive club whose members can say with confidence they have seen it all.
With about four decades in Miami, three decades in the limousine business, and more than two decades running a company, Goodman, the owner and founder of Aventura Worldwide Transportation, can speak with authority on all aspects of chauffeured service. That would be a bit much for one interview, so LCT Magazine recently asked him about some themes in this issue, such as fleet vehicles, management, regulations and leadership. Yet despite all his experience, Goodman and his company are seeing the toughest challenge to date of his career: Uber and the growth of transportation network companies (TNCs).
In the interview, Goodman candidly discussed managing a luxury fleet in a vibrant metro region that has become an international business, tourism, finance and real estate capital for the Americas and beyond.
Goodman relocated to Miami in 1972 from New Jersey, trying to find a job in the insurance and mutual fund business. While searching for a job, he got a job as a valet car runner and chauffeur at a private club called the Jockey Club. In 1991, Goodman was offered the opportunity to take over the transportation department of a private club called Turnberry Isle in Aventura, Fla. near Miami. The owners asked him if he had the resources to start up a new company. Knowing he had no resources and no affiliation with local operators, Goodman took a chance and borrowed $50,000 from a client and friend, bought his first two stretches, and cut a deal to rent six Lincoln Town Cars. The rest is industry legend, as Goodman and his executives now run one of the largest chauffeured and charter bus transportation services in South Florida.
Q: What attributes first attracted you to the limousine business?
A: Not being able to settle in with the insurance company I transferred with, and on the verge of returning to New Jersey broke and alone, a friend referred me to an exclusive private club in Miami as a valet runner, fetching rich people’s cars and driving them in a factory Cadillac Limo (with jump seats) to the AP, or shopping. I immediately fell in love with being a chauffeur, the independence, the different, interesting people I was meeting, the stress-free life, and the money I was earning — for just driving and being nice to people! To this day, being a professional chauffeur is still the best job in the world, and those days are still the happiest I’ve ever been!
Q: What about limousine operations management was easier when you started in 1991 versus now, and what is easier now versus then?
A: In 1991, I was still driving clients, washing cars, doing tune ups, reservations, dispatching, billing, accounting…..yes, like most new owners, doing it all. In 1991, there was very little competition, if any. We actually waited for the phone to ring, and it did! Today, the competition is ruthless. Companies here, like everywhere in the country, are constantly undercutting the fair rate you offer. Everyone has the choice of either selling their service cheap, or “standing tall” and being proud of what you offer your clients. 1991 also happened to be the first year I was introduced to the “computer age.” I was still logging reservations into a huge daily binder, and color coding trips that were completed, handing drivers their trips on a handwritten sheet, typing bills on my Remington typewriter, and needing the best, newest calculator and beeper service money could buy. I met Jerry Henning at an LCT Show, saw what the rest of the country was doing, and immediately purchased my first software program, Limo Magic. Doing business and being automated obviously has never been the same since. Most important in today’s world of business, any successful business has good people, people who are much smarter than you. My son, Scott [Tinkler], who I brought into the business eight years ago, has taken so much off of my shoulders. It’s inconceivable what I would do without him. Our CFO, Ron Sorci, is without a doubt the best financial professional I have ever seen. If you’re happy with a smaller type operation, you can do it all, but if you must grow in size, it’s virtually impossible without great people like Scott and Ron.
Title: Owner/COO, Aventura
Residence: Aventura, Fla.
Family: wife, Toni; daughter, 34; son, 44; two grandsons, ages 13 and 11
Education: Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison N.J.
Industry association roles: Vice Chairperson of LAG (Limousine Advisory Group of Dade County; Vice Chair of SFLA (South Florida Limo Association); Board of Directors of FRLA (Florida Restaurant Lodging Association)
Awards/accomplishments: LCT Operator of The Year Award, 51-plus fleet category, 2008.
Hobbies/interests: Golf (Pros play it, I play at it), time with my grandsons (my first loves) , shopping (shoes/watches), Miami Heat season ticket holder (same seats for 28 years, rarely miss a game).
Q: With the Lincoln Town Car L receding into the past, what do you consider the ideal, specific fleet vehicle mix to meet today’s client demand?
A: Since 2012, we have tried a mix of different types of replacement cars, ranging from the Lincoln MKT, Cadillac XTS, and most recently, Mercedes-Benz E Class vehicles. We have tried to stay in that $40,000-$45,000 range when we purchase new sedans. We have seen that most of our clientele like the Cadillacs more than the others. Negative feedback about the MKT is that the car resembles an SUV, and the E Class simply does not have enough legroom or trunk space suitable for their needs. Cadillacs are of course more expensive to maintain and seem not to have the durability of the MKTs or the E-Class. We would love to have a fleet of BMW 740s, or Audi 8Ls, but cost is a determining factor when buying them new. We do run four S-550s, and one Jaguar XJL, along with a new Audi 8L, but having a “fleet” of them is simply cost prohibitive right now.
Q: How do client demand and performance of your bus division compare to the chauffeured transportation division?
A: Being that we service many five-star hotels in the city, the demand for motorcoaches far outweighs the supply. The motorcoach business in Miami is confusing, very strange. There are many coach operations that we compete with, and rates are challenging to say the least. You can get a $475,000 motorcoach in Miami, per hour, for less money than what you would pay for a stretch limousine per hour. It amazes me what a motorcoach would cost in most other cities around the country, and I cannot understand why Miami cannot demand the same type of rates as other cities. But the fact remains that we are sold out almost every day with our coaches — in most instances, months in advance.
Q: What has been the most challenging task or experience of your limousine industry career?
A: Without question, it has been the upstart of the TNC industry, both locally and nationwide. We have always been up to the challenge of competition. Competition makes you work harder and smarter, always trying to get the “edge” on your competitor. But with the likes of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, the rules of competing are thrown out the window. It is simply unfair in every aspect. Miami may be a little different in regards to licensing and permitting than other cities around the country. In Miami, every single vehicle needs a separate permit/medallion. We have spent many years, acquiring these permits, and a big part of the value of our company depends on the value of our permits. I don’t believe much business for us will be lost to Uber or Lyft, however, Miami has been a closed market, and there have been zero new permits issued during the past 10-plus years. There has been positive movement recently regarding growth, and 300 new permits will be available this year for allotment. That number however is nowhere near enough for the likes of Uber and Lyft as they continue to push for complete deregulation in Miami. After being defeated in Miami Dade last November, they immediately went to the state capital and bought off a couple of state senators and representatives. They pushed hard for the state to control and regulate local transportation companies here in Miami. Due to our hard and expensive work with our lobbyists, they were defeated again, this time on the state level. But just this past month, they both decided the hell with the lawmakers, and they both launched their operations in Miami without regard to any laws. Citations and impoundments don’t scare them, and if they have to spend $30 million in every city that rejects them, they will! We welcome the competition to our city, but only want them to play by the same rules and regulations we play by.
Q: What insights have you gained in handling the complex wage and labor issues that have faced chauffeured transportation companies?
A: Interesting question, because prior to the Transportation Network Company (TNC) issues, I would have said our issues dealing with the Federal Labor Standards Act would have been the single biggest challenge we were ever faced with. In the world of “you can sue anyone,” our struggles during the past seven to eight years are well documented with our close associates and friends. During the recession, when our President was telling the world not to go to cities like Miami or Las Vegas, Florida’s unemployment was almost 15%, business slowed, and independent operators (IOs) were looking for a big, quick payday. That added to a climate of unscrupulous attorneys who were promising these IOs they’d be able to retire if they sued us. We were a disaster waiting to happen. Mind you that I grew up in the business of IOs. I did not know any different. Almost everyone else I knew in the business was paying their [chauffeurs] the same way. We had a full blown IRS audit in 2000, and we were told we were doing everything right. We’ve been through workers compensation and unemployment audits, and again, were given the green light to continue to pay our chauffeurs as IOs. I learned very quickly, however, that the DOL has a totally different definition of an IO, and all the letters of approval from the different governmental agencies did not mean a thing. Had we been told to change our model, we would have done so immediately. Fast forward to 2014, and with much less money to show for our years of hard work, we have converted our chauffeurs to employees, and they receive all benefits that employees receive. The funny thing is that in most of the lawsuits we settled, it was the attorneys that ended up with the bulk of the settlement. The IOs who sued us ended up with very little, and had difficulty finding another driving job. (News travels fast in our city). Many of these IOs called me later on to apologize for suing us, and wanted very badly to file suit against their lawyer who represented them for malpractice.
Q: Which laws, either federal or state, need to be changed for the benefit of the chauffeured transportation industry?
A: I believe that as the years have gone by, each city, each municipality keeps asking for more pieces of the pie. In certain areas of South Florida, you need a permit to operate in their respective city, and their municipality, and another one even for their main shopping areas. The blind spots are dangerous on our windshields because of all the decals and permits. Our cars look like they belong on a used car lot. They all think we all make millions because of the image our industry projects, but they fail to realize we’re not the passengers in the back; we are the hard workers in the driver’s seat.
Q: Which business figures and resources are your best models for leadership?
A: Easy question. There is no way I could have ever succeeded or for that matter still be in the business without my wife Toni. The countless nights she answered the phones with me at all hours, the beauty and class she brings with me at the many hundreds of events we attended throughout the years have been priceless. It takes a very special spouse to live and share this type of career, and no one could ever make it without having that special type of partner.
There also have been many mentors, so many people I have asked for advice. One of the first people I met in the business was Harold Berkman [Music Express], who taught me many things, the most important being you have to give if you expect to receive. The many foundations and charities we partner with throughout the year have proven over and over that Harold’s advice was the best. In today’s industry, it’s the Cheryl Berkmans of the world, the Dawson Rutters, the Bijan Zoughis who are the leaders, and so many more I could mention. In the beginning, it was the David Kleins, the Alan Fishers, and the Charlie Horkys who helped jump start my company. Last but certainly not least was the late, great Tommy Mazza, who knew more about the luxury chauffeured business than I could ever learn in a lifetime. Tommy asked me to join a group called LEG around 10 years ago. LEG is comprised of about 15 transportation companies around the nation, from East to West, from North to South (including Canada). We meet as a group three to four times a year in different cities to share and exchange ideas and concepts. All 15 companies are successful, and have history and staying power. They are in my mind, the brightest and most innovative minds in the business, without a doubt.
If I could give any advice to anyone in our business, either to a veteran or a newcomer, it would be to pick up the phone, and call anyone of the hundreds of successful people in our industry for advice…..because they will be happy to give it to you.
Q: What will chauffeured transportation companies of the future look like, in terms of vehicles, operations, and structure?
A: A loaded question for sure! Petroleum cars that get 75 mpg, driverless cars, cars that can get airborne? Are you kidding? If you would have told me 20 years ago about Teslas, I would have thought you were crazy, so I’ve learned never to say never.
The age of “I want it, and I want it now” has arrived, and I know we either join or go down. Sara’s Publisher’s Page in the June issue was right on….it’s not smart to focus on Uber. Everything they do can be replicated, but even better because we are in the business and they are not.
Q: What business sectors and/or industries will be spurring client growth for chauffeured transportation companies?
A: Tough question. There is no easy or quick answer as whatever new or original thoughts you may have, have already been tried. Forming alliances, keeping your brand while protecting your client list are essential. Many operators already are using apps that are as good as or better than those of Uber and Lyft. Start relationships with them, spend whatever you need to (it’s cheaper and quicker than starting your own). Here at Aventura, we have already started forming an alliance with a competitor that is ready to launch their own new app. I see ourselves partnering with them in the very near future, which in turn will help develop new sales for us, and improve and secure our relationships with our hotels and DMCs. We also have purchased a small fleet of MV-1 vehicles, which will afford our handicapped clients to go out for the evening or be chauffeured around during the day, in comfort and luxury. In Miami, there are STS (Special Transport Service) companies, but none of them offer a vehicle that has the same amenities as a luxury sedan or a stretch limo. With some good marketing on our part, and word of mouth, we will be able to expand this type of service to South Florida.
Q: How did you choose Miami as your place to settle?
A: Living and selling insurance in New Jersey, shoveling my car out from snow drifts every day in the winter, driving icy roads, to and from work each day in the winter, I asked for a transfer to a city where it would be warm all year long.
Q: What changes have you observed running a limousine service in South Florida?
A: I was able to run a transportation service in South Florida, both in the years when Miami was still considered the Deep South, when there was no South Beach, when the tallest building in the city was maybe 25 stories high. And then being here 40 years later, to see and experience the resurgence, and the growth of a great city, becoming one of the best destination cities in the world. It is something I am proud to have been a part of.
Q: What have been the most rewarding experiences of working in limousine service?
A: I am a service-oriented person, and the greatest compliment anyone could give me is that they loved the car, loved the driver. Checks are great, they pay the bills, but the letters on my wall are my true treasures. I have also been able to provide my family with good lives, and a decent lifestyle that I would most likely not be able to afford doing anything else. I have been able to meet and befriend many types of people, from Presidents of Fortune 500 companies to celebrities to high profile athletes, and experience from the “inside” many moments of celebration and exhalations. I was given three Miami Heat Championship rings (one more then LeBron!) and I feel proud that I am considered part of the “Heat Family.” The relationships and friendships I have formed, with the many great owners and operators around the country are priceless. My best, closest friends in my life are other owners throughout the nation. I have always said, I would do it all over again if I had to. What else would I do? I’m too old to start training for the Olympics!
Aventura Worldwide Transportation Services
Location: Aventura, Fla.
Service region: South Florida (Miami-Dade,Broward,Palm Beach)
Owner: Neil Goodman
Fleet vehicles: 90
Vehicle types/brands: Lincoln MKT stretch limousines, Chevrolet Suburban and Cadillac Escalade SUVs; Lincoln MKT, Cadillac XTS, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans; Mercedes-Benz S550, Audi A8L and Jaguar XJL luxury sedans; Krystal, Tiffany Freightliner mini-coaches; Krystal custom vans; 60-passenger Van Hool motorcoaches; MV-1 paratransit vehicles.
Key executives/managers: Scott Tinkler, CEO; Toni Goodman, Exec. VP; Ron Sorci, CFO
Est. annual revenues: N/A
Client ratio: 50% corporate; 50% leisure/retail
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