Keeping It All in the Family

LCT Staff
Posted on January 1, 2004

The year was 1923 and Wilner’s Taxi, a taxicab company in Perth Amboy, N.J., opened its doors. Owner Alex Wilner started with one Packard four-door car with jump seats, commonly referred to as a limousine, and two employees, he and his wife Sade.

He quickly found a niche in providing chauffeured service for the funeral industry. By the late 1920s, he had a handful of limousines and had developed one of the industry’s first flower cars.

Wilner’s Taxi has in the decades since evolved into A. Harrington Limousine Service in Edison, N.J. It still has a strong niche in the funeral industry but has otherwise changed tremendously.

The fleet now consists of 15 hearses, 10 flower cars, 30 stretches, three minibuses, three SUVs and three convertibles used for parades. Alex’s son, David Wilner, runs the company as president and his son, Jonathan Wilner, is vice president.

About 60% of business is funeral, and the remainder is corporate or retail limousine service. A. Harrington and its subsidiary, Staten Island (N.Y.) Funeral and Limousine Service, average about 20 funerals a day of all religious denominations. The Staten Island operation only does funeral service with a very occasional wedding.

The company’s stake in the funeral industry has been a mainstay through the years, something David and Jonathan work hard to maintain. They advertise in The Forum, a New Jersey funeral directors’ publication, and every year have a booth at the New Jersey Funeral Directors Convention in Atlantic City.

Despite the majority of work coming from funerals, David says corporate work continually grows for A. Harrington. He attributes the growth to nurturing loyal clients, good word-of-mouth, and to the fact that the company’s facility is well visible on a main street.

Before David started managing the company in 1968, he spent 20 years as a Harrington chauffeur. He also did everything from servicing and washing vehicles to paperwork and payroll. He now runs a company with 22 employees and between 70 and 80 part- and full-time chauffeurs.

Family and business are always mixing. “My son and I are always connected, not only to each other, but to the office,” David says. “We are never unavailable. I don’t care if it’s a customer, or driver or whoever needs us.” Even David’s wife and daughter-in-law have filled in as chauffeurs. The business is part of the territory when joining the Wilner family.

For son Jonathan, the close-knit family gives the company an advantage. “The buck stops here,” Jonathan says. “We’re hands on. Even my wife comes and helps.” For large operators, “that personal touch is just not there.”

The Wilners are proud of maintaining high standards. David, who says he was a founder and first president of what has become the Limousine Associations of New Jersey, insists on a professional image. “I’m very demanding and my staff will tell you that,” he says. “But it pays off. We have never had to lay anybody off, even after 9/11.”

Cleanliness and punctuality are also at the top of David’s list. A reverse wake-up call, which forces chauffeurs to call the office to say they’re awake and getting ready for the first job of the day, helps to ensure they will be on time.

“And as we put it, that’s ‘Wilner time,’” David says. “That means showing up 15 minutes early. It puts [clients] at ease.”

The Wilners also pride themselves on keeping their fleet current. The company will take delivery on 15 2004 Lincoln Town Car sedans this month; other vehicles in the fleet are 2002s and 2003s.

All of Harrington’s chauffeurs are trained for funerals or corporate and retail work. However, David notes that special training goes into preparing a chauffeur for funerals. New chauffeurs ride with trained chauffeurs on different religious funerals to learn the procedures of each.

David also points out that the funeral business is extremely conservative. This means chauffeurs must be extremely neat in their appearance, including conservative haircuts. A funeral chauffeur is not just a driver but more like an assistant in the funeral process, whether that involves carrying the casket or helping the bereaved in any way he can.

And the cars must be of a different type, not like the typical stretch party limousine. “We use six-door funeral cars with a center seat that goes both ways because some families now want to face each other while they’re in the car,” David says.

And even though he has been running the company for 50 years, David says he still gets to the office before 5:30 a.m.

“This is my life, 24-7, 365 days. If you want to be in this business, you have to love what you do, it has to be in your blood.”

Related Topics: family businesses, operator profiles

LCT Staff LCT Staff
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