The founder of Pontarelli Companies leaves a legacy of quality transportation and brave service to his country.
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — BEST Transportation of St. Louis backs up its name with results that yield valuable lessons on how a limousine operation should run. The 13-year-old company has adapted to leading industry trends emerging over the last five years.
CEO Kim Garner and CFO Debbie Rudawsky, the third generation in a family that owns St. Louis County & Yellow Cab, and the first generation founders of BEST Transportation, can point to a clear five-year record of success:
In business, you can’t argue with numbers and results. So, naturally, a review of several key aspects of BEST’s operations shows how Garner and Rudawsky moved their company forward amid a recession, shifting client demands and evolving TNC regulations. Herewith, a textbook example of a family-owned transportation company in the American heartland, doing things right:
Chapter 1: Diverse Revenues
In 2014, 23% of annual revenues came from the GO BEST Express division and shared ride vans; 16% from contracted shuttle services in the BEST Shuttle Solutions division; 51% from chauffeured transportation, including 30% from mini-bus related business; and 10% farm-in/farm-out affiliate work, which the company plans to grow in 2015.
Overall revenues hit $5.1 million in 2012; $6.75 million in 2013; and more than $7 million in 2014.
A major boost occurred in 2013 when BEST landed its first contracted shuttle route for a parking company near St. Louis-Lambert International Airport. And while corporate clients are still its major source of revenue, BEST remains diversified with special events on weekends, such as wineries and weddings. That comprises about 15-20% of revenues.
“We try not to be too heavy in one segment,” says Garner, following a pillar of successful chauffeured transportation. Even within its corporate client base, BEST aims to diversify, serving such companies as: Monsanto, Express Scripts Holding Company, Medco, Boeing, Washington University, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and multiple major downtown hotels. “We said we never wanted to have too much in one specific sector. It’s a strategy we’ve used from the start.”
FAST FACTS: BEST Transportation of St. Louis/GO BEST Express
Chapter 2: Tiered Service
The year the Great Recession decimated the limousine industry, BEST immediately adjusted to the more frugal climate and demand for group transportation. The company started its GO BEST Express shuttle and rideshare division serving the airport and hotels. It is branded as part of the GO Airport Shuttle franchise network marketing co-op. “We wanted to be a good partner for the airport, hotels, visitors and convention attendees coming to St. Louis,” Rudawsky says. “This fit nicely into our business model. We get very good feedback from visitors, who e-mail us and tell us of great experiences with agents at airports and online payments.”
GO BEST Express landed a five-year contract with the airport in 2009, and after a rebid analysis this year, re-upped it for another five years until 2019. The shared shuttle rides leave the airport every 15 minutes for downtown locations, with customers able to arrange rides at GO BEST counters in airport terminals.
When GO BEST launched, Garner and Rudawsky pursued sales aggressively, signing up conventions for contract work. The service went from a single digit percentage revenue component to 23% in just five years. GO BEST also can drive business to BEST Transportation, especially among visiting clients who may want a private vehicle to go out in the evenings once checked into hotels.
Chapter 3: Fleet Vehicles
BEST was the first St. Louis area limousine company to buy the new 2013 Lincoln MKT Town Car. In the last two years, the model has succeeded in bad weather, and gotten support from chauffeurs on drivability, but cients have mixed opinions. They like the ride, but not the look, Garner says. So BEST now runs Chrysler 300 and Lincoln MKS sedans in addition to some regular Town Cars.
“We have five MKTs but won’t buy anymore,” she says. “We’re hoping Lincoln will come out with something bigger in 2016. In St. Louis, the traveler understands it’s no longer going to be a Town Car. As long as it is a high quality sedan, we’re not finding they ask for a specific vehicle.”
The 68-vehicle BEST fleet consists of one 1960 Bentley Rolls Royce; two Lincoln Town Car Tiffany stretch limousines; seven Ford Expedition SUVs; 15 Town Car, MKT, MKS and 300 sedans; 14 mini-coaches and buses (20-44 pass.); 18 14-passenger Van Terra Turtle Top and Starcraft mini-buses; and 11 2014 Ford Econoline vans (10-passengers plus luggage). By February, BEST plans to add more sedans and shuttles.
Chapter 4: Technology
Tablets: All BEST employees are tablet-based, using Samsung Galaxy devices equipped with Hudson Group software. The tablets are especially useful for filling out Department of Transportation compliance logs.
GPS: BEST is 98% integrated with GPS, enabling it to generate driving reports to better inform money-saving practices and track vehicles at all times. “If we are working with an affiliate, we can have chauffeur statuses sent to the affiliate,” Garner says.
Free apps: BEST also makes use of free apps, such as Keep Truckin (www.keeptruckin.com), an electronic logbook for drivers. Zello (www.zello.com) “walkie-talkie” app helps dispatchers communicate with chauffeurs instead of phoning.
YouTube: Chauffeurs and employees can access via their tablets a company YouTube channel for training videos if they need to refresh on a procedure or policy. Vehicles also contain manuals.
Mobile company app: BEST is taking a conservative approach to find the right solutions, since a mobile app is an expensive investment that must be updated and changed often. St. Louis County & Yellow Cab has a mobile app with 36,000 active accounts. About 112,000 fares have been dispatched since the app launched in January 2013. It soon will have a feature based on vehicle types, and BEST plans to adapt the platform for a BEST chauffeured transportation app by 3Q 2015.
Chapter 5: TNC Competition
BEST faces a more pleasant competitive environment with Transportation Network Companies than operators in most other cities. The St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission and a judge have ruled UberX and Lyft can only operate like taxicab services. They have appealed, and a hearing on the matter will be held in August by the judge who issued the order. Uber Black launched in October 2014 and adjusted its operations to meet local limousine regulations. The MTC held meetings with Uber Black and limousine companies that actually yielded more flexible rules for all parties, Garner says. Uber Black and limousine sedan services are no longer required to book advanced reservations, and can park the same distance from hotels. Clients can get a TNC vehicle or a limo sedan right away, with operators running on a level playing field.
“We saw that as a possible opportunity for us with those changes, and it’s been a good thing overall for all sedan companies in St. Louis,” Garner says. “We can take more reservations. I think St. Louis did a very good job to begin with and was very [conscientious] in working with sedan companies.”
Adds Rudawsky, “We still believe that people want a premium sedan with high-touch service and a regular salesperson, a phone number to call or email. We believe that will allow us to be competitive with Uber Black or anyone.”
For Garner and Rudawsky, the TNC solution is straightforward: UberX and Lyft should be regulated permanently as taxis. “In city after city they are determining UberX and Lyft are taxi companies,” Rudawsky says. “If local regulations govern the taxi industry, then those should apply to the [TNC] business model as well. We must protect the riding public with proper insurance, driver background checks, and vehicles that are inspected. We are not afraid of competition; we welcome it. It makes us better and we can exceed expectations for customers even more.”
Chapter 6: Marketing
At BEST, marketing boils down to cross-training employees, providing decent pay and full traditional benefits, instilling high levels of customer service, and then educating them on how all team members can market the company. “First and foremost, you must have good people on your team,” Garner says. “We spend a lot of time training chauffeurs, and cross-training to make sure all 150 team members are really engaged in the process. Everyone on the team is to be entrepreneurial and have a role in marketing. Every chauffeur has to be out there promoting the company. Everyone has business cards and phone numbers. So if there are 35 people on a bus, that’s an opportunity to market.”
BEST also employs seven salespeople, uses social media, and has a brand marketing manager who pursues all types of media coverage and promotions.
Chapter 7: Contracting
Garner and Rudawsky have achieved various certifications that net government and corporate contract transportation work. In the last five years, the company has gone through the rigorous approval process to become a U.S. Department of Defense certified contractor, and BEST is certified as a 100% woman-owned business that qualifies them for transportation contracts with minority supplier requirements.
“One of the things about being women-owned and DBE certified is that a certain percentage of business must go to diverse suppliers to count toward diversity goals,” Garner says. “In contracts we go after, in our selling, and anytime we are talking to a company, that’s a check mark to our advantage. It’s not the only reason, since you still need to have good service, but it helps to bring that up.”
Chapter 8: Operations
Garner and Rudawsky thrive on complementary skills. Garner has a sales, marketing and operations background and supervises daily operations, while Rudawsky is the CFO-CPA accountant brain behind the numbers, finances, HR, payroll and billing. Rudawsky also serves as CFO of the family taxicab company, founded by the sister’s grandfather 80 years ago, while her husband, Basil, works as President. The sisters started BEST Transportation in 2002 to extend their transportation business into chauffeured service, and to pursue the challenge of sales.
With offices 10 minutes apart, Garner and Rudawsky e-mail and talk daily, and meet regularly with managers. “There’s a difference in skill sets and we’re different people,” Rudawsky says. “We work well together. Where I fall short, Kim excels, and vice-versa.”
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