Money raised will go toward producing a retreat and other causes the group advocates.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — In a business that demands constant dedication, attention and insane hours, Shanna Swartzendruber, owner of Xquisite Limo in Cedar Rapids, Iowa has an even tougher workflow than the average operator.
Because of the tremendous costs of medical appointments and medications, Shanna maintains her 9-to-5 job as a Hertz rental agent for the medical insurance provided in addition to running the limousine business. She and her husband, Lore, also manage a mobile home park for additional income. As if all this wasn’t enough, the Swartzendrubers have a one-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.
A typical day
During the LCT phone interview, Shanna was overheard ordering a Miller Lite beer at the end of a hectic day. Meanwhile, her kids screamed in the background while Lore tended to them while also answering questions with Shanna. Shanna no longer drives for safety reasons, so Lore takes her to Hertz each day, a job Shanna has held for more than a decade. Lore also administers a syringe injection every other day, in addition to the assortment of 25-plus pills Shanna takes daily. It is unlikely she would pass a DOT drug screen with such a medication regimen.
Their fleet of five vehicles, which includes limousines, Lincoln Town Cars, and a Ford Excursion, is driven by five part-time chauffeurs and Lore. The couple shops for groceries together, with one pushing a cart for business purchases and the other pushing a cart for personal groceries. They run their company from home.
The couple uses cell phones to conduct their business and forward calls to each other based on availability, but they strive to answer the phone live 24/7 despite the fact that only the two of them conduct business transactions and manage the daily operations. Screaming children can cause one or the other to have to duck out of a room just to find silence while taking an order or conducting business.
The company performs 80% corporate work and 20% retail work, so the number of calls received after business hours are minimal. Shanna enjoyed working as a chauffeur until having a bad episode one day last year, resulting in dizziness and a loss of balance. Disappointed, she knew it was time to hang up the chauffeur’s hat for good.
Surprisingly, when the Swartzendrubers bought their first limousine, they did not intend to start a business. Seven years ago, Lore bought a used limousine purely for fun and to drive it around in what Shanna refers to as a “crazy time” in their life. The limousine was the family car before Lore decided to pay the $50 annual fee the city of Cedar Rapids charges for an operating license.
Living with MS can be mentally and physical challenging and exhausting. The medication causes Shanna to have memory problems and lapses so she relies on hundreds of notes she makes for herself and for Lore to read so that nothing falls through the cracks. That’s important given the rigors and details of running a 24/7 business.
In 2009, Shanna was hospitalized for six days, leaving Lore to care for the businesses, a toddler, and to check after Shanna. On “bad” days, Shanna uses a cane to help her walk. Her balance control is affected, so Shanna describes frequently “smashing into walls on the way to the bathroom.” Despite the seriousness of this condition, she laughs it off. She relishes comments from her Hertz co-workers that say they are eager for her to get a “Hoveround” so they can stretch it for her. Shanna does not take offense to these types of jokes but readily accepts the reality.
When asked about the future of Xquisite Limo, Shanna says, “Being diagnosed with MS doesn’t have to a be a stopping point in your life. In fact, having any disease should not be a stopping point.” When first diagnosed, Shanna says she thought it was the end of the world. The couple added their first bus to the fleet in March and plan to continue growing the business. While Shanna doesn’t ever see herself leaving Hertz because of the medical insurance and the fact that she has a “pre-existing condition,” she plans to grow the business as much as she can. The long term plan includes handing it over to her children, described by Shanna as “cute, loud and obnoxious.”
This insures they will have jobs and a secure future. Shanna says that most people believe that limo operators are rich but in reality, “We are buried in loans.” Their plan is to build a solid financial infrastructure while the kids are growing up so the kids can some day take over a solid company.
SIDEBAR: Running A Fleet & A Family
An Orange County, Calif., couple share duties of running their chauffeured transportation business while taking care of their 14-year-old autistic child and three other children.
At the age of 18 months, Bryan Tosti was diagnosed with autism. His parents, Marco and Yvonne Tosti, say they are grateful for being in the livery industry and work from home. It allows both parents to help in either child care or taking care of business matters.
The Tostis operate Excel Fleet, Inc. from their home in Fullerton, Calif. Yvonne, vice president of operations, refers to their system for managing their four kids and the business as “tag teaming” in everything they do. In addition to Bryan, the Tostis have twin 12-year-olds and an 8-year-old son.
Juggling kids and limos
Bryan and his siblings attend school each day from 7:20 a.m. to 4 p.m., which gives the Tostis a short break each day. While Marco is not a primary chauffeur for the company, he spends two to three days a week behind the wheel. He also shops for supplies each week while Yvonne handles reservation duties.
On occasion, Bryan will have an outburst while a reservation is being taken, presenting a challenge as both the client on the phone and Bryan need immediate attention. Yvonne says that Bryan recognizes commands such as a finger pointing out of the room to direct him to leave the room as he doesn’t understand when she is on a business call. However, sometimes it is necessary to place a caller on hold to deal with Bryan. That is just a part of life, Yvonne says.
Strong business start
Marco has been in the business for 24 years, with Yvonne gaining life in the limousine business through marriage. Marco bought his first sedan at the age of 19. “It was just something he wanted to do,” Yvonne says. Once he got started, he decided to add a limousine to the fleet. Over the years, the business has grown to a fleet of 10 vehicles, including vans, SUVs, limousines and Lincoln Town Cars. Yvonne says the clients served include an equal mix of business and retail. Marco has plenty of requests from corporate clients for him to personally drive because of his early start-up years with the same clients.
Time at a premium
Bryan requires speech and occupational therapy. Fortunately, Bryan receives many services from state agencies. The programs are government funded the same as schools. The constant care of Bryan and the lack of any help in the office keeps the Tostis busy.
“Let’s just say, it has been a very long time since we have had any kind of a family vacation,” Yvonne says. The closest thing to a vacation for the Tostis is attending the annual International LCT Show in Las Vegas. Yvonne’s parents step in to run the company during the show, but Marco and Yvonne travel with a laptop connected to the Internet and telephone calls forwarded to their cell phones. So it is business as usual for them from their hotel room or convention center hallways. Marco’s parents also come for a visit each year and stay for six weeks to help them out and give them some reprieve. But both say they really never get a complete break.
Hope for Bryan
Yvonne says they hope for a “full and fulfilling life” for Bryan and always hold out hope for improvement. There are many phrases that society has used to label people with autism. Yvonne would like to change some of those words. She deplores the use of the word handicapped when referring to children with autism or other diseases, preferring the term “special needs children.” She dislikes the term “normal” when referring to anyone, as the term is so subjective.
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