Sandy Miller sees a future in providing a level of chauffeured service that TNCs cannot.
Imagine the elegant things in life. Champagne. Caviar. Limousines. Many people think that a first class, upscale limousine operation can only be found in glamorous cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Quite the contrary.
Thanks to Franklin Limousine, Tulsa, OK can be added to that list. In only five years of operation, Franklin Limousine has proven itself as a professional, upscale service in a market better known for its oil rigs and college football. Despite the poor economy in Oklahoma, Frank Wood, president, has built Franklin into a solid, profitable business by using aggressive marketing campaigns and an uncompromising thirst for perfection.
“We are upscale in every part of our service,” says Wood. “Our reputation is based on making every client feel like royalty. We are the most expensive company in Oklahoma, but when you consider the service we provide, the clients gets 110 percent of his money’s worth.”
The number of clients who are treated to Franklin’s service appears to grow every year. Wood estimates that Franklin controls 62 percent of the limousine market in Oklahoma, which includes corporate and hotel work, weddings, nights on the town, and proms. A company does not gain that share of the market by waiting for the phone to ring. To attract business, Wood has organized a tireless marketing campaign that includes more packages than Santa Claus delivers on Christmas.
“We have a full-fledged advertising program,” says Wood, whose company has 130 vehicles, including tour buses, vans and stretch limousines. “It includes ‘focus’ packages of radio and television commercials, not ‘shotgun’ advertising. We also have an extensive direct mail program and we buy space in periodicals. We do almost no Yellow Page advertising because our experience shows us that the cost relation to the number of new clients we receive isn’t worth the cost. All of our advertising is developed after extensive market research.
Some of the more successful packages offered by Franklin involve the local horse racing track and Christmas. “We Federal Express in videotapes of the horses and jockeys who are running that day” Wood explains, referring to the popular horse racing program. “On the way the people can watch the videos and educate themselves. Remember, people who are using limousines are putting pretty big dollars up.
“For Christmas, we have tour packages where people can go out and see Christmas lights and have a nice dinner for $15 per person. It’s very popular.
Although these packages are geared to the general public, Wood says that most of the company’s business comes from hotels and corporations. The company has contracts to supply exclusive limousine service to four local hotels. “WE supply livery service to the upscale hotels on a 24 hour basis,” he says. “We are important to the hotels because we are ‘one stop shopping.’ We have buses for conventions, vans for smaller groups, and of course the impulse limousine charters.”
For easy access to hotel guests, Franklin’s reservation center is tied directly into the hotel’s switchboards. Calls for service are routed over direct lines and are identified as hotel calls. Because the bill is charged to the customer’s hotel room, it is handled like a food service bill from the hotel restaurant. One cumbersome requirement that the hotels insist on is that Franklin carry $10 million of liability insurance on the vehicles used for their services.
To attract the corporate market, Franklin works closely with meeting planners who are arranging conventions or workshops in the Tulsa area. A personalized letter is sent to each coordinator outlining the services Franklin offers. By working closely with hotels, Franklin offers attractive packages that save visitors time and planners headaches.
For Franklin Limousine, no market goes untouched. One would think that a company that targets hotels and corporations would overlook weddings and proms. This is not the case.
“Our wedding business is so highly developed that we package it with the bachelor and bachelorette parties to increase the average wedding receipt to $550,” says Wood, who estimates that 8 percent of his company’s business comes from weddings.
Direct mail is important to Franklin’s wedding market. Each registered bride receives a personalized letter, followed by a direct mail form explaining the company’s wedding packages. To further promote their wedding services, Wood exhibits their services at all women’s shows in the area.
For proms, Franklin has permission of the local school board to distribute fliers to every high school senior in March. To make every prom special, the company provides a free picture as the passengers arrive at the big event. The company emphasizes to parents that no alcohol or drugs are permitted in the vehicle.
Upscale services do not maintain their image without top-of-the-line chauffeurs.
“We are able to develop a profile for the perfect chauffeur,” says Wood. “In turn, we’ve built a model chauffeur and you have to fit that form to work here.”
Applicants are put through numerous medical and psychological test that are developed and analyzed by an evaluator at Oklahoma University. The results are compared against the company’s norm and determine if the applicant meets the Franklin chauffeur mild. Wood says that he has no problem finding drivers who meet his criteria and often advertises for drivers in the paper. “For one thing we start out with a respectable wage,” he says. “So many people start out cheap. Our chauffeurs earn a minimum of $12.50 per hour. A good chauffeur is a professional. Ours take great pride in their association with us. They don’t have to clean the vehicle, much less do the maintenance.”
Each Franklin chauffeur—62 at the present time—is given extensive training before being allowed to drive. Wood has two people on his payroll who are certified by the Department of Transportation and a third who is certified by the National Safety Council. The drivers go through all the DOT training programs before they can drive the cars.
Franklin Limousine was established in 1985 after Wood purchased a company that was folding because of the poor Oklahoma economy. Wood, who was in the real estate and development business before taking over Franklin, drove the company’s one car, a 1981 Silverhawk, in the early going. “I drove just enough to know the problems that chauffeurs have,” he says.
Because of the economy, Wood found that he had more time for other ventures. Since he had always liked limousines, he became involved with the business. “The decision to go into the limousine business was because the finest service in our area had no real competition,” he recalls. “It was my belief that two livery services could even increase each other’s businesses. After all, there is not better business stimulus than competition!”
Taking a one-car business and turning it into a 130-vehicle company in five years takes good business sense and hard work. These are two of Wood’s most evident qualities. It is not unusual for him to work 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. “I have been married to my job for over 35 years, regardless of what job I’m doing,” says Wood, whose wife is a principle in the company. “It is my life, my hobby, and my adventure.”
Because of their tremendous growth, Franklin moved its headquarters last year to the former general offices and maintenance depot of the local Greyhound Lines. “We especially appreciate this building because of the three-bus-length, walk-under maintenance bays,” says Wood. “Installation of computerized front end equipment and electronic diagnostic equipment will allow us to rotate our fleet on a systematic prevalent maintenance program.” The facility also includes Franklin’s own body repair and upholstery shop.
Having a maintenance facility on sight has paid off for Wood and his company. “I probably get more mileage out of a car than anyone in the nation,” he says. “I can get 400,000 miles out of a car and have it still be running tight. We don’t cut the quality of the maintenance. It’s something we’re heavily concerned about.
In addition to his in-house work, Wood takes maintenance one step further. Every month, he takes motor oil from his cars to an oil analysis laboratory. By testing the oil, a chemist can detect any malfunctioning parts in the engine. If any defects are found, Wood can immediately repair the vehicle.
The future for Franklin Limousine, according to Wood, includes expansion and added technology. By 1991, he hopes to enter the Texas market and be in seven Texas cities by 1995. To keep pace with the expansion, Wood is adding a computer aided tracking system this year to accompany the centralized reservation system. “The tracking system will make every vehicle in our backyard even though it may be 700 miles away,” says Wood. “It’s going to be one of the nicest things that ever happened to us.”
What advice would this successful operator give to those entering the business? “Some of the nicest people I have ever met have been those entering the business,” Wood says, “but they don’t last. The hours are long, their wives become tired of the uneven hours, and vehicle maintenance kills them. They just don’t realize the staying power necessary. The best way to handle entering this business is to work for someone a long time—three or more years—and then buy out that business.
Wood’s outlook for the industry is bright, however he sees changes. “Since the industry is starting to mature, you are going to find more regional operators that can offer the consuming public so much more than a small fleet operator,” he says. “The days of the small operator are quickly coming to an end. What is emerging are fleet owners with full service maintenance facilities, centralized reservation systems, and training programs.”
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