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Not many limousine companies can provide transportation service in two major cities and four airports on just 30 minutes notice, or provide charter motor-coaches from Canada to Florida. But A-1 Limousine in Princeton, NJ, is not like other transportation companies.
Operating a diverse fleet of 125 vehicles, the Starr family has built its service based on a combination of quick-response limousines and sedans, regular route service, and motorcoach charters. The company trademark is to handle corporate transportation in both Philadelphia or New York City and the surrounding airports. Each of the different vehicles stretches, corporate stretches, sedans, vans, shuttle buses, station wagons, and luxury motorcoaches is designed to cater to corporate needs, which account for 85 percent of its business.
The company's roots go back to the early 1900s when Joseph E. Nutt ran a horse-and-buggy service transporting university students from the railroad station to various destinations throughout town. Later, the livery service expanded to automobiles, notably taxis In 1967, after Nutt had passed away, Michael Starr bought out one of the three partners in the enterprise and by 1971 was the sole owner.
Later that year, Starr closed down the taxi part of the business and moved offices to a highly visible location off Route 1 in Princeton. At first it operated as a gas station but in 1974 Stan changed the name to A-1 Limousine and began running a small four-car livery service. Seventeen years later, the company runs a multifarious fleet of 85 sedans, 24 limousines four shuttle buses, six vans, four luxury charier buses, and two station wagons. Starr runs the business along with his wife Marilyn, secretary, and son Jeff, vice president.
Meeting Clients' Needs
Starr believes one of the keys to success in this business is changing to meet the needs of his clientele. "We feel it is a necessity to serve the corporate client. When their needs change, we adjust ours." Each of the different styles of vehicles in the fleet is a direct result of meeting the corporate demand.
For instance, there was a period in the early 1980s when A-1 received numerous requests from corporations to move groups of people. Consequently, the company purchased shuttle buses and vans to deliver clients from the airport to hotels or other destinations. Also for this market, A-1 runs six high-top vans manufactured by Collins Bus Corp inHutchinson, KS. The vans have a one man door just like a regular bus and individual seating and rear luggage storage. "We use them mainly for shuttles to Kennedy LaGuardia, Newark, and Philadelphia airports " explains Starr.
Three years ago, A-1 received a contract to provide regular morning and afternoon route service between the local commuter rail stations and certain corporate centers in suburban New Jersey. The major industry in the area is proscription drug production, which generally doesn't feel the pangs of recession as much as some other industries, according to Starr. "All of the corporations in the area formed a transportation management corporation to act as a local transit company in the suburbs. The driver does no collecting of money, the companies are absorbing the fees," he says. A-1 uses 33-passenger buses for the service. "We have the buses jazzed up a little bit. We have a nice color scheme and plush, charter style seats in stead of hard plastic.
“Later we found there was a need for the medium size bus to go out of town," recalls Stan. As a result, he moved into the luxury charter motorcoach market. Currently, four of the company's eight buses are luxury over-the-road vehicles "We use two buses from National Coach Corporation in Gardena.CA for this service and two Van Hool buses Each of the vehicles has a television, VCR, bathroom, and mini-galley.
The prime example of changing market demand is A-1's fleet. "Toward the end of the 1980s, corporations were lavish in their spending, hiring stretch limousines for one or two people," Stan says "Now the 1990s are a whole different story We are starting to sell some of four limousines off instead of replacing them We will probably be down to just 15 or 16 limousines by the end of the year. We will probably drop four or five stretch limousines because corporations are going with sedans "Just over one year ago, A-1 had 150 vehicles in its fleet. The conservative spending of the new decade has forced Stair to decrease his fleet size by 16 percent.
The company operates two types of stretch limousines 10 corporate style and 14regular stretches "All out limousines and 60 inch stretches with a raised roof, but we make them a little different inside," Stan says "Our corporate limousine is really a people mover It has a small IV, partition, small bar, glasses, and ice tray. Our stretch limousines are the same size but have all the amenities sunroof, VCR, TV, stereo, and some have fax machines "The vehicles average about 40,000 miles annually.
The backbone of the company is sedan business. The company puts 100,000 miles a year on its sedans "Our money is definitely in our sedans. You have to be able to accommodate a corporate client. If you only have sedans and they want a limousine, you are in trouble. And if you only have limousines and they want a sedan, you are in trouble. You have to diversify," Starr says. Both the sedan and limousine fleets are strictly Cadillac.
Barometers of Business Steady
With such a large and diverse fleet, Starr reviews many different factors to gauge business activity. One of the most important barometers is daily trips "We want to do one more trip than we did the same day in the past year," he comments. A-1 averages about 350 trips combined per day out of its Princeton headquarters and a remote facility 25miles to the north.
The company recently reduced its sales force. "We have two salesmen who are on the road full time," says Starr. "They are out there everyday pounding on the doors saying, 'Hello' to our regular customers." He believes personal contact is the best way to maintain and gain clientele even though it can sometimes be expensive. The salesmen are also in the field talking to existing limousine services trying to pick up accounts from struggling limousine services. A-1 has tried radio, IV, and yellow page advertising, as well as different packaging.
"We are hanging in with about 1 percent to 2 percent over the past year, but we have fewer vehicles so we are being more efficient it." He says Since the bulk of the company's business is airport transfer, Starr uses standard airport transfer rate fares. He estimates $8 million in gross revenue this year.
Employee Benefits Are a Plus
The daily control of the vehicles and chauffeurs is done by Steven Pae, vice president and general manager. Pae has been with the company since it operated as a gas station. "He is the best dispatcher I've over seen," remarks Stair "Ho is the one who really controls whore we make our money. By organizing double pickups, we can almost always give someone a car within a half hour."
All of the company's 250 chauffeurs and 50 office personnel are employees and paid hourly. About half of the drivers are full-time, one-quarter are semi-full time, and one-quarter are part time. The full time employees have an extensive benefit program that includes insurance, medical, a savings plan and paid holidays and vacations. The company employs a full-time driver trainer/safety person who also takes care of ICC filing, accident investigation, and in-service training.
The Starr family's latest project is construction of a new 10,000 square foot building. A-1 has outgrown its current 4,500-square-foot facility and uses two office trailers on its property. The new building is situated just behind the current location.
"The key to success for the 1990s is to be a transportation company and not a luxury service. We have always been a transportation company, but to satisfy the need of corporate clients, we went ahead and got stretch limousines.
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