Sandy Miller sees a future in providing a level of chauffeured service that TNCs cannot.
2008 was about the single worst year for the modern day limousine industry as the Great Recession decimated the market and then yielded to an era of upheavals: Retirement of the Lincoln Town Car, the advent of transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber, the demise of the stretch limousine, the client shift toward more group transportation, and the on-demand paradigm of digital technology.
Stickel, the owner and President of Presidential Worldwide Transportation (no jokes, please), can now afford a humorous look back, peppered with a sense of relief. His company, which was issued state limousine license No. 1 when it started in 1985, still retains the largest chauffeured luxury fleet in Colorado and leads the Denver market. The staying power stems from an ability to imbibe change and apply it across all major components of chauffeured operations — fleets, chauffeur recruitment, customer service, technology and client growth. For Stickel, 48, pulling that off has made up for any bad timing.
Stickel learned early how to handle the unexpected. He honed his financial and management skills while working in controller and CFO positions for several dairy and food companies in the Denver region. “Back when I was 23, the controller quit so I was flung into a roughly $60 million operation,” says the finance major who received his MBA at the University of Denver. “At that age, it was sink or swim.”
He swam, and years later, looked to widen his business interests and investments. Stickel first bought a stake in Presidential Transportation in 2006, and acquired the company outright two years later. His first challenge related to the use of vehicles.
“When I bought the company, there were almost 50 vehicles, but we now use the vehicles much better,” Stickel says. “We’re doing more revenue with fewer vehicles,” he says, with total vehicles straddling the 40 mark depending on purchases and sales.
With the Lincoln Town Car sedan retired, Presidential buys mostly new vehicles instead of newer used ones as before. “We’re buying new and trying to get rid of them earlier,” he says. Presidential, which uses Lincoln MKSs and MKT Town Cars for its sedan market and Chevrolet Suburbans for SUVs, runs its sedans to around 150,000 miles or about three to four years before turning them over.
About one third of Presidential’s business now comes from groups. To meet demand, Presidential is phasing out Ford Econoline vans in favor of Ford Transits and Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, and buying more buses from Grech Motors. As of October, the Presidential fleet consisted of two Grech buses and two Sprinters built by First Class Customs with future commitments to add two Grech buses in the first quarter of 2016 and eventually add more higher occupancy vehicles.
“I think we’re going to increase our game in that market,” Stickel says. “We’d really like to get into the motorcoach business down the road. We are farming out more than I’d like. But I would also say, with our DMC partners, they would much rather go to one source that has both the chauffeured smaller vehicles and the larger vehicles. When we do introduce motorcoaches, we’d have a market there for that as well.”
Like most limousine companies, finding qualified chauffeurs takes a creative approach. Stickel is looking at an “artificial intelligence” based profile and evaluation that determines if chauffeur applicants possess the right qualities and attributes. A local company is building the model that will also be able to comb social media profiles to find potential chauffeur candidates and send them inquiring e-mails. The model criteria is based on interviews with five of Presidential’s best chauffeurs. “You can use artificial intelligence for a number of different applications,” Stickel says. “This has worked in other job sectors and we’ll see how it works for us.”
For recruitment, Presidential also takes advantage of the summer slowdown for school bus drivers, which occurs during an annual increase in group business related to tourism and meetings and conventions. “We thought we’d recruit people from the school districts to be CDL drivers,” Stickel says. “They’re off during the summer and they are very safety conscious.” Presidential works with chauffeurs to gain CDL licenses so they can drive all vehicles.
Another reliable idea: Cash incentives and bonuses for chauffeurs who stay.
The company takes advantage of its client connection to the Four Seasons Hotel to get additional training ideas, such as service banners that hang in the fleet garage. “They’ll invite anybody and everybody from Presidential down to the Four Seasons for classes,” says Stickel, adding that role-playing and reading clients is part of the training. At times, Four Seasons sends a trainer to the Presidential facility for onsite instruction.
“With the customer, you try to look to the future and anticipate their needs,” Stickel says. “You try to read the client and their body language. If they’re sneezing in the back, do you need to stop? ‘Can I get you some medicine from a drug store?’ The [Four Seasons] meetings have been very powerful for us and very educational. They know how to deal with limousine companies in their protocols.”
The company also laminates its core values and gives them to all employees. A mission statement hangs in the conference room and throughout the facility.
Stickel compares Presidential’s WiFi and onboard adapters for clients to having bottled water and newspapers. They’re expected. He equips all chauffeurs with iPad minis, checked out at the start of shifts. All routine notifications, confirmations and internal communications are now via text and email, smoothing out the dispatching process and reducing phone calls.
The company is also adjusting to the on-demand market by accommodating more same-day and last-minute reservations. Same days are now 20% of client volume. Presidential keeps more chauffeurs on standby during peak periods and has vetted local affiliates available for runs.
However, Stickel cautions that it is worse for an operator to say yes and lack the resources to handle last-minute calls than just saying no. “I’d rather tell somebody no if I know that I absolutely can’t live up to the expectations that we have for the company and our clients.”
Everybody Can Sell
One counter-intuitive approach that works for Presidential is to avoid using designated salespeople. Stickel and his managers leverage local connections and networking. He credits such activity for growing his company solely through word of mouth. Presidential belongs to several key local groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Convention & Visitors Bureau, Hispanic Chamber, Rocky Mountain Business Travel Association and the Meeting Planners International. The team will divide up visits to local networking functions. Stickel also is serving his second term as President of the Colorado Limousine Association, which he joined in 2008.
He’s also been vice president, board chairman, and a five-year board director. “We spread our visits out among some of the employees who can represent the company. “It’s a matter of return on investment; how much business is there in Denver versus the ROI on hiring a salesperson? Denver is a big town, but it’s a little town.”
FASTFACTS: Presidential Worldwide Transportation
3 Big Morale Ideas
Presidential Worldwide Transportation emphasizes employee motivation and morale. Here are three ideas any transportation business can adopt to improve customer service and staff communication:
Denver’s Booming Economy
The Denver economy enjoys three highly desirable traits coveted by cities nationwide: Comparatively affordable housing but with rising values; a strong presence of Millennial generation professionals; and growing job opportunities. As a result, it attracts an influx of new residents. That makes it an ideal place for service businesses, like chauffeured transportation:
Source: Denver Business Journal, Sept. 11-17, 2015
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