Here are some sights and scenes from one wicked cool tradeshow.
CHICAGO — A quick look at Mary Paul’s list of accomplishments in the first quarter of 2012 alone shows why a life of lessons in leadership and organization go a long way in getting a lot done.
For the co-owner and CEO of Crown Cars & Limousines, a 55-vehicle-plus operation based near Chicago, her dual career in transportation and military reserves has provided the resources for success, which are coming to a head on many fronts:
No Army brat
Well, where to begin? It undoubtedly would have to involve the lessons in leadership for Paul that began for her as a U.S. Army private in 1985 in East Texas, and continued through her service as an Army nurse, accountant, and trainer. “When I enlisted, I didn’t have any money and was flat broke, living with my father. I joined the military for the same reason many do: looking for a way out.” Paul first trained as an Army medical nurse, for which she still holds a certification.
“In a lot of ways, my military service has been complementary” to a limousine business, Paul says. “I took the structure of the military and put it into Crown. We are all a team and work as a team.” One vital lesson of leadership is to know how and when to delegate, she adds. “I could have never done it without delegating my duties out.” She emphasizes an important distinction in military and civilian life: The difference between responsibility and authority. “You cannot delegate responsibility, not in a business or combat situation. I am the owner and always responsible. But I can delegate authority out.”
Chicago taxi training
After serving a few years as a private, Paul left the Reserves and moved back to her home state of Illinois where she began working in the Chicago taxicab industry. By 1989, she had re-enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves and had met her husband, Matt, also working as a taxicab operator in the city. For the next two decades-plus, each side of her career would help inform the other.
“Matt and I had taxicab medallions, and ran nine flash cabs under the Flash Cab Company at Lawrence and Clark avenues in Chicago,” Paul recalls. “In the late 1980s, the quality of drivers went down. It got more difficult to find honest, decent drivers. Cars were stolen, people were not paying, and cabs were dirty.”
When one of the cab drivers quit and went to work for an executive car service, the Pauls discovered the benefits and opportunities of offering higher-end car service. They bought into Smart Cars, a successful Chicago-based chauffeured car service run today by veteran operator Stuart Rothstein. They worked with Smart Cars for a few years, learning the details of chauffeured transportation before teaming up with a business partner to launch Crown Cars & Limousines in 1992 with three Lincoln Town Car sedans and a Buick Roadmaster.
“At first, it was more of a black car service,” Paul says. “There was nothing in between a cab or a limo. It was nothing fancy, but we had clean cars and drivers. [The business] evolved by going to the hotels, which didn’t want a black car service but more of an executive service. So we evolved into executive cars and started buying new Town Cars.”
Crown then followed a path common to successful limousine companies: Hotel contracts led to corporate ones, which led to more diverse chauffeured luxury vehicles. Two decades later, Crown runs one of the largest luxury limousine fleets in Chicago. The company specializes in the client niches of hotels, such as Intercontinental, law firms, and consulting firms headquartered in Chicago.
Models of service
While Paul developed a full-service chauffeured transportation company, she was actively serving in the U.S. Army reserves, which entailed duties one weekend per month and then at least two contiguous weeks per calendar year. Her service time got scheduled into longer stints during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of the 2000s, which at times involved assignments at Fort Bliss, Texas, and at Camp Atterbury, 40 miles south of Indianapolis, Ind. Paul helped on the home front, working mostly as an Army accountant and training war-bound military service people.
“I had a business, I liked working with numbers, so they put me through finance and accounting school,” Paul says. “For the last 10 years, I was training command groups deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq.” Paul also helped Army engineers prepare their personal finances before deployment through the Yellow Ribbon Program, an Army service that makes sure deployed soldiers’ finances are in order and that their spouses and children are receiving the correct pay and compensation.
The precision required for military tasks could easily adapt to the workings of her company, Paul found. She implemented a pre-maintenance check system for all of her fleet vehicles that organizes repairs and checks. “We’ve maintained our vehicles in such a way to minimize breakdowns,” Paul says. “If we do have one, it has not happened with a customer in the car.”
In the area of customer service, Paul has instituted a positive corporate culture that results in a strong attention to clients with accurate order taking and good phone manners. “We have a corporate culture here that really tries to make everyone comfortable and happy with the employees, and makes sure everyone is a good fit,” Paul says. “The Army values loyalty, selfless service, and respect, and those are big values here. We’ve got signs all over the place about respect: If you give respect, you get respect back. That’s important for chauffeurs and inside staff.”
That leads to an atmosphere of happiness, which results in smoother operations overall, Paul says.
And lest anyone think Paul plans to kick back and rest on happiness, she recently sewed up a major deal to acquire Keen Limousine. The deal allows Keen’s former owner to semi-retire and lease his vehicles to Crown while his wife chauffeurs. It also adds about 10 leased vehicles to the Crown fleet and deepens the company’s reach into the overall Chicago chauffeured market. Keen Limousine will run as a separately branded service in suburban St. Charles, Ill. The combined companies have increased Crown’s client runs by about 25% to an average of 160 per day.
That deal follows one in December 2010 in which Crown bought Quadrangle Car Service of Hyde Park, Ill., a high-end chauffeured transportation service with clients in the prestigious neighborhood whose most famous resident and favorite son is President Obama.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be in the limousine industry,” says Paul, 51, reflecting on the last two decades. “It’s given me financial freedom. I went from being a broke private to a point where I can’t complain. I’ve been able to expand my horizons. Being a business owner, there are endless possibilities and I can’t do them all.”
Here are some sights and scenes from one wicked cool tradeshow.
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