The respected industry consultant talks about success, leadership, and innovation.
Leading With Heart, Not Ego
David Seelinger learned some enduring lessons along the way about handling employees.
Seelinger, CEO of Secaucus, N.J.-based Empire CLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services, stressed the need to avoid micro-managing while leading with “you’re your heart, not your ego.”
“I certainly tried many different [approaches] over the years, and what has been most successful is allowing people to apply their creativity to their positions and use their own thought processes, and not try to do real-time hands-on management,” Seelinger said. “You try to get them to use the creativity in themselves.”
Seelinger, also the founder and CEO of online start-up BeTransported.com, leads a New Jersey-based global chauffeured transportation company of 800 employees that generates about $165 million in annual revenues. It is the largest privately held luxury transportation company in the world.
Micro-management clearly did not work out well for Seelinger. His old approach wore down employees with too much overriding. “When I was a micromanager and was too busy in daily matters, it consumed me to the point where I had no life of my own. By not micro-managing, and letting them be all they can be, they really develop a tremendous passion for business. Now I can focus on future and other projects underway all related to transportation.”
Seelinger finds weekly team meetings an effective way to hold managers accountable. “When something comes up and someone needs input, they can get hold of me. This industry can consume you 24/7. Customers have interesting needs and high expectations. I am very quick to point out to the entire team that there’s a time and place for this and also for yourself and your family. There’s always someone else who can take over. There are other capable people you can empower to do the same work and make decisions.”
In the intense environment of customer service, Seelinger reiterates that there are no wrong decisions when handling the requests and demands of clients. “If the intent was to take care of the customer, then that’s fine. We can talk about the hows and whys later.”
Knowing what you know best
DALLAS — The first step to effective management for operator Eric Devlin is to discern between what he knows very well and what he knows somewhat. That way he can focus on the areas he specializes in while taking more of a hands-off approach in others.
“I’m going to micro-manage in areas I’m proficient in, which is customer service and marketing, and I’m going to leave the dispatching and fleet maintenance and daily operations that sometimes bog down an owner of a company to people I pay to do those things,” said Devlin, CEO of Premier Transportation in Dallas, a 2009 LCT Operator of the Year and No. 53 on the LCT 100 Largest Fleets List. “In that regard, I’m a macro-manager.” Devlin, who has a degree in marketing, also closely develops the company’s advertising and social media strategy.
Devlin leads 89 employees, including 11 managers and team leaders, and runs a fleet of 58 vehicles. He is involved in all key decisions, such as purchasing, cash flow and service failures, but he makes sure his cadre of managers knows how to develop recommendations and plead their cases.
For customer service, Devlin has set up a detailed system of following up with clients and communicating within the company on any service errors. “Anyone [who] has a hand in an error, from reservationists to dispatchers, handwrites a personal apology letter to clients that comes with correspondence from the management team,” Devlin says. “That accountability and ownership opens their eyes and helps them concentrate on the consequences of making an error.”
Premier regularly uses mystery shoppers to make sure chauffeurs stay current on service standards. The same shopper evaluates chauffeurs the same way. “We like to use the business model of providing the exact same positive experience in cars with the chauffeur’s personality sprinkled in,” Devlin says.
Most importantly, good leadership also means a willingness to do all kinds of tasks, no matter how menial, he adds. “I do all the things that everybody does. I deliver cars to service centers, run vehicles to chauffeurs when needed, answer phones and take reservations, participate in service failure follow ups, sit in on chauffeur meetings, and take part in the hiring process. Leadership by example is the best way to train and make sure everyone in the company is on same page.”
Devlin, who often comes in on Sunday afternoons to get more work done, also suggests being around most of the day, every day when in town and not traveling for business. “Employees appreciate when they see you doing the grunt work as well as the high profile luncheons and awards ceremony.”
Leading Starts With Employees
PETALUMA, Calif. — At Pure Luxury Transportation, the leadership approach that nets the best customer results begins with how employees are treated.
“We treat every single one of our employees like our customers,” says Gary Buffo, owner of Pure Luxury, which has 148 employees and 101 vehicles. It is ranked No. 22 on the LCT 100 Largest Fleets List. “If you treat your employees and staff like they are your customers, they will treat your customers the way they want to be treated. We’ve been doing that from day one.”
Employees and managers in turn take the best care of end-users, the source of paychecks, Buffo adds. “It all goes to respect. When there is an issue, we deal with it. When there is a paycheck dispute, it gets resolved ASAP. If there are personal issues, we help out a bit. Their issues are our issues, and when the customer has a problem, it’s not the customer’s problem, it is our problem.” Buffo and his wife, Jennifer, have been running Pure Luxury for 21 years.
Seeing employees and customers as one and the same sets a prime example for good service and teamwork, Buffo says. “We take that and put it right back to the employees. Our employees are our customers, too.” Such an approach helps minimize turnover. In an industry known for itinerant employees, Buffo wants to make sure that any employee who leaves does so in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
Hand-in-hand with respect goes a systemized structure for training, he says. Chauffeurs who are well trained will feel supported and represent the business well. “Chauffeurs are the ones on the front lines.” Pure Luxury chauffeurs get a mix of in-house and on-the-road training, covering all the places where the company does business. It gets into such finer points as the parking details and procedures at various hotels, how to drive with minimal pressure on brakes and gas pedals, listening closely to what customers are saying, and the necessity of wearing a black jacket at all times. So if a client mentions a winery, that chauffeur should immediately know how to follow up and get the client an appointment at that winery, Buffo says. “One of the things we’ve done is if there is a complaint, the ride is comped. It may cost us a lot of money, but that has saved us money in the long run by keeping the customer and building money back into the company.”
Senior Team Huddles Help Set Direction
BOSTON — After more than three decades of running chauffeured transportation operations and attending countless trade shows and conventions, industry CEO Scott Solombrino has heard about plenty of leadership and management approaches.
So when the CEO of the 654-vehicle Dav El Chauffeured Transportation Network (No. 2 on the 100 List) picks a few, you can count on them being ones worth trying.
Solombrino, also an NLA board director and leader in the Global Business Travel Association, stresses the importance of: 1) Regular meetings and communication with senior management staff; 2) Constant ongoing training and performance measurement for employees.
Senior team meetings: Consistent conferring with top managers yields the best business strategies, resolves issues quickly, and reinforces clear management expectations, Solombrino says. When everyone talks through things at the same time, then everyone ends up on the same page going forward.
Training/retraining: At Dav El, chauffeurs and employees follow the comprehensive Four Seasons training regimen to ensure peak performance and service delivery. “You must have consistent and ongoing training programs at all levels. We spend a lot of time training, retraining and overtraining. . . It helps avoid mediocrity in a company,” he says. “That’s the glue that holds everything together.” Dav El’s chauffeurs, for example, go through Four Seasons-style training programs every six months.
“You have to have a culture of people who care,” Solombrino says. “This is not 9 to 5. It is a cultural evolution in a company. You have to like the company you work for and the people you work with.”
The respected industry consultant talks about success, leadership, and innovation.
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