The Polish immigrant started his business from scratch and built it into a major New York City area luxury limousine service.
When I say “Oklahoma,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Farmers? Cowboys? Oil fields? Ado Annie singing, “I can’t say no!” in the hit musical named after the state?
All of these are popular images of the Sooner State, and all, with the exception of Ado Annie of course, are true. But they are by no means all there is to Oklahoma.
Mention the word “Oklahoma” to Jay Shaw and his first thought is likely to be “home.” But other images will surely follow, such as “potential,” and “opportunity.”
“We have a real depressed economy here,” says this Oklahoma City native who owns and operates the city’s Regency Limousine Service. “When the price of oil drops under $15 a barrel, our state really goes through some hard times. The oil business and agriculture are basically what Oklahoma is all about, and agriculture is down right now too.”
Still, the people who settled Oklahoma were a hardy lot, not willing to give up without a struggle. Their descendants are cut from the same cloth. Economic hard times aren’t likely to induce anyone to give Oklahoma up for lost.
“When the economy really fell, we discussed moving to another city like Los Angeles or Phoenix, but I was born and raised here,” Shaw says. “I know every back alley. It would be real difficult to move. So we decided to stick it out.”
When he puts it like that, it sounds so simple, but Shaw acknowledges that it hasn’t been. The limousine business is catching on slowly in Oklahoma, sometimes very slowly.
“There’s not much demand for limousines,” Shaw explains. “Most of our clients, other than the corporate people who came in through the airports, are first-time users.”
Still, things are looking up. Remington Park, a world-class thoroughbred race track, recently opened in Oklahoma City. Regency Limousine has already done several jobs for the track, which is expected to improve the city’s tourist business. The city is also trying to attract industry to the area.
“They’ve gone all the way to Tokyo and have brought in two major manufacturers,” Shaw says proudly. “A Hitachi plant just opened in Norman [about 20 miles from Oklahoma City], and they’re one of our best clients. And there’s another plant in Shawnee, which is 30 miles outside Oklahoma City, called Allen Bradley TDK Magnetics. They definitely use limousines.” In fact, they use limousines so much that Shaw has special business cards printed in Japanese just for them. He also teaches his chauffeurs key phrases in Japanese, such as “My name is,” “Thank you,” and “Let’s meet again.”
Shaw estimates the two companies represent a good five to ten percent of his business. But he is quick to add that he is not the only person to have benefited. “These companies brought 400 jobs to our city,” he boasts. That’s no small accomplishment in an area plagued by unemployment.
After the stock market scare of October 1987, many limousine operators reported that their businesses had been affected, that people weren’t as willing to spend money on limousines. The economic troubles in Oklahoma make locals, even corporate locals, similarly hesitant. How does Jay Shaw combat this?
“We’ve been marketing benefits,” he explains. “Why you should use a limousine service, etc. We’ve had to convince the corporate people that this is a way of life.”
So far, it’s worked. Shaw started Regency in December 1983 with one car, a 1982 stretch from Executive Coach Builders. Today, he owns four stretches, three Executives and one from DaBryan. He also employs six part-time drivers, an office manager, and a detail person to keep the cars up to standard cosmetically. He and his wife of three years, Connie, split the dispatching duties with John White, the office manager. Chauffeur Johnny Perry takes care of routine maintenance.
“Johnny’s a jack-of-all-trades,” says Shaw. “Anything wrong on a car, Johnny can fix it.”
Shaw considers his wife a definite asset to the company. “It’s a great mom and pop business,” he says of the limousine industry. “Connie takes care of the books. That’s really time-consuming and I can’t put all my time into it. Since we’ve been married, she’s made the company very professional.”
The Shaws expect their first child on January 1, 1989.
Although Shaw aims most of his advertising at corporate clients, he is more than willing to do weddings, proms, and other occasion as well. To ensure that all clients behave in a responsible manner, and understand the service being provided as well as what is expected of them, he instructs all his chauffeurs to have the clients read and sign an agreement which includes the charge for use of the mobile cellular phone as well as changes in the event of damage to the car. Clients agree to be financially responsible for any cigarette burns, stains from spills, and broken glasses.
New chauffeurs are issued a copy of an employee manual written by Jay and Connie Shaw. The manual discusses pay periods and procedures, and the qualities Shaw feels are necessary in a good chauffeur.
First and foremost on Shaw’s list of necessary qualities is attitude. “You need not be servile,” he tells employees in the manual, “but you must enjoy serving the needs of our clients in order to be a successful chauffeur.”
Other important qualities include punctuality, professionalism, and personal appearance. Shaw requires all his chauffeurs to wear solid black suits with solid black ties and white shirts. Shoes must be black as well, and polished, hair must be neatly cut and combed, and beards of any length are not allowed.
Regency Limousine is not the only limousine service in Oklahoma City, but Jay Shaw is convinced it is the best.
“Our motto, which we have below the company name on all our business cards and stationery, is ‘We have the nicest limousines in the Oklahoma City area.”’ says Shaw. “By printing that, we are obligated to prove it. We can’t just say it and not have it, or our service would cease to exist. Our drivers make sure that’s the way it is.”
Jay Shaw expects a lot from his chauffeurs, but he thinks the world of them. “We have a lot of request business,” he boasts. “We still have people call up and request drivers we had five years ago. The chauffeurs are the backbone of the company anywhere, but I think even more so here because we don’t have a lot of turnover.”
Shaw’s chauffeurs seem to think a lot of him as well. They too believe Regency is the best service in the area, he says. Several of his chauffeurs have told him that, after working for Regency, they couldn’t work for another area service.
Although the “customer is king” attitude is prevalent at Regency Limousine, Shaw will stand by his drivers if controversy arises. One area in which this is especially true is the issue of alcohol in the cars.
“Remember, we’re in the Bible Belt,” says Shaw. “You cannot drink any alcohol in a car in Oklahoma, except 3.2 beer, and they do drink that. We tell customers when they call that it’s against the law, and that’s where we stand on it. We do not provide any booze.”
The issue of minors smuggling alcohol into a limousine seems to be a universal problem, and kids in Oklahoma are like kids anywhere. “If they sneak it in, those kids are going home,” Shaw declares. “I tell our drivers, ‘You’re out there driving our cars. You are our livelihood. If there’s a problem and you call us, we’re with you. If you say it’s time for the kids to go home, it’s time for the kids to go home.’”
Shaw has found that working with parents helps in dealing with minors. “We get in touch with the parents, let them know the type of car and the type of business we run,” he says. “By the time their parents have told them how to act and we’ve told them how to act, they know how to act.” Actually, he adds, “They’re some of the best clients we have. Sometimes you’ll have adults that are hanging out the windows, yelling and screaming. The kids act like adults.”
Although Oklahoma City does not have as many limousine services as many cities, it has no intention of letting the industry go unregulated. The city just recently started to regulate, says Shaw, and so far it is working out well.
“Basically, we used to be a business that was unknown as far as the city, the mayor’s office, and the police department were concerned,” he says. “But there were a lot of complaints going to the mayor’s office about companies messing up, using junk cars, ripping people off.” So now, he says, all drivers undergo a police background check. The police also run a check on all cars being operated for hire. All working limousines must display a license, similar to a taxi license, on the dashboard.
“Some of the limousine companies were pretty tough on the city council,” Shaw remembers. “They couldn’t see why the city could regulate their business. We figure that this is only going to make the business more professional. You now know that anybody who picks you up in Oklahoma City will be a professional chauffeur.”
The city regulation will also help keep competition fair, Shaw believes. If a person decides he wants to get into the limousine business, he must submit proof to the city council that there is a need for a new service. Existing companies are able to protest if they do not see a need for a new service. The council also makes sure that companies carry the proper amount of liability insurance and provide safe, clean cars.
Oklahoma City may regulate its limousine services like other cities do, Jay Shaw may demand the same amount of professionalism as companies in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, but the similarities end there. You’re more likely to see people take a limousine to a Sooners football game or to the racetrack than to the grand opening of a new play or art exhibit.
“There’s not much to do here as far as cultural activities go,” Shaw concedes. “But the quality of life is real high. The air is clean,” And, he adds, the people are friendly.
“People who come in on business and are stuck downtown going to meetings every day are really ready to go home,” he says. “But they always mention that the people were really friendly and outgoing. They smile at you on the street. We’re that kind of city. There’s still a small town flavor here.”
Of course compared to some cities, Oklahoma City still is a small town. Although the third largest in the nation area-wise, the city and surrounding area has a population of slightly less than one million. The state population is only slightly over three million. And if Jay Shaw has his way, every one of them will be at least a one-time limousine passenger.
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