The respected industry consultant talks about success, leadership, and innovation.
Few people know Hawaii better than Bucky Yee. Having spent all of his 51 years there, Bucky knows all the scenic spots, the historic spots, the shopping and dining spots, and everywhere in-between. With this background, it seemed very natural for him to join Greyhound back in 1974 as a tour guide.
“We used to pick up VIPs at the airport and take them to their hotels, and we also did tours and charters,” Bucky remembers. “I grew up here so it comes as second nature for me to give tours and describe local history and culture. I know the town, the clubs, the nightlife, and the tourist spots.”
Bucky worked part-time for Greyhound from 1974 until 1980. Greyhound primarily operated sightseeing buses, but Bucky also became familiar with a’76 Cadillac Formal Limousine used for VIPs. “They encountered problems,” Bucky recalls, “and were able to liquidate successfully …They didn’t go bankrupt.”
Elite Limousine was one of the first Hawaiian services to use stretch limousines.
In their wake, Greyhound left behind a number of accounts, along with the ’76 Formal which they gave to Bucky. “The car wasn’t worth much,” he says, but I took it and started a business to make some side money. I never had any intention of growing; I just wanted to keep a little busy.”
At the time he acquired his limousine, Bucky also had a full-time job with the City of Honolulu, but he kept the car at home and operated the limousine out of his house. “I have a partner,” Bucky explains. “He is a silent partner. He likes to drive but he lets me run the business. When we started, we didn’t have a lot of money to put into the company. I think we had about $4000 apiece. It was just enough to buy insurance and get a little business going.”
In his first year, Bucky recalls earning about $50,000 with his Formal. This was encouraging enough that he and his partner moved their company into a small office and hired a full-time reservationist.
With a capable person handling the phones, Bucky was able to spend more time building the business. “You have to keep knocking on doors and knocking on doors,” he says. “It was a long hard grind, but we chipped away at it. We had another company that was one of the oldest and largest limousine companies on the island and they were doing most of the true limousine business. They did all the movie stars and the big corporate accounts so we were fighting an uphill battle. We kept knocking on doors and people would tell us they preferred to stay with the other company because they didn’t know who we were and the other company had been dependable. But we chipped away and gradually people began to give us their accounts.
“We didn’t take any money out of the business,” Bucky continues. “During the second year we went to the bank to get a loan to buy a ’79 Formal from someone who was leaving the business and moving to the mainland.” Soon after that, Bucky sold his original ’76 and purchased a ’78 Formal and another ’79.
“In those days, I had a ‘Go for broke’ style,” he says. “I didn’t have very much to lose so I just went for it. I just wanted to be sure we could make our payments for the cars and gas and insurance. I figured that if we had 50% utilization of our cars during an eight-hour day we could break even.”
Used formal limousines were appropriate for the Honolulu limousine market when Elite started. “From 1979 to 1982, we didn’t need big expensive stretches,” Bucky says. “Even today, those big ultra stretches are out of place for us. And I have never been taken in when buying a car. Cars have never been my fancy and I don’t have an ego problem with them. To me, if a car could make money, I was for it.”
With its second-hand fleet, Elite’s earnings increased some $100,000 during the second year. Much of the business either started or ended at the airport. “The airport has always been the crux of our business,” says Bucky.
Elite Limousine meets many of its inbound clients as they pass through the gate of Honolulu Airport. Clients are greeted with a lei and escorted to a limousine that waits a few yards away. While other new arrivals ride a shuttle to baggage claim, Elite’s clients are chauffeured by friendly drivers who immediately begin describing local sights, customs, and history.
Elite is one of a handful of limousine companies approved by the airport to meet passengers at the gate. The privilege rests on a special permit from the airport. One of the requirements is that Elite must carry a million dollars in liability insurance. Limousine companies without a gate permit must meet their clients at baggage claim.
With the airport as the foundation of its business, Elite Limousine has grown into an 11-car company and is now one of Hawaii’s most successful limousine services. Elite has working relationships with approximately half of Honolulu’s major hotels along Waikiki Beach, as well as with a half dozen of the busiest travel agencies and tour operators who book limousines in Hawaii.
“My original competitor made a very crucial mistake along the way,” Bucky says. “I was one of the few guys to get into stretches right off the bat, but they kept their formals for over ten years and never upgraded to stretch limousines. The owner believed that stretch limousines were a waste of money.” Meanwhile, Elite Limousine steadily added late model stretch limousines. “I was able to get some very good deals on limousines through Bill Seroyer of Pacific Limousine and Armoring Sales. He really helped me,” Bucky recalls. And Bucky continued knocking on doors trying to introduce customers to the idea of stretch limousines.
“It was frustrating for me,” he says, “I kept asking myself, ‘Why is it that we have better cars and we still cannot get the business?’ It all boils down to credibility and the loyalty that you develop with your customers. Customers can be very reluctant to change companies.”
Gradually, however, Elite became recognized as a reliable company with well-maintained vehicles and personable chauffeurs. All of Elite’s chauffeurs work full-time and all are experienced island guides. Chauffeurs are assigned a particular vehicle which they personally clean and maintain.
Bucky also believes that reservationist Barbara Clark has attracted new business with her friendly style on the phone. “A good reservationist makes all the difference in the world,” he says. “Barbara has excellent rapport with our customers. She knows how to sell, and she is able to handle changes and follow up on them. She’s been with me about nine years and she has brought us a lot of business.”
Bucky, himself, also has a knack for sales. He works hard to maintain relationships with his customers, many of whom have been with him since he worked for Greyhound. “I make a lot of appointments to see people and I do a lot of lunches. You’ve got to target hotels and corporations. I know which ones use limousines and I don’t waste a lot of time. I also play golf with customers and I’m there at their beck and call. How can they not give me their business?” he asks rhetorically.
One area of business that Bucky has helped to create in Honolulu is the concept of upgrading transportation arrangements for return visitors. “We have a lot of return visitors here,” he explains, “and I believe that when a person returns to Hawaii they should have things a little nicer than on their previous trip. They should be upgraded and pampered a little more. But I had to sell that idea to travel agents and tour operators on the mainland. I did a lot of marketing along with some of my colleagues on the mainland. We offer an airport transfer and a lei greeting at a package price and it has worked out very well. Travel agents now upgrade about a quarter of the people who come here and it has turned out much better than I expected.”
Other ideas have not worked out as well … such as sister operation on the island of Maui that Bucky ran for five years before deciding to close down last year. “We had six cars there,” he says, “some formals and some stretches. We worked with several of the better hotels there.
Another disappointment was a shared-ride program where limousines were filled with passengers for airport transfers and island tours. “I found I couldn’t operate a $5 a seat kind of thing. Plus, we found that constant operation like that would have ruined our cars.” Bucky also tried a shared-ride van concept that he eventually gave up. “I don’t have a van mentality,” he says. “I’m more into a chauffeured type of limousine business.”
In most respects, however, Elite’s successes have outdistanced Bucky’s original expectations. And if Honolulu finally completes the new convention facility which is expected to open in the not-too-distant future, Bucky expects business to rise dramatically. Also, an airline recently called to say they were setting up a concierge service and to inquire whether Elite could handle its VIP transportation.
“It all comes down to providing dependable service,” Bucky maintains. “I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine owns a charter boat and he recently called me and said, ‘I need two limousines to pick up some VIPs at the Royal Hawaiian and bring them to my boat.’ I said I was very sorry but I was booked solid. He said, ‘You’ve got to help me because these people bring a lot of business to my boat.’ I said I was very sorry but he would have to call someone else. I called him afterward to see how it went and he said, ‘Bucky, I lost the account.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ and he said, ‘I went to these taxi operators who run limousines and, believe it or not, one limousine with six people never showed up. I still don’t know what happened to those six people.’ That’s not how you succeed in this business.”
Given the current state of the market in Honolulu, Bucky hopes to grow at a rate of about 20% this year. Should the U.S. economy get soft, Bucky feels that Hawaii’s tourist-based business should be one of the last areas to feel a pinch. “There is an expression that the rich always travel,” says Bucky. “I haven’t seen any cutback in luxury or corporate travel here yet. Hopefully we won’t.”
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