The Greater Orlando Limousine Association held a festive meeting to close out the year.
What do you do when your resident celebrity is on the road too often to make much use of his personal limousine? If you are like comedian Rich Little's wife Jeanne and personal assistant Warren Williamson, you take that personal limousine and turn it into a business. The only catch is, one limousine won't be enough for long.
"Rich and Jeanne use limos all the time," Warren explains. "So we thought, we're spending a lot of money, we'll buy one car."
That first car was a Cadillac, stretched by Kelly Coachworks of Westlake Village, CA. Within two short months, Malibu Executive Limousine Service boasted three cars and a burgeoning clientele.
That was in the summer of 1986. Jump ahead to the present, and the Malibu Executive fleet has grown considerably. The flagship of the fleet, says Jeanne, is a 29-foot Zimmer Motor Coach, but a stretch Mercedes pulls its share of weight as well.
The personnel end of the company has grown as well. In the beginning, Warren's son Tandy was the only driver. Today, Tandy continues to drive full-time, but 15 part-time drivers complete the staff. Tandy had driven for another limousine company before Malibu Executive got started, and he trains the new chauffeurs now.
One remarkable thing about Malibu Executive's success is that it was all accomplished by word of mouth advertising.
"I've read articles that say the first thing is to go into the yellow pages," says Warren. "But the Malibu phone book has eight million limo companies. So what you're going to do is fight price, and we keep our prices at one set fee. We don't vary them."
Malibu, CA is, of course, a haven for the wealthy, especially the show business wealthy. Many of the limousine companies that advertise in the Malibu yellow pages aren't located in, or even near, Malibu, but realize that it's a strong market for a limousine company to target. The location, Warren, Jeanne, and Tandy agree, is part of the secret to their success.
What about the association with Rich Little?
"It's not Rich's company," Warren is quick to point out. '"We never use Rich's name."
But surely when people find out...?
"It may be an introduction," says Jeanne, "but after that you've got to back it up. What we depend on is our reputation, because once you've used our company, you don't want to go to somebody else."
What makes Malibu Executive service so special?
"Having used limos so much ourselves, we know what we expect," Jeanne explains.
They also have a host of horror stories about limousines that never showed up, or showed up late, un professional drivers, and the like.
"We were going to Maui one time," Warren remembers. "A car from a major limo company was picking us up. The guy was 15 minutes late, we were all sitting here with our luggage around us, and he finally showed up at the door, eating a do- nut. If we hadn't been late already, I would have said, 'Buzz off!'"
Experiences like that, and knowing first hand what is expected and appreciated by a limousine passenger, have led Jeanne, Warren, and Tandy to work at keeping their standards high. The cars are washed every day, whether they go out or not. Although they are not garaged, every car is covered every night. All fluid levels and the tire treads are checked frequently to avoid mechanical difficulties. Chauffeurs are always early for pickups.
Such diligence pays off. In the year and a half it's been in operation, Malibu Executive has never had a late pickup, nor has it experienced any mechanical difficulties on the road. "Not even a flat tire," Tandy boasts.
Talking about vehicle maintenance reminds Warren of the time an ex- driver of theirs, who had since started his own company in Oxnard, CA, showed up on their doorstep in a panic.
"He bought two cars, not new cars," Warren says. "And one day he comes running in and he says, 'You've got to help me! I'm broken down right in front of your driveway." He says there's a ton of luggage in the car, so I run down with him. It's summer, and his air conditioning isn't working. The people are dying in the back of the car. So we unload all this luggage, and this man gets out of the car...it was Sir Laurence Olivier." Warren laughs. "So, I loaned him one of our cars and he went off to the airport."
Of course, good vehicle maintenance is only the first, although a most important, step in having a successful limousine service. Malibu Executive also prides itself on the quality of service it provides its customers once they are in the car. For example, Warren says, once they know a customer's preferred type of beverage, or cigarette brand, he and Tandy will see that it is provided.
Interestingly, not many of Malibu Executive' clients seem to want alcohol in their cars. "The Zimmer is the only vehicle that has hard liquor, because it has an automatic bar," says Tandy.
"I can't remember the last time we put hard liquor in one of the other cars," adds Jeanne. "Usually, it's just champagne, if that."
Instead of alcohol, the decanters in the cars are filled with various can dies and mints which Tandy says the customers really appreciate.
“We try to stay away from the par tying crowd anyway," says Tandy.
Warren adds that they don't want prom or graduation business. In stead, they farm out such calls to companies that do want that kind of business.
Malibu Executive deals with a lot of customers in the entertainment in dustry, and with corporate clients. It's at celebrity functions like the Gram my Awards that the Mercedes really pays for itself.
"We really went out on a limb to buy that car," says Warren. "Most people don't have one because you could buy two Cadillacs or two Lincolns for what we bought the Mercedes for."
Not only does the Mercedes act as its own best advertisement, it also helps generate business for the other cars.
"Every time we go to the airport, to the Beverly Hilton, the Grammys, whatever, people are hustling cards off that car," Warren explains. "They may call on that car, then we tell them the price on it, and they end up going with one of our other ones."
The Zimmer, on the other hand, was bought with expanding into the corporate market in mind. Tandy and Jeanne first saw the Zimmer at the Limousine & Chauffeur Show in Las Vegas soon after they had started the company. Tandy says they didn't think much about it at that time, be cause they weren't convinced it would generate a profit. Tandy began to seriously pursue the idea, however, when Limousine & Chauffeur featured one on the cover (July/August, 1987).
"Jeanne and Warren were in Maui," Tandy remembers, "And I got an idea. When they got back, I had all the little things underlined. So I said, 'Read this.' They read it, and decided to make a call."
The motor coach has proven its worth not just as a corporate vehicle, but as a good way to take a lot of people out for a night on the town. For one thing, Jeanne points out, it's a lot easier to get in and out of than an extra-long stretched limousine, especially in a skirt and high heels.
"It's the wave of the future," asserts Tandy, “more passenger capacity, a bathroom, headroom to stand up in. It's the perfect vehicle."
Of course, Tandy says, comfort and headroom aren't the Zimmer's only selling points. "A lot of people have never seen anything like it. They get a lot of response from people on the road which makes them feel good to step out of the vehicle. So they get a kick out of it."
The Zimmer is also surprisingly easy to handle. Tandy says that he can maneuver it without any difficulty, even on the narrow, twisting roads in the Hollywood Hills.
Both the Mercedes and the Zimmer have been used by television studios as well. Warren, who used to produce daytime television pro grams, still has quite a few contacts in the business. Executives at ABC Studios, for example, used the Zimmer to go to the Super Bowl in San Diego this year.
"We took it into ABC and the guy sat down and asked, 'When can I use this?'" Warren says. "He didn't have anyplace to go, but he wanted to use it. So they got it for the Super Bowl. And what a nice way to travel to San Diego."
"Any of the sports events are hot," adds Jeanne. "Especially a football game, when guys get together and go to the game. A tailgate party is taken up about three notches when you have a car like the Zimmer."
The Mercedes has been seen on the television series Falcon Crest, and the Zimmer soon will be too. The Zimmer's appearance came about because the producers of the show wanted to use the Mercedes while Tandy was using it on a six day job. Warren offered the Zimmer instead and, he says, it worked out perfectly.
Movie stars and television appearances aside, it hasn't been all smooth sailing for Malibu Executive Limousine Service. The company faces many of the same problems that limousine services everywhere face. Insurance, of course, tops the list.
"It scares me when we've got the insurance we've got on those vehicles out there," Warren says. "I can see why a lot of guys are not PUC'd and don't carry insurance. They can't afford it. They really can't. We've never had a claim, but we're an as signed risk because we're a new limo company."
Tandy adds that drivers can be a big problem as well, both quality-wise and location-wise.
"Being up in this area, we don't have a lot to pick from," he explains. "You can find a lot that live out of town, but when you need one right away..."
"It's very funny," Warren adds. "When we used limos, we always booked them a week ahead of time. But we get calls for 20 minutes from now. And I think, well, you've known for months you were going to the Grammys. Of course, I don't say that over the phone. But they call at the last minute and want a car. We've got to have people in Malibu."
Jeanne, Warren, and Tandy all agree that, in spite of the occasional inconvenience of needing a car right away, it is more cost-efficient for most people to use a limousine service than to get a private car and a full- time driver.
"One of our first customers was a major star who Tandy used to drive for with the other company," Warren says. "He was with us for about a year, and used the car like I use my personal car. Then he decided to buy a car. So we went out and found him a Mercedes and lost a major client. But he still uses us a lot, be cause he's on location so much that it's really foolish for him to keep a full- time car and driver. So a lot of times the car will sit up there and he'll call us."
"By the time you've hired a driver and let the thing sit there when you're not using it, it doesn't pay," Jeanne says. "You can't keep a driver full- time. And you can't guarantee him 30 hours a week. It doesn't work out that way."
"Plus you have the upkeep," Warren adds. "You've got to have some body who'll take care of the car."
For these reasons, Jeanne says, it wouldn't make sense for Rich Little to have a private car and chauffeur. "Rich is out on the road for two or three weeks at a time," she explains. "If I could get a combination driver, gardener, handyman, and cook, it would be worth it."
How did Rich Little himself feel when the car that was originally in tended for his use became a limousine company car?
"Well, originally it was one car, and I thought it was great," Rich says. "And it obviously worked, because then it was a car a week."
Having been a limousine passenger for such a long time, Rich Little knows what he wants in a limousine, and in a driver. Top on his list of priorities is promptness, being there when the passenger gets there.
"It takes somebody to constantly check on when the plane's coming in," he says. "You have to be there early and circle. If you park too long, they'll give you a ticket. Going into a parking lot is no good, because your customer wants to get off the plane, get into the limo, and go. He doesn't want to walk to the parking lot.
"You have to know the routes too. You have to know how to get to the airport at a specific time of day, what the traffic situation will be like."
Traffic is a big consideration, especially in an area like Malibu. Although Warren says there are at least four different ways to get to Los Angeles International Airport from Malibu, they all begin with the Pacific Coast Highway which is notorious for its traffic jams. This is one of the reasons Rich feels it's important to have a limousine service based in Malibu.
"We know that sometimes we have to send a car out two and a half hours ahead of time just to get to the airport," Jeanne explains. "Other companies aren't aware of that be cause they don't work here all the time."
Still, Rich has never missed a flight. "There are two I had to run for, though," he remembers. "We got to the airport and the congestion there was unreal. I finally got out of the car and ran. And there's nothing you can do about that. You just sit there."
Rich Little has probably ridden in just about every type of livery vehicle around.
"There are a lot of places Rich plays where they don't have limousines," Warren points out. "So you take a Ford or a Chevy."
In other places, Rich adds, he's taken Volkswagens. And when he performs at the White House, he's picked up in a regular, unarmored, Chrysler sedan. He says he's not picky, though.
"I'm just thankful when someone picks me up on time," Rich says with a grin.
The Greater Orlando Limousine Association held a festive meeting to close out the year.
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