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Carey International, Inc. is the largest limousine company in the world, with offices in over 300 cities in 60 countries on six continents. The company was started in 1921 by J. Paul Carey and his father. J. Paul Carey Jr. didn’t start working for the company until 1946, but he grew up surrounded by the business and. although semi-retired, continues to stay involved in it today.
Recently, J. Paul Carey Jr. shared his memories of the past, as well as his thoughts on the present and future of the industry, with Limousine & Chauffeur.
L&C: Exactly when was Carey International established?
Carey: The company started in 1921 as Grand Central Packard Renting Company.
L&C: What was it like then?
Carey: I wasn’t even born then, but I’ve heard all kinds of stories through the years. We used to handle mostly luxury private customers. We never got too many corporate customers in those days.
L&C: What were the private customers like? Were they travelers?
Carey: Mostly, they were people who had either given up their chauffeur-driven car or used us as a supplement for their regular drivers. We drove probably the most prestigious families in New York in those days. Corporate customers as we know them today didn’t really start riding until just prior to World War II. From that point on, the business started to build. Probably one of the greatest booms to the business has been the credit card. If you didn’t have a regular account with us (before credit cards), you had to pay the driver in cash. We did not accept any checks. So when the credit card came into effect it was an entirely different avenue of solicitation to the passenger.
L&C: When did the credit card come into being?
Carey: Back in the middle ‘50’s. Diners Club was the first one, and they were followed shortly thereafter by American Express. And then the bank cards – Visa and MasterCharge – came out after that.
L&C: You started in 1946, you said. What capacity did you start out in?
Carey: I started out with the airline company in 1946. We started going to buses because the size of the planes began to get so much larger that the Cadillac stretch couldn’t be used too much except for overflow.
We used the third generation (Cadillac limousine) for overflow. We ran 21 and 28 passenger buses in those days. The limousine business and the airline business started to separate back in the middle ’30’s. The airline business became Grand Central Cadillac. The limousine business became Carey Cadillac. All of our service at that time was in New York.
L&C: How old were you when you started?
Carey: About 23.
L&C: When did the company start to go international?
Carey: Well, in 1968, my cousin Edward J. Carey Jr., who was working with us at the time, decided that we ought to grow. And he started a company called Carey International Chauffeur Driven Systems, Inc. He started Carey International. That was 1968. In 1970, they merged with-I think it was National Executive Service. And the Carey name prevailed.
L&C: It was your father who started the company?
Carey: My father and grandfather started the original Grand Central Packard Rental Company.
L&C: How did they decide to get into limousines?
Carey: Remember that this is basically an outgrowth of the old carriage livery that had the horse and carriage - the sedan type carriage. So this was an outgrowth of that. We were based at Grand Central at the time, and we saw a need, with people coming in from out of town on trains like the 20th Century Limited, the Empire State, the Detroiter, the Wolverine, and all of these early deluxe trains that used to terminate in Grand Central. We would pick up the people and take them home, or to the hotels. Then we got connected with the hotels, and that’s how we began to grow.
L&C: What was your first job with the company?
Carey: My first job was as a road inspector for the bus company. I used to ride the routes to check and see that nobody was off the route, any breakdowns I would go out on, things like that.
L&C: Was there ever any doubt in your mind that you were going to get into the business? Did you want to do anything else?
Carey: No. There was never any doubt in my mind that I’d get into it, because I’ve been interested in it all of my life. I was exposed to it all of my life. When I was growing up, when my mother and father were going out, chauffeurs used to come up and babysit me.
L&C: How does the service work now?
Carey: It’s the owner-operator concept. They operate the cars to our specifications. We look for experienced people who know their way around and know how to handle customers.
L&C: Do they generally approach you, or do you approach them?
Carey: They approach us.
L&C: Is it handled differently internationally than here?
Carey: Well, each city has its own arrangement. In some cities, the operator owns the cars and hires the drivers. But in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, which are part of Carey International, all operate on the owner concept.
L&C: Before the company went international in 1968, did it spread across the United States at all?
Carey: It was a very slow growth. Remember that the limousine in those days had not really picked up. We were operating, at the time, about 135 to 140 cars in New York.
L&C: How did your cousin get the idea to go international?
Carey: In our conversations, I had said to him that I thought it would be a good idea to start branching out to other cities to find a market for our used cars. But that never did work out. So the thing just began to spread, and today it’s the largest system in the world.
Carey: Well, there’s a central reservation system, and there’s an advertising and marketing combined effort.
L&C: Do you have a minimum amount of cars that an operator has to have to be a part of the network?
Carey: No. It depends on the size of the city and how much business it will generate.
L&C: Is there one company per city?
Carey: Yes. They get exclusivity on the city. And in our marketing we do a great, deal with the travel agencies and the corporate travel planners there’s a number of associations that we keep going with.
L&C: Most of your current clients are corporate. That started around World War II. Why do you think corporations got into limousines at that time?
Carey: That’s when the airplane became more prevalent. Before that, people would go into the cities by train. Then the corporations’ manufacturing plants would be outside of the city in many cases.
L&C: So once they started flying in, I guess they needed transportation when they got there.
Carey: Yes. Remember that the corporations started expanding into out of the way places, more or less, that were away from public transportation. In New York, we used to do practically all of the State Department work. Visiting dignitaries coming through New York and going to the U.N. and things like that. It’s much broader today. If you advertised then you had a very select market. You were shooting with a rifle, not a scatter gun. It was a very small market, probably about two percent of the entire population.
L&C: Could you estimate what percentage it is now?
Carey: Oh, I would say it’s probably about 10 to 20 percent, comparatively speaking.
L&C: Do you think that’s just the growth of the size of corporations?
Carey: No. I think it’s due to the fact that jet aircraft is moving people a lot faster. I think that corporations, especially in the New York area where you’ve got a lot of the Fortune 500 companies who need transportation for their executives.
L&C: So people have to travel more.
Carey: People travel a lot more today than they did in those days. We get people who fly in the morning. We pick them up, take them all around, and put them back on the plane that night. Years ago, they took the train and they’d stay in town for a couple of days and take the train out.
L&C: With this growth in business and people using limousines so much more, are more people apt to request a sedan than a limousine?
Carey: That’s a tough question. We didn’t have too many sedans in those days. We were mostly a limousine company. There wasn’t much of an option. But today, a lot of people don’t want to be seen getting in and out of a big car. They’d just as soon get out of a sedan if it’s one or two people. When they go out to dinner or the theater or something like that, then they want the stretch because they need more room.
L&C: Do you think that the preference for the sedan is an image thing or a security concern?
Carey: I’d say it’s probably more security. There’s an awful lot of people that are very interested in maintaining a very low profile.
L&C: Looking back at your time in the industry, what do you see as the biggest change?
Carey: Probably the biggest change occurred when the credit card began to really catch on and the stretch came in and people began to move more quickly. The cities became more congested. It all started to come together in the middle to late 70’s.
L&C: Was that due to the traffic and the people traveling more, or could it also have been that there was more of a variety of limousines?
Carey: There was more of a variety. With the traffic problems, the parking situations and the shortage of taxi cabs, it’s so much easier to get a limousine. A fellow comes into town, has a schedule to meet, and he knows that he’s got his car and chauffeur to take him where he’s going. If he rents a car and drives it himself, he’s got to park it, he s got to worry about finding his way around and all that. It’s so much simpler with a limousine He gets in the back seat, tells the guy where he wants to go, and that’s it.
Actually, if you throw in the chauffeur-driven car against the drive- yourself car, when you stop and consider the man’s time and the cost, the limousine is not really that much more expensive. It works out pretty close. You take a high power executive today, have him stand in line to rent a car, figure out where he’s going, park the car...and if he has a limousine, he can work in the car.
L&C: How do you think passengers have changed over the years?
Carey: I don’t think that the basic passenger has changed. I just think there are more of them.
L&C: What about the industry. Have attitudes changed?
Carey: People want good service. They want to know that their car is going to be there, with an experienced chauffeur. Service is still the name of the game, regardless. A clean car, an efficient chauffeur, that’s all they really want.
L&C: Tell me about changes in the cars.
Carey: In the early days, all the drivers used to carry lap robes for the customers, because for many years you didn’t have heaters in the cars. When I first got into the business was when we started to have heaters. We use to make our own heaters for the back seats back in the ‘30’s. We’d put a tube with a register on the floor in the back of the car and take the heat off the engine.
We also had the first air conditioned car. We had a situation where a former Prime Minister of Great Britain was coming to New York, and he suffered terrifically from asthma. He was going to give a series of lectures at Columbia University, and we were assigned the task of driving him while he was in town. We had to have an air conditioned car for him. Nobody had ever heard of an air conditioned car. So what we did was we made our own. We cut a hole in between the seat and the rear window, and we put an exhaust fan in, and every morning we’d put a 300 pound block of ice in the trunk. We’d have it in a metal container, and underneath was something to hold the ice, and there was a pan below it for drainage out into the street. With the air being pulled through the exhaust fan into the car over the ice, we got that car so cold you couldn’t stand it. You needed an overcoat. We only did it for that one. It was too expensive, and it became a monumental task to get the ice in the trunk every day.
The first heaters that were built were only built for the front seat I think the first rear seat heater came in 1933. It was strictly a hot water heater. The radiator had a fan behind it that circulated the heat. In those days, if you didn’t have the heater, you froze to death. That’s why we had the lap robes. We even carried lightweight lap robes in the summertime. They used to carry robe rails behind the partition to hang them on.
L&C: When did they actually start air conditioning cars?
Carey: The first air conditioned cars were put on the line about 1953.
L&C: Was that used as advertising?
Carey: Oh yes. That was a big advertising gimmick in those days. By about 1954 or ‘55, in the summertime if we didn’t have an air conditioned car, nobody wanted it. We put the air conditioned cars on right away, because we didn’t have any business if we didn’t have an air conditioned car.
L&C: What about all the other gadgets in the cars now the TVs, the VCR’s, when did all that start to become really popular?
Carey: I experimented with TVs in the cars back in the early ‘60’s, but I could never get one to work properly, so I just abandoned that. I had a gimmick built that, when we had more than three passengers, we couldn’t use because it was braced on the jump seat. If you put somebody on the jump seat, they’d knock it.
L&C: What about now? Do you think that people expect to have a TV in their car? Is it a big deal with your clients?
Carey: Some people do, some people don’t. It’s one of those things. It depends on what they want to use the car for. Now a lot of cars have VCRs. Some people use that, because it doesn’t roll like the regular television does. I’ve found the reception in televisions unsatisfactory. As far as I’m concerned, when I ride in the back of a limousine today, I don’t even bother to turn the thing on. I turn on the radio.
L&C: When did radios get popular?
Carey: We started putting radios in around 1940. That was just an AM, there was no FM in those days.
L&C: Did that go over really well?
Carey: Well, it depended. If you had someone who wanted to listen to the news, or to a particular program, then he’d want to make sure he had a car with a radio. But otherwise, people weren’t that interested, really. Remember that we didn’t have stereo or anything like that in those days. The radio was just a plain AM radio. It didn’t even have buttons on it. You had to twist the knob to get the station. I can remember my father put the first radio in about 1935. We didn’t start putting them in the fleet until about 1940. We had problems with the early radios.
L&C: Have the cars always had partitions?
Carey: Oh yes. Partitions have changed through the years. We used to have the old crank partition. Just rolled it up like a window. The crank was near the jump seat. You just cranked it up. You had a one way telephone to the driver. Actually, it wasn’t a telephone, it was like a microphone. You’d pull it out, press the button, and tell the driver where you wanted to go. Now they have everything. They can drop the window to talk to the driver, they have intercoms. They’ve got everything now. Things are a lot changed.
L&C: Do you think that things are going to change much more?
Carey: I can only see the business growing. There’s more competition out there than ever before. We used to have about two pages of ads in the Yellow Pages. We’ve got 40 pages of ads now. We used to be listed under auto rental in those days. Limousine service wasn’t even mentioned. Then slowly it moved into limousine service and came out of the auto rental thing. There were only five pages altogether in those days, with the limousines and the auto rental. Today there are 40 pages of limousines only. So there’s a great deal of competition in the business today.
L&C: Do you think that’s good?
Carey: I think it keeps people more on their toes.
L&C: Do you think, though, that the number of companies that fail in less than a year can have a negative impact on the industry as a whole?
Carey: People get the wrong idea. People think that there’s a fortune to be made. They think it’s like finding gold. I don’t think it hurts companies like Carey when those companies fail. Today, you find more and more people are looking to deal with established firms.
L&C: So do you think that attitude will prevail and the “get rich quick” people will fall by the wayside?
Carey: I think that with the new tax laws, a lot of them won’t be able to stand it. The expenses are too high. The cost of the car is major. All of these things add up. And unless you’ve got a pretty steady clientele that’s going to keep you going, you’re not going to make the expenses.
L&C: What do you see for the future of Carey International?
Carey: I think Carey International is going to grow because of an aggressive, knowledgeable management. I’m partially retired now, but there’s a young, aggressive, knowledgeable management that I think is going to go places.
L&C: What is your official title at the company now?
Carey: I’m a consultant. I’m here a great deal of the time. After 42 years, I like to keep my hand in it. I like to stay around and see what’s happening. But the management today is here for the long pull, and Ithink their ideas are great. They are really out to do a job in this business.
You might say that this business today is in the same category as Hertz and Avis were 35 years ago. The growth is comparable. Not that their business is like ours, because it’s not.
L&C: How has the style of management changed over the years as the company’s grown?
Carey: It’s changed and come along just like in any company. When I started in this business, I’d think nothing of 14, 16, or 18 hour days. That was the norm. I used to work six or seven days a week. Today, it’s becoming more specialized and automated.
In the early days, my father and I used to split up operations, which included the cars, the dispatching, the reservations, and he used to do the public relations, and advertising, and finances. The two of us used to work back and forth. Today, one man can’t do all of those things. It’s too complicated.
I used to buy and sell cars. Selling cars in those days was different than it is today. Today it’s a full-time job. It was only a part-time job when I used to do it. It’s a full-time job for one man. The whole thing is so much bigger and more complicated.
We used to handle dignitaries. We handled the King and Queen of England in 1939 when they came to visit. We picked them up in New York, took them to the 1939 World’s Fair. Then we took them to Franklin Roosevelt’s home up in Hyde Park. Then in 1957 Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were here and we had them for about 18 hours non-stop. We picked them up in Staten Island and brought them across on the Staten Island Ferry to a ticker tape parade up Broadway. We took them all over New York and at 2:00 the next morning we put them on a plane back to Great Britain. People like that don’t come into town too much anymore. And when they do, the State Department doesn’t handle them. Each individual embassy handles people like that now.
I used to ride shotgun on those things years ago. I would be the last car in line and, if anything should happen, there would be no slow down because I’d pull right into place, put the people in the car, and send them on their way. I’d take care of the one that was broken down. Luckily, I never had that happen. Everything always ran up to snuff, but I was always prepared just in case.
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