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Limousine & Chauffeur contributor Rich Ramis recently spoke with Buddy Stein about his long experience in the limousine and taxi industries in Chicago. Stein has been a professional driver for more than twenty years and now owns and operates ESX Limousine in Chicago. Stein is an advocate of comprehensive chauffeur training and other means of increasing the professionalism and public recognition of drivers and chauffeurs. He is currently involved in the formation of the Greater Chicagoland Association.
Ramis: You were originally in the taxicab business weren’t you?
Stein: I suppose that my first love was taxicabs.
Ramis: Why’d you get out of the taxicab business?
Stein: Well, it was a momentary bit of insanity that caused me to go into the limousine business. The limousine business has a different beat to it. The cab business has a beat like this... (clicks his fingers medium-fast). And the limo business has a beat that goes like this (clicks his fingers very slowly). I thought it would be more interesting and profitable to carry one person for fifteen dollars instead of fifteen people for one dollar. That is essentially the relationship between the cab and the limo.
Ramis: What similarities have you found between the taxicab business and the limousine business?
Ramis: Most people tend to disagree. They would say that limo-taxi-bus people, with more miles of experience, have less probability of accidents.
Stein: No. The probability increases if the person drives 10,000 miles a year. I think the “average” driver ‘drives 10,000 to 15,000 miles a year. Sure they drive during the rush hour, but they will avoid bad driving conditions and they’ll take public transportation. Whereas the professional driver is out on the road in the rush hour, in snow and rain, and in the most adverse of conditions because that is when his service is most needed. And the interim ground transportation business, such as the taxicab and the limo, are called upon when a customer wants to leave their car at home because of adversity. The more adverse it gets, the more the cab and limo will function. However, let’s just talk about probability. And this I bring up quite often. If a person drives 10,000 miles a year, the probability of having an accident will be X. If they drive 100,000 miles a year, it’s not 10 XX, it’s 100 XX because of exposure. Just being on the street, and being involved in situations, doesn’t increase it ten times if you drive ten times the mileage, it increases it 100 to 500 times. I don’t know if you can understand the probability factor — it increases 100-fold rather than just 10-fold, because it encompasses every adversity and every adverse period of time during the day.
Ramis: How do you think the public views professional drivers?
Stein: Drivers are generally demeaned by the public. There is a total lack of recognition for taxi and limo drivers. If a child asks a parent what they should be, they never say “Be a chauffeur.” They say, “Be a doctor or a lawyer or a professional person of some kind.”
Education is extremely important in gaining more respect for drivers. I mentioned before about driving high miles. Everybody is an average driver until they drive over 40,000 or 50,000 miles a year. Then they need to have special training along with a philosophy about their work. They must be equipped with the tools of the trade. There is an apprenticeship in almost every trade and in our business, I’m sad to say, they throw the person right in a vehicle — it’s called the “warm body principle” — and they put him on the street. “Here’s the key to number 16 Johnny so, hey, go be a man.” I don’t believe in this and I never have.
Consequently, what you do is burn off a lot of talented people who don’t make money, or who have an accident, or who get robbed or cheated. We must prepare drivers to face the hazards in the industry, and they need to learn what I call “total defensive driving.” Defensive driving is not enough...it has to be total defensive driving. You have all of these negative things to contend with in a very long and exhausting day...overtiredness, unexpected problems, and a lot of negative things that you have to prepare for.
Ramis: Should limousine drivers set an example for other professional drivers since we are at the top in professional driving?
Stein: I think that is a very snobbish perspective. There are quality people in every type of driving. Every driver has a responsibility to maintain professional standards. This will help improve the image of cab and truck drivers as well as chauffeurs. There are a lot of people who have been driving for 20 years, and have earned enough to put their kids through school but, when they try to get credit at the bank, they find that driving is regarded in our society as an interim occupation. It is not a career, it is not a profession, and it is not a trade. It is just there. It is there for the guy who wakes up one morning and says, “Gee, I’m a little low on money, I better go and drive a cab or limo.” There is no reason for this image to continue.
There is a need for more training programs within the industry. Every other industry has some kind of program. They have vocational schools for mechanics and there are training programs for electricians and other tradesmen. Driving is also a professional trade, and the responsibility undertaken by drivers is even greater than in many other trades. We need a total training and apprenticeship program in our industry.
Ramis: Limousine services do train their people in one way or another. They more or less treat them like the helpers on Coca Cola trucks. They show them how to load the luggage, and they do a little behind the wheel training for a few days.
Stein: But who’s training that person? A professional trainer?
Ramis: No. A driver who got the same treatment a month before.
Stein: That driver may pass along their own bad habits. There has to be a norm for training drivers. What is the norm of professionalism? What is the norm of quality driving? What are the minimum standards for the health of a person? The use of alcohol, the use of drugs? These things have to be delved into.
We’re still in the 19th century in our country and it seems like we’re still 100 years away from developing respectable standards for this industry. There are some exceptions like Flash Cab in Chicago which is probably one of the very best cab companies in the country because the owner is interested in safety and in the quality of the industry. This has brought Flash Cab company an incredibly good reputation and a large business.
There are also quality limousine services. There are high quality companies in every industry. So you always get leaders, but the norm is what I’m concerned about. For our 4,600 taxis in Chicago, and our 1,500 liveries in the general area, there is no recognized training program where an owner can send their people.
Some people feel that all you have to do is know how to drive a car and read a map. Well, that’s a lot of baloney. One important part of training should be maintenance. Even though you don’t have to be the one to fix a car, you should know something about it so that, when you hear that funny squeak or grind, you know that something’s not right. Sometimes a driver may not be able to wait until Saturday to take it to Joe’s garage, and will have to fix a car himself. This kind of training is one of the things that has to be adapted to our industry.
Ramis: Let me ask you two questions: Number one, what are you doing to create this new education and safety and what will be the end result be after this is in place.
Stein: Better driver training in our industry would improve the insurance picture for livery companies. Lately, no insurance company wants to touch a livery company with a ten-foot pole because the quality isn’t there. This comes back to what I said about total defensive driving. There are a few good courses in defensive driving, but that is not enough. You have to expand this further to a total defensive philosophy. This includes a complete knowledge of driving rules and regulations, safety, technical driving skills, use of a 2-way radio, maintenance, customer service, and geography.
Ramis: A lot of companies make a habit of not hiring experienced drivers because they don’t want their bad habits. How could one generic school benefit the industry?
Stein: Because there is a norm for professionalism in every industry. In the electronics industry, a wire has got to be soldered a certain way and it doesn’t matter if company X or company Y teaches that process. One of the problems with every company teaching their own driving procedures is that half the time they don’t have the skills, the tools, or the interest to do it effectively. They often just put a warm body in the car and send him out on the road. Maybe they send them out with another driver for a half a day to show a new driver where the airport is. We’ll never elevate our industry that way.
In England it takes 18 months to become a cab driver. Here it takes 18 minutes. Now is this right? Of course not. See, I’m proud. I’ve been in the livery business for 23 years as a driver, as an owner, as an operator, and as an owner of a large fleet of limousines. I’ve been in this a long time, and I’ve always been appalled.
Ramis: What would you tell a class of high school seniors about the benefits of a career in the limousine business?
Stein: There is much freedom. Even though you are regulated by your boss to some extent, you have freedom. It also gives you the opportunity to learn about life by talking with the thousands of people you meet each year from all levels of society. It makes a better person out of you.
Stein: The reason I’m mentioning cabs so often is that this is where many limousine drivers come from today. They have “graduated” from. They think, “cab driving is okay, but I like the idea of driving a limousine better.”
Ramis: Talk to me about Buddy Stein and the GCLA.
Stein: If someone wants to progress in the limousine business, he has to get associated with other people in the industry who have common interests. I’m not talking about owners now. I’m talking about drivers for a moment. It is very hard to get them together to do anything collectively. The same is true of owner-operators. They often feel that they don’t need to join any kind of association but, at the same time, they’re paying high insurance rates, they’re having trouble finding quality drivers, and they’re struggling with things like taxes and bookkeeping and growth planning. I’ll be trite by saying that two heads are better than one, thirty heads are better than two, and so on.
Ramis: Why are other cities having such success with regional associations? There are probably 30 very successful local limousine associations in the country, why not in Chicago?
Stein: Well, we have a number of livery associations here but their purposes aren’t rudimentary enough. They are not helping each other with basic problems. There is too much self-interest. The livery industry has grown entirely too fast and it is completely unregulated. People think, “Hey, I just started yesterday, and I have six cars already.” Why does he have six cars? Because the rates are undercut and the quality is low. He can take a station wagon, put limo plates on it, say he’s got insurance, and go to work. It’s hard to organize these people because they think that they are successful when they really are not. The total freedom that they have to get a limo plate from the State of Illinois is a travesty. There has to be some regulation.
There is going to have be some kind of moderate regulation in this state to get our industry here back into a quality concept. It just grew too fast and it is not going to get any smaller.
You have got to sell operators on the philosophy of quality service. When I get 20 guys interviewing in a room, and they want to get into the business, I tell them right off, “If you’re here just to grab the money and run because you don’t have money in your pocket, then I don’t know if you’re going to do me or yourself any good. I don’t want to say that you are all here for a career but, hopefully, some of you will build a career in this business.
This is not an easy business to be in. We started ESX Limousine in 1979, and worked twenty hours a day; seven days a week, for about three years. The hardest part in our industry is to get beyond the first five cars. If you can get beyond that, then you can start running the business and doing different things, but in the beginning you are driving and dealing with all of the day-to-day problems.
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