The founder of Pontarelli Companies leaves a legacy of quality transportation and brave service to his country.
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A look at the business performance and plans of Executive Coach Builders proves that talk of the death of the stretch limo is exaggerated.
After a recession that wracked and almost sunk the stretch limousine manufacturing sector, ECB has emerged as the largest limousine manufacturer in the world, with one quarter of its vehicles exported to nations around the globe.
Somebody must have done something right. All indications point to the man at the top: David Bakare, who celebrates 20 years this year as owner of ECB. He’s banking on the growing popularity of the MKT stretch limousine, the successor to the Town Car sedan stretch, to keep his company at No. 1.
Bakare spoke to LCT at length in April and May, his first major interview with the magazine in almost five years. Much has happened in the limo manufacturing sector and at ECB during this challenging half-decade, requiring Bakare to adjust to new realities so his business stays out front.
Foremost, limousine operators today are buying a wider variety of chauffeured vehicle makes, models, styles and configurations, Bakare says. Before the recession, ECB produced four key limousine models. Now it offers 15 different ones. “We can’t have business in one segment to sustain ECB. It may be inefficient to manufacture, but you have to produce almost anything the customer wants.”
To build more vehicles for a diversified marketplace, a coachbuilder has to redefine efficiency, Bakare says. The old approach of building a few models with sizable economies of scale has yielded to the higher production costs and lower profits from sustaining multiple model lines. The new approach still makes money, but requires more effort and expense to keep customers happy.
“People want variety,” Bakare says. “They want the Sprinter, a party car, limos, all types of vehicles. We have to evolve and adjust to customers’ demands.”
FASTFACTS: Executive Coach Builders
Location: Springfield, Mo.
Founder: John Bumgarner, (1944-2009)
Current owner: David Bakare, Pres.
Key models: MKT stretch limousines; Sprinter vans; Navigators, Escalade, Chrysler 300 and GMC vans
Certification: Quality Vehicle Manufacturer (QVM)
Production, 2012: 357 units
Production, 2013: 450 units
Vehicle models: 15
Top seller: Lincoln MKT Evolution stretch limousine
Annual revenues: N/A (privately held)
Key executives: James Bakare, vice president of operations; Murray Wolkove, sales manager; Abby Bakare, head of accounting department.
Contact: (417) 831-3535
Like most U.S. coachbuilders, the recession hit ECB hard. Annual vehicle production plummeted from 600 units in 2007 to 180 just two years later. Annual production then rose to 357 units last year, and is projected at 450 for this year. ECB is on track to meet its goal of about 500 annual units in 2014.
The growth in demand from foreign markets helped sustain ECB during the recession as domestic demand for stretch limousines fell. Its share of exported vehicles rose from 10% to 40% of total production. Since then, it has rebalanced to about 20-25%, Bakare says. “During the recession, export business was steady, thank God. Now when exports have slowed down, domestic demand has picked up.”
ECB, a Ford QVM manufacturer, is seeing greatest demand for the Lincoln MKT Town Car stretch limousine, the successor to the Town Car sedan stretches that have ruled the limousine market for decades. Sprinter vans are a close second, serving as the ideal base model for a variety of limo bus, shuttle and corporate van configurations.
But the two base models fill complementary needs in the limo vehicle market. “The MKT can’t do the job of the Sprinter, and the Sprinter can’t do the job of the MKT,” Bakare says.
ECB also anticipates demand for the new Ford Transit limo. “This vehicle is poised to put a dent in the Sprinter market while creating a niche of its own,” he says. “There was a lot of buzz when this vehicle was first introduced in February at the ILCT Show and inquiries keep coming while we all await its arrival.”
A New MKT Era
Customers at first hesitated over the cross-over shaped MKT, but soon placed more orders for them after buying one or two and trying them out, Bakare says. “We’ve seen an explosion of MKT sales. They realized it’s the best option on the [stretch] market. It’s not so bad after all.”
Bakare admires the solid structure and mechanical quality of the MKT, along with its equipment — all of which surpass the quality of the Lincoln Town Car sedan stretch models. The MKT is engineered to handle more weight than Chrysler and Cadillac stretch limo models, which ECB also makes, he says. While following Cadillac Master Coachbuilder standards, ECB does not have the CMC designation because it builds Escalade super-stretches, which are not officially part of the CMC program.
Bakare has observed that the MKT stretch is well suited to everyday use, whereas the limousines from the other two domestic automakers are better for weekends. They each have their distinct advantages and attributes, he adds.
“Frankly I was lukewarm toward the MKT, but after you’ve been around it and driven it, it’s like night and day,” says Bakare, citing the all-wheel drive, navigation, solid structure and extra headroom. “There is no comparison. The crossover is more like an SUV. In the Town Car, you had to bend down to get in and out. The Town Car [sedan] is like a nice hotel room but the MKT is like being in a suite, with more shoulder and headroom. But both are in a five-star hotel.”
Based on the sales and inquiries at ECB exhibits during three trade shows in the past year, the Sprinter appears to attract a lot of crowds and curiosity, but the MKTs are being sold at about a ratio of five to one, Bakare says. “We thought the Sprinter would take over, but people ended up gravitating toward and buying the MKT which has since become the new darling of the industry,” Bakare says. “The great news is that Ford Motor Company just announced that the MKT will continue to be the livery and QVM vehicle for the rest of the decade. This information is very significant because it helps the industry plan its purchasing and production forecast for the next five to seven years.”
Bakare finds some operators moving toward a fleet mix of several MKTs and one Sprinter. “Most people don’t get picked up at the airport in a Sprinter,” he says. “I was watching vehicles at the Chicago airport and happy to see all the new MKTs coming through and Town Cars and limos dropping people off. It’s different from two years ago. The industry is coming back. We’re seeing more activity in limousines than in the past.
“The MKT is bringing people back to fundamentals, what they’ve always liked,” he says.
Just as LCT marks its 30th anniversary this year, Bakare celebrates 20 years at the helm of ECB, which opened in 1976. He acquired the company by happenstance, shortly after graduating from the University of Southern California where he studied computer engineering. His father, a Nigerian businessman who is a royal chief, saw a Lincoln limousine while visiting his son in Los Angeles. He bought one at a dealership in Westwood since U.S. limousines were priced lower than those sold in the U.K.
“I thought it was a cool toy,” Bakare recalls. “I was a kid, 22 years old, and I liked building things and was attracted to the limousines and thought they would be cool.”
Bakare’s father at first planned to set up his son with a Lexus dealership, but when they learned that ECB in Springfield, Mo., was for sale, Bakare raised money and pursued a deal. “We bought ECB by accident. The product was so beyond our expectations. I was invited to come in as a partner, and when I saw the product line, decided to buy the whole company.”
At the time, ECB was at its lowest point, with only 24 employees and a production of 25 vehicles per year. It had been owned for a period by an investment house. Bakare bought ECB from a group of business partners, who had previously bought it from founder John Bumgarner in 1981. Much of the ECB limousine industry experience and institutional knowledge can be traced back to Doug Donalson, who was the first employee of Executive when it opened in 1976. After selling Executive, Bumgarner went on to create Springfield Limousine. A regular fixture at limousine tradeshows, Bumgarner died in December 2009 at age 65 of complications from a fall.
In 1989, ECB absorbed the old Armbruster-Stageway Company, a stagecoach and limousine maker that dates to 1886. ECB bought the actual company, tooling and intellectual property, and relocated it to Springfield. Federal Coach bought and occupied the old Armbruster-Stageway factory in Fort Smith, Ark., until Federal sold off its divisions in 2009 and 2010. So ECB stands as the primary inheritor of the historic U.S. limousine and stagecoach legacy that originated in the southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas region, which to this day has fourth generation limousine manufacturing workers.
“Our factory is dedicated to Armbruster-Stageway,” Bakare says. “It’s the oldest ever and we link to their legacy. A lot of Armbruster technology and skill influenced ECB, and was used to revive ECB. It took years but we were able to pick up the pieces and create a cornerstone of the limousine industry out of it.”
Two Decades Strong
In marking his 20th anniversary owning ECB, Bakare cites some key milestones that continue the company’s distinguished historic limousine legacy:
As Bakare enters his third decade of limo building, the 42-year-old entrepreneur plans to add Armbruster Funeral and a full bus manufacturing division that builds on his company’s ability to bring quality, well-engineered products to the marketplace. He plans to have his bus line custom engineered.
“We’re not going to rush this,” Bakare says. “We want to do it right and take the time so when we launch products that are problem free and engineered from the beginning.” ECB plans to start out with three key bus models — F550, F650 and Freightiliner — and then work into a more diverse mix, eventually reaching 12 models.
A planned bus deal with Perris, Calif.-based Tiffany Coachworks, announced in 2011, was not finalized, but Tiffany remains a friendly competitor, Bakare says. “We still maintain a very good relationship with Tiffany Coach and the owners are close personal friends of mine.”
Armbruster Federal will offer Cadillac and Lincoln funeral vehicles, including hearses and six doors. Once those two divisions are in place, ECB will make a complete line of chauffeured vehicles: Lincoln, Cadillac and Chrysler stretches, Navigator and Escalade SUV stretches, funeral vehicles, Sprinter and GMC vans, and minibuses of multiple designs. All evolved from a historic manufacturing legacy, catapulted to the future by the new MKT, and rooted in the heart of the modern limousine industry. “Springfield has always been the capital of coachbuilders,” Bakare says.
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