North Carolina’s H.A. Thompson who retired from his company last year at age 85 reminds industry fleet owners of time-tested strategies.
The annual LCT Leadership Issue takes a broader approach each year, recognizing that paths to success and the lessons of leadership are as unique as the individuals who experience them.
That was apparent at the 12th annual LCT Leadership Summit, where new faces and a sizable group of first-time attendees brought new perspectives and experiences to the limousine industry.
For this year’s issue, we asked operators and suppliers from around the industry about business challenges, choices and/or failures that have helped them lead. There is no one, true correct path to leadership and running a business — just lots of ideas and triumphs along the way that can apply to anyone running a chauffeured operation.
Amondo Sapiro: Security In Referrals
M&L International Logistics,
Transportation & Personal
Florida operator Amondo Sapiro knows how to do his own thing and command a lot of respect, not to mention business. Since 1995, his way has worked well. With extensive law enforcement and VIP-security experience, the founder of M&L in Orlando runs a business without a website. It’s hard to believe, but for Sapiro, the power of relationships and referrals pay off. Clients can reach him by cell anytime. Over the years, he has netted contracts for chauffeured transportation and armed/unarmed security service at six out of eight FBOs in the Orlando area. His 30-vehicle fleet company is headquartered on Orlando International Airport property, just a stone’s throw from a runway.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native builds his body as much as his company. The combination gives Sapiro the clout and the cachet to run a company that protects the rich and famous while serving a long list of big name limousine companies that farm out business to M&L. Sapiro handles more runs from out of state than he does locally. As a former police officer, a chauffeur, security detailer and consultant, limousine company owner and health-and-fitness buff, Sapiro favors one time-tested leadership principle: “You always take control of a situation and de-escalate a problem civilly. You always have to be impartial and make executive decisions that you can answer to if needed.”
Jeff Canady: Big On Basics
CLT Express Livery
SC Express Livery
Jeff Canady faced a problem common to many newer, smaller limousine operators: How do you grow your business if you can’t get through the affiliate and corporate front doors? Three years ago, Canady found a solution: Buy another company. He and his wife, Laura, co-owners of CLT Express Livery in Charlotte, N.C., bought a company in South Carolina and rebranded it South Carolina Express Livery. “The only way to get their attention was through the back door, in my case the purchase of Aiken Limousine three years ago. That brought other clients into my office immediately, where we had a relationship with them,” Canady says. “It led to business here in Charlotte.” The Canadys paid off their 10-year financing on the company seven years early. They now run 45-vehicles among the two companies.
Canady also learned the value of actually owning commercial and business property. The Canadays own the land and buildings of both of their companies. They have a 2,200-square-foot office on four acres seven minutes from the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and a 4,200-square-foot facility in Aiken, S.C. “I believe in appreciation instead of depreciation,” Canady says. “Appreciation means buying a piece of land or building and putting an office there, and not wasting money on a landlord. Everything you own or run in this business depreciates. I’m baffled why someone spends $130,000 on a limo bus or limousine when they can spend it on something that would acquire financial stability for them 20 years down the road.”
Anthony Mazzarella: Family Model
American Limousine Service
Anthony Mazzarella Jr. belongs to an 82-vehicle chauffeured business that has served Ohio for 70 years. He learned his biggest leadership lesson when his father became ill with cancer. “Because my father was the company’s only decision maker, and now no longer in that position, myself and many other family members working for the company had to wear numerous hats, caregiver being one of them,” Mazzarella recalls. “I in particular shifted much of my time and attention to the care of my father, and in doing so began to neglect current clients. Unfortunately, as you can guess, this resulted in losing one of our major corporate accounts.”
Mazzarella resolved the problem by treating his client relationships like those of a family. When friction develops, you move past differences and rely on unconditional love, he says. “As my father would often say, ‘Get up, brush off your pant legs, and move on.’ So I did. I took the time to reconnect with my contact at this corporation. By re-establishing a quiet presence, listening to concerns they were having with the firm they hired when we lost the contract there, I was able to find out information from my former client which became helpful in rebuilding our relationship. Within nine months, we became their transportation provider once again, not only locally but on a national level. In mirroring the positives of family relationships as a model for business relationships, I was able to find success. Just like the nurturing of our children is critical to their growth, so is it true with our professional relationships.”
Jim Connelly: React With Facts
Commerical & Professional
As the new manager of the Cadillac Professional Vehicles program, Jim Connelly was introduced to the limousine industry, appropriately enough, at the LCT Leadership Summit in June. As a veteran of various managerial positions at General Motors, Connelly believes that success relies on keeping customer expectations at the center of the “lenses” that you wear. In putting together vehicle incentive programs and meeting the needs of a highly developed customer base, Connelly relies on constant calculations on the economy and gas prices along with flexibility: “When you get into those situations you need to stay positive and react quickly to circumstances. Fact find, but don’t wait too long to adjust your game plan as you may miss your opportunity. Don’t let yourself get caught in the trap of wanting one more piece of data before you decide. Leverage your experience and trust your gut.”
Connelly lives by four basic rules when meeting challenges professional and personal: 1) Stay true to your integrity; never waver on your principles; 2) Be open to criticism, it may be true; 3) Lead by doing and take ownership of your actions; 4) Charge ahead but don’t forget to encourage your team to bring up the rear.
— Martin Romjue, LCT editor
Scott Tinkler: Master Team Builder
President and CEO
Aventura Worldwide Transportation Service
Scott Tinkler has built a career out of teamwork. As the equipment manager for the Florida Panthers for 12 years, and after serving as a U.S. Marine in Operation Desert Storm, Tinkler understands the value of getting everyone onboard to work together as a team and create a system. When it works right, the results flow easily. “That’s one of the most rewarding things about the job,” Tinkler says, “when you have a 300+ ride with little to no incidents, and the machine is all working and everyone is clicking together, it’s very rewarding.”
Tinkler came to Aventura in 2005 after the NHL strike ended the season that year. His stepfather, Neil Goodman, founded the company in 1992, but Tinkler never had anticipated working in the limo industry. He found that he thoroughly enjoyed the business. When he was offered a job full time, he decided to forgo his career with the Panthers and go all in with Aventura. “After weighing all my options it was really the best thing I could have done,” Tinkler says. “I’ve maximized the opportunity that was presented to me, and I’m very pleased and grateful.” Tinkler also has just recently completed his bachelor’s degree in business at the University of Miami and plans to build upon Aventura’s strong brand that Goodman established.
And Tinkler knows that he’ll need a great team around him to be able to do it. “It’s not a one man operation,” he says. “We are truly a team in this company, and I like to use a lot of sports analogies, but it really is that you win as a team and you lose as a team. If someone makes a reservation mistake, it’s Aventura that made the mistake, we succeed and fail as a team.”
Starting from the entry-level on up, Tinkler paid his dues as a dispatcher and reservationist. He kept a keen eye on every department so that he could understand the functions of each and learn how they all worked together to keep the operation smooth. Fortunately, Goodman is still involved with the company and counsels Tinkler on any tight jams he may encounter, while CFO Ron Scorci is also available to lend his wealth of experience and advice to the team. “The two have so much combined experience and respect in the industry, which has really been important for me and my development, and I’m very fortunate to have that.”
East Minneapolis, Minn.
Janet Cherrier’s introduction into the limo industry was just a bit serendipitous. “My significant other at the time rented a limousine for my birthday, and during the night we had some small talk about what fun it could be to have a limousine and have it as a hobby side business,” she says. “After several months of research on coach builders and talking with local limousine operators, we decided to purchase a stretch limousine in 1988. Our work was mainly weddings, but we didn’t know a thing about the industry — we just dove in head first!”
One limo turned into two, and when Cherrier started to look for a third limousine, the owner of Premier Limousine suggested she buy his company in 1990. After thinking about it, she felt that she could not pass up on the opportunity and thought it could be a turning point for her career. Since Premier Limousine was founded in 1965, Cherrier and her partner decided to continue the Premier name and in 1994 added the name Premier Transportation because they began to focus on the corporate travelers.
In 2001 Cherrier bought out her partner and became the sole owner of Premier Transportation. “Being in this industry for 25 years, one of the biggest challenges is rolling with the ever changing economy,” she says. “Being able to upsize and down size your fleet with the highs and lows of the economy is important, and also, with the fluctuating fuel costs, knowing when to raise your rates without losing your clients is vital.”
Cherrier recently moved to a new location that has easy access onto the freeways and is closer to the airport. She’s also added minicoaches and Sprinter vans, launched a new web-site and mobile app, and is using new software that has advanced reservation/dispatch, GPS tracking and real-time status updates and reporting.
“Going to industry shows over the years,” she says, “I have become great friends with wonderful people within this industry, whom I can consider as lifelong friends and extended family.”
Marvin Fisher: Refining Communication
Cooper-Global Chauffeured Transportation
The structure of Cooper-Global is a thing to behold. With an approach to its chauffeur communication that borrows from the inner workings of high-level fast-food franchises, Cooper-Global runs an efficient fleet of 96 full-time chauffeur employees who are sectioned off into teams. As president Marvin Fisher explains, “We set up a plan where we have sectioned our chauffeurs into teams that each has supervisors and captains, so information can be pushed down not through one person but through a team of 15 captains and supervisors,” he says. “And it has worked tremendously, and we have seen a big increase in communication and an increased level of service through the program.”
Fisher came to Cooper Global in 2006, after merging his well-established operation, London Livery, with the company. Some of the biggest challenges he has faced while at Cooper Global has been keeping up the infrastructure to match the breakneck pace of growth the company has experienced. “It’s just been very aggressive growth over the past eight years,” Fisher says. “We had a vision to build our infrastructure so that we could support rapid growth. So basically number one was we purchased real estate in both South and North Atlanta that could accommodate fleet, and one of our other keys has been from day one we’ve had a marketing manager who has done tremendous work on our branding.”
With a position dedicated to the website, social media, print, and sponsorships that include the Atlanta Ballet and major sports teams of the area, Cooper Global has had tremendous success. One new avenue Fisher has opened up is expanding Cooper Global’s service offerings to groups and educational markets. He hopes to be able to increase the sales team and develop programs for educational institutions to help them fund their increasing transportation needs.
Jeff Hiltunen: Keeping Up With Advances
West Suburban Travelers Limousine
West Suburban started in 1966 when Jeff Hiltunen’s father saw an opportunity to open a limo service for the suburbanites of greater Chicago. “Back in the day when the company first started out, there was no taxi service or anything in the suburbs, only in Chicago,” Hiltunen says, “so some smaller limousine companies started out, and a couple of them are still around actually, but there was a big market for them right off the bat.”
Jeff Hiltunen took over the company about eight years ago, and says that the biggest problem is keeping good chauffeurs. West Suburban still uses independent operators 100% for chauffeurs, a practice that has been tricky as of late with many crackdowns on illegal categorizing. But Hiltunen stresses that each of his independents is fully autonomous and that the relationship has advantages and disadvantages. “It seems that the old school drivers are going by the wayside, and when you do get them you try to maintain them for a long time,” he says, “and when we do hire one, they’re put on a probationary period, and if they don’t meet our expectations, well that’s the good thing about an independent contractor is you can part with them a little easier.”
West Suburban’s market is mostly corporate with a few weddings and proms here and there, and Hiltunen says his biggest challenge aside from good chauffeurs has been navigating the fluctuating cost of gas and transitioning his fleet to newer model cars. He hopes to boost up his affiliate work this year, saying that he mostly farms out and that he’d like to change that.
They’ve recently upgraded to the Hudson Group limo software, which enables them to integrate dispatch into smart phone text messaging. The program is operating smoothly, with some minor training needed for some of the chauffeurs but to date it’s running without hitch. Hiltunen’s daughter, Danielle, is a student at Aurora University, and he has been slowly teaching her the business in hopes that she might one day bring West Suburban to the next generation of transportation clients.
—Tim Crowley, LCT senior editor
Managing change can be one of the hardest parts of moving a company forward, especially during a period of technological upheaval. “You have to be open to change,” says Jon Epstein, president of Royal Coachman Worldwide.
A good leader will help transform those who resist change, Epstein says. For example, a dispatcher of 20-plus years may struggle with changes in technology after running dispatches out of a book or with coupons on the wall. “When we started introducing lots of change about 10 years ago, it was like pulling teeth. But technology is changing and driving our industry. You have to encourage people to embrace change — you can’t let them back you down.”
Consistent communication is key to managing change, Epstein says. Allotting time to hold meetings to bring employees into the decision process empowers people and helps ensure they’re invested in changes.
The mettle of a leader also can be tested when times are tough, he says. 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis had a “monumental impact” on business. “When things are good, it’s easy to be a good leader. Any time you’re in a crises situation, as an industry, that’s when people are really looking to you to be a leader.”
In 2009 Royal decided that, despite the downturn, it wouldn’t cut any salaries. It showed a degree of financial and moral support that people value. “That means so much to employees, to know you care about them as much as yourself,” Epstein says.
Epstein, who’s father started Royal in 1969, has no doubt benefited as a leader from having first-hand experience of all facets of the business. “I’ve done everything that can be done: washing cars, accounting, dispatch, reservations. But that was a former life. Now my role is to put together a good team.”
Georgieanna Svenson: Leading The Boys Club
Four Star Limousine
Georgieanna Svenson, co-owner of Four Star Limousine in Salisbury, Mass., has dealt with a unique set of challenges as a female leader in a boys’ club industry. Early on, she faced a lot of car dealers, bankers, and sales reps who wanted to deal with “the man in charge.” Or male employees who had trouble taking orders from a woman half their age.
But Georgieanna has become a strong leader by doing and constantly earning the respect of her employees and peers. “Women are stereotyped as being bad drivers, so how is a woman in the limo industry to be taken seriously? ‘It’s not like she can really drive that thing,’ was a comment I heard a lot. And yes, it felt good the first time I parallel parked a 120-in [stretch] at Logan airport curbside between some men who didn’t really know how to park.”
Four Star was founded by Georgieanna and her husband, Brion, in 1993. Like many couples who are also partners in business, the two have different roles. She takes the morning shift, starting as early as 2 a.m. to 3 a.m., getting the office open, doing dispatch, working on accounting, and then going out to drive.
“More than anything I lead by example. There is nothing I ask anybody to do in this company that I wouldn’t do myself or haven’t done a hundred times. How can I ask a chauffeur to shake out the rugs and replace the waters if I don’t?”
Also, becoming secretary of the New England Livery Association has shown her employees that she takes the role as leader seriously. “My staff always sees me involved in making the industry better for everyone.”
Georgieanna says she actively pursued a position with NELA, at first as a way to earn respect and absorb knowledge, but that her motivations evolved. “I wanted to be a voice for the small companies and be able to add a woman’s viewpoint to the mix.”
— Denis Wilson, LCT East Coast Editor
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