A Virginia operator closes a longstanding motorcoach service to New York City amid receding profits and overwhelming competition.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for Alan and Marvin Fisher of London Livery, Ltd. The brothers’ “Tale of Two Cities” began with a paradox—they were operating a successful operation in a town with increasingly less opportunities, both professionally and personally. If they wanted to continue to expand, they would have to change their company’s thinking and ultimately, one would have to leave town.
Alan decided expansion was what the company needed, so he began a process of changing the corporate structure from an autocratic one to one which allowed other employees to help guide the company. He also opened an office in Atlanta as an extension of the New Orleans base which allows Marvin a greater role in the overall operation.
This change in management techniques was also combined with a push to make London Livery a more professional environment for all employees by moving the operation into a high-rise office complex. This move, combined with an extensive chauffeur training and management program are just two of the reasons the Fishers were recently named L&Cs Operator of the Year in the medium-size category.
EMPHASIS ON TRAINING
Since the Fishers pride their company on quality service, it is only natural that they place quite a bit of emphasis on chauffeur training programs. “Depending on the individual, we put them through a minimum of one week of classroom training. During that time, we go over our policies and procedures, as well as protocol and the mechanics of handling a vehicle,” according to Marvin. Following a second week of training, which covers behind-the-wheel training, candidates who complete the training and tests are offered chauffeur positions.”They have to pass tests that cover our policies and procedures in addition to a locations test. Once they pass the locations test, we let them out on the road and go through several days of on-the- road training, usually with someone in office management. Before they start, we also require them to obtain for-hire permits from the city, which includes drug screening and a criminal background investigation. Within 90 days, they must also obtain tour guide licenses from the city and Commercial Driver’s Licenses. We provide the training for these,” he adds.
For the week-long classroom training session, an instructor goes through a 150-page manual. The manual covers subjects such as vehicle mechanics, protocol, office policies, paperwork/procedures and handling specific types of jobs—charters, corporate clients, weddings and concerts. A workbook also is used during this classroom section, which candidates fill out in class and at home. The workbook covers real-life examples of situations that come up for chauffeurs to handle on the spot, such as what to do when a client isn’t among the passengers getting off of an airplane when he was scheduled to arrive The candidates are tested daily on portions of the manual and on locations.
To train candidates on locations, they are taken on a three to four hour training tour where all important locations are pointed out. Hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, points of interest and private airport terminals are among the locations studied, Candidates are encouraged to study the locations during their free time as well.
For on-the-road training, candidates spend two to three days driving sedans with an instructor riding in the passenger seat. Instructors also spend time driving to provide an example of proper braking, cornering, acceleration and other driving skills — in the sedans and, later on, in the limousines. Instructors spend 10 to 15 minutes immediately after the drive in a debriefing session with the candidate, going over points that the driver needs to work on.
Candidates are then given thorough training with the limousines, starting with a complete understanding of the vehicle under the hood, in the driver compartment and in the passenger area. Candidates learn about returning the vehicle to a ready condition and are able to answer any client question on the limousine’s amenities. Appropriate protocol for any kind of client situation also is discussed.
Candidates finish out the be- hind-the-wheel training with test rides, where instructors and other observers act as actual clients and check out the quality of the ride (the premium, smooth ride is referred to by London Livery as a “living room ride”). Instructors subject candidates to simulated hostile encounters, to see how the chauffeurs will handle problems that might come up and to give them more intensive training on defusing heated confrontations.
In addition to their regular training, Alan is looking into incorporating some of the recent O.J. Simpson preliminary hearing into his training. “I’m trying to get copies of the tapes from CNN to show the chauffeurs the importance of documentation. Even if it is just for billing purposes, it is very important,” Alan explains. “We often have clients who go out drinking and think they went home at 3 a.m., for instance, when they actually had the vehicle until 5 a.m. Also, we were recently called to testify in a divorce case when one of our clients, who was going through a divorce, was using his wife’s credit card to treat his new girlfriend to nights out.”
INITIAL SCREENING PROCESS CRITICAL
Alan believes the key to hiring quality people has much to do with the initial screening process. He estimates that out of hundreds of applications, only the top 10 percent get called in to interview. After the initial interview and after company officials explain what they expect, only one percent of those make it to the classroom training.
“Of that, we’re happy with a 50 percent graduation ratio. We make it difficult so that people are going to learn. People generally don’t regard this as a profession—we do. And unless they share this view with us, they won’t be of value to our company,” he adds.
Job offers are usually made to individuals who are clean-cut, intelligent, and who show initiative and common sense. “We try to watch out for people who are overly aggressive and have short tempers,” says Michael Brinks, Jr., operations manager at the New Orleans location. “If they complain about the interview going 15 minutes overtime, what are they going to do when a client spends more time than he had planned to in a restaurant?”
In addition to the training, all chauffeurs are subject to ongoing undercover evaluations in the “mystery driver” program. This is a way for company executives to find out what is actually going on in the vehicles. People who are getting complimentary service—friends, travel agents, concierges, etc.—are asked to perform the two-page evaluations. “We send this out ahead of time and explain exactly what to look for—from the chauffeur’s and vehicle’s appearance, to driving skills, protocol, etc. The questions are set up in such a way that they really have to read every one and make a response,” Alan explains.
He has found this to be a great business advantage in Atlanta as well. “These evaluations help educate our clients on why they are using our service. It teaches them to look for all the things that we are looking for and helps to justify why they are using our company vs. one that offers lower prices and lower quality. You get a much higher level of customer satisfaction when they know what our standards are. They tend to adopt our standards as theirs. Since we do a lot of network business, we have begun sending these evaluations along with our clients when they are using the affiliates’ service. We can get a better feel for the companies we are using in this way,” Alan adds.
ATLANTA MOVE BRINGS MORE OPPORTUNITIES
Instead of sitting back and accepting the status quo, Alan decided he wanted his company to thrive into the future. He realized that under his tutelage, both he and his employees had grown professionally as much as possible under the current structure. He realized his employees were worth putting the extra effort forth to keep them and he was looking for other venues for himself.
“Basically, I had gotten a little bored with New Orleans and I was thinking more in terms of opportunity for Marvin and other people in the company. The only way that opportunity was going to open up was if I did something else. I’ve proven that theory right—they are doing great. Everyone has gotten to taste a little of what it is like to move up. What I see now are a lot of individuals within the company who are excited about that and about our growth. As long as that continues to be the case and we attract other individuals who are excited about that, I see a pretty bright future,” Alan explains.
“As a small company, we were able to get by having an autocratic-type management with me at the top and all the other people at the bottom,” he adds. “With the growth we are experiencing, we just can’t function like that anymore. It’s too much responsibility for the few managers we have to make all of those decisions. It has to be spread put among the employees and they have to take more responsibility. It has been a very difficult transition from the way we have been doing it for the past 15 years to the way we are running things now with everybody doing their share. It’s not just me telling everyone what to do.
“This change is what is going to propel us through the next 15 years. You’ve got to change. Many companies I have seen are stagnating. They are afraid of change and wait until their business is overwhelming before trying anything new. By that time, they are in over their necks and can’t turn it around.”
Brother Marvin adds, “We are definitely going through a management-style change. We’re trying to get a company perspective to steer the course of the company instead of just one or two people doing it all. It’s really bringing everybody together. When you have employees who treat the business like it is their own, it is easy to succeed. My operations manager, Michael Brinks, Jr., is so dedicated I feel he is a part of the family. He feels like he is part of the business, and he is. We have key employees who really care about the company. They go out of their way to make this all work.”
Even as the company is progressing along the corporate route, Alan believes it is also turning back to its beginnings. “We’ve gone back more to the approach that this is a family business. It’s just a bigger family.”
In addition to the new corporate attitude, the Fishers are also incorporating a more professional atmosphere for their employees. They recently moved the New Orleans operation from a garage in an older area neighbourhood to a high-rise office building that was more centrally located. “The main reason for the move was the safety of my employees,” says Marvin. “Secondly, it was a great boost to morale for the office staff, as well as the chauffeurs. The facility is much nicer now. We are able to offer more and attract good people “
The opening of riverboat casinos in New Orleans has caused some trouble for London Livery. The casinos offer employees extensive benefits packages which are luring some good chauffeurs away. The new office facility is just one way the company is trying to keep its good employees. “The quality of people we have working for us makes them very attractive to other companies. So we are looking at upgrading our benefits package as well,” adds Marvin. “We are, I believe, the only company in the city that offers a health insurance program—which we have offered for the past 10 years.
“We also offer incentive trips for two for chauffeurs with accident- free years to places like Hawaii, Acapulco, and Puerto Vallarta. We have also worked out a deal with a health club in our new office building to get our employees memberships at a very nominal cost. We basically have to look for ways to satisfy our employees. Also, we recently did an employee questionnaire asking how we can better our company from their point of view.”
Alan believes that offering employees a professional atmosphere in which to work is just one more way to make them feel they are appreciated. “In today’s marketplace, there is very little emphasis placed on loyalty. There needs to be more emphasis placed on this which is shown by offering employees more benefits from the company. The days of the company not looking out for the employees are over,” he adds.
Moreover, the boost in employee morale wasn’t the only good that came from the move to the new office building. The Fishers owned their previous office site in New Orleans and are now renting the new office space. This change has saved the company time and resources. “We don’t spend time maintaining the building,” says Alan. “We also didn’t believe it was good to continue owning the building in a real estate market that is going down, not up. We can focus more on the business, and not have to worry about buying toilet paper and light bulbs. All of our time can now be spent on what we do best. We are also saving a good deal of money each month from the utility bills we had been paying.
“In addition to the other perks, we are better located now, have plenty of garage space, and are generating more business simply by being in this location. We have the same type of situation in Atlanta. That office is located in the Atlanta Financial Center, which is also located in a central part of the city. We have quick access to the airport and outlying suburbs. It’s just a real nice environment to do business in.”
RESEARCHING A NEW MARKET
Alan had many friends and clients asking him to open an operation in Atlanta for about the past eight years, so he began to explore the market. London Livery in Atlanta opened in October of 1993 Since he had never lived in the area before, he needed to research and understand the Atlanta market.
“I did that by renting a lot of limousines from other companies. I saw what people were doing. I did research through the Chamber of Commerce and found out what corporations are located there—420 of the Fortune 500 companies are there. I also looked into the type of convention and entertainment business that was coming to town. And I also looked at how many of our clients in New Orleans also did business in Atlanta and how much of that business would crossover. It turns out a lot of our regular customers do plenty of business in Atlanta. The Atlanta market is a growing one. Everything is spread out and will continue to radiate outward. You can’t get a parking spot today at the Atlanta airport, so the airport aspect of our service will continue to grow,” he explains.
“And so far, so great,” Alan adds. He estimates that when the Atlanta operation has been up and running for one year, it will be generating 50 percent of the volume of the New Orleans operation which has been operating for 15 years. For the first six months in Atlanta, Alan chose to let the company operate solely on word-of-mouth advertising. “We decided we were going to build the company on reputation and on quality service. And the word is getting out that that is what we are doing,” Alan adds.
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