It's loaded with toys and, at $70,000, seriously undercuts the opposition.
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — First Class Customs has taken three limousine industry trends of recent years, and turned them into a viable business model.
First, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van is taking over as the limousine of choice for the business, corporate and VIP markets, says First Class owner and founder, Jay Glick. Second, client preferences for chauffeured vehicles are becoming more specific, with operators spending more time choosing the best vehicles for their customers. Third, economics and market dynamics have forced limousine manufacturers to choose profitable niches, while efficiently producing luxury vehicles that stand out in a sector becoming more competitive again.
To sum up the First Class strategy: “You can’t have every vehicle be a one-off. At First Class, we template it and recreate it, using a mass technology approach in a small boutique volume,” Glick says. This process enables First Class to design and produce products on a smaller scale but allows clients to customize without having to change key body structures, exterior colors or basic vehicle design themes. It also allows First Class to provide replacement parts with consistent quality while offering vehicles with a refined finish at comparatively affordable prices.
“Bigger is not better anymore” in the chauffeured vehicle market, Glick says. The industry trend toward limo buses and Sprinter vans has created demand for boutique-style manufacturers who are more accessible to customers, which is much more challenging for large manufacturers, he says. “As a small builder, customers benefit by having direct access to sales, technology, and management. Many of our customers have my personal cell phone number and contact me directly with technical questions or product information.”
Glick, who takes customer calls in evening hours and on weekends, is quite used to these demands as a longtime limo operator, and devotes the same attention to his vehicle customers.
Glick formed his company as a new entity in June 2013 after buying out the assets of another vehicle manufacturing company, First Class Coachworks, he had started with a business partner. He is well known throughout the limousine industry from his 14-year career as owner of LimosDirect.com, a leading reseller of chauffeured vehicles worldwide, and as the owner of First Class Limousine of Englishtown, N.J., a 25-vehicle limo operation geared toward the weddings, proms and retail markets.
Glick builds Sprinter vans with multiple interior floor plans and designs in four main categories: 1) shuttles; 2) business class/mobile office versions, similar to the look and feel of a private jet; 3) Versions with perimeter seating; and 4) Private custom versions for CEOs and VIPs.
Since the 2014 Sprinter model was introduced in September, First Class has been making about six per month, bringing its half-year total in 2013 to 30 units. The company aims to max out at 100 units per year, so as not to lose its focus on quality as a small-scale builder. About 30% to 40% of its business comes from the high-end VIP sector. “My biggest customers are coming back and buying additional units,” Glick says.
All Sprinters are designed and built in Springfield, Mo., in two buildings with a total of 30,000 square feet of production and office space. The plant is the former home of Springfield Limousine, a smaller stretch limousine manufacturer once owned by the late coachbuilder John Bumgarner (1944-2009).
“We always want to be small enough that we can give our customers the attention they deserve,” Glick says. “We’ll never be the least expensive option, and will always be on the higher-end because of the quality of our materials, fit and finish. We’re not basing our position on price. We’re going after the larger operators who want the most elegant products and the smaller operators who focus on high quality.”
Success With Finesse
One quality angle Glick promotes is that his vehicles have a fit and finish similar to those of top-end Sprinters, such as versions made by Becker Automotive Designs or Bespoke Custom, which can cost upwards of $200,000. Since starting his company, Glick has been able to focus on the Mercedes Sprinter, emphasizing quality, developing new options, trim levels, accessories and electronics available within the product line. Those amenities span fine leathers and suedes and specialized wood trims to the latest in technology such as Wi-Fi, Apple TV, and Bluetooh controls.
First Class Customs is pursuing its Mercedes-Benz Sprinter upfitter certification, a process that can take up to two years, but it already has the backing of top Sprinter dealers in the U.S. It also offers its Sprinter models through an exclusive dealer network that so far includes Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland. Otherwise, clients simply buy the Sprinters direct from the factory.
Such a sales strategy enables Glick to cut out the costly middleman vehicle dealer, and helps him run a more efficient business, offer lower prices and ensure a reasonable profit. “By keeping everything in house all the money is under one roof and can be reinvested back into the business for long term stability and growth for staff and our customers,” Glick says. “Factory-direct is a more viable business model.”
Among the most notable attributes of First Class Sprinters are factory-installed egress doors and escape hatches that comply with varying fire safety rules in different states, especially in California where new limousine vehicle-related safety legislation went into effect this month.
Some of the biggest challenges Glick has faced since starting his company in June involved developing direct sales, marketing, production, and administrative infrastructure on location.
• • • • •
Sales/Marketing: Glick had to launch a new marketing program and strategy from scratch, and rebrand as a stand-alone company untethered to any others, with its own product line. “We started from nothing and ramped up immediately, right out of the gate,” he says.
• • • • •
Production: First Class had to create a new production flow and specs to accommodate changes in the Sprinter body style from 2013 to 2014. That meant timing vehicle production so as not to build or sell too many 2013 MY versions before MY2014 came out. An additional challenge is ordering base chassis units which need to be done up to four months in advance in order to predict client demand for certain models. Sprinters are offered in a variety of GVWR (gross vehicle weight ratio) and mechanical options.
• • • • •
Infrastructure: The demand for 2014 Sprinter versions in the latter part of 2013 prompted Glick to hire staff members who had been with his previous partnered company. First Class workers are experienced craftsmen familiar with the intense detail required of high-end luxury commercial vehicles. Glick also hired Jerry Dutcher, previously with Executive Coach Builders, as sales manager. ECB, the largest stretch limousine manufacturer in the world, also is based in Springfield.
One of Glick’s other businesses, LimosDirect.com, once a leading reseller of chauffeured vehicles, is being redone to serve as a portal for First Class Customs. Set to officially launch at the 2014 International LCT Show next month, LimosDirect.com now will focus only on selling pre-owned vehicles being taken as trade-ins for new First Class Customs vehicles.
Taking Off In 2014
Among future plans for First Class Customs Inc.:
Develop an international business of building customized Sprinter vans. That involves importing Sprinter chassis from specific nations, which have different specs than the chassis made for models in the U.S. market. “We’re establishing the capability to buy international chassis from Mercedes-Benz, build them out and send them back. Mercedes-Benz does not want U.S. spec chassis shipped across the border for export because it breaks franchise rules.”
Create a client affiliate network, listed by state and operators, so First Class customers can find each other, look to each other for business, and share information about products. “It will put customers together,” Glick says. “Most builders don’t want customers talking and comparing prices, but we want our customers to work together to pass business on to one another.”
Offer a line of custom interior designed 2015 Cadillac Escalades for the CEO SUV market as soon as the model becomes available in the second quarter of 2014.
First Class Customers
First Class Customs owner and CEO Jay Glick has accumulated a noteworthy roster of operator clients. Two discussed their new Sprinters when asked about them by LCT:
“We were very impressed with the sophisticated design features and quality components that Jay with First Class offered. It is important that our luxury vans and coaches have a classic look that will work for both retail/leisure clientele as well as our corporate accounts. With his plant in Springfield, Mo., we were also comfortable knowing the expertise of the craftsmen putting the vehicles together and the bonus that we are just a few hours away if we needed to get there.”
— Diane K. Forgy, President, Overland Chauffeured Services, Kansas City, Mo.
“Our customers love the Sprinter because of the comfort, easy access and design. The stereo has Bluetooth capability which allows our customers to sync their devices and enjoy their favorite music. For corporate travel, having two screens and the Bluetooth gives our customers flexibility so they can conduct meetings while being transported to their destination. The addition of the Sprinter to our fleet has increased our business as we can transfer wedding guests to their event, as well as the bride and groom. The luggage space is large enough to accommodate up to 10 regular size suitcases. Whenever we have had any warranty issues with the Sprinter, Jay and his staff have been efficient and quick to respond. Although they are in Missouri, they were able to have a company take care of us in California. We are planning to acquire a 2014 Sprinter from First Class at the 2014 ILCT Show.”
— Tony Talia, owner, SB Chauffeuring & Tours, Santa Barbara, Calif.
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