Presenters Ken Carter, Derek Maxwell, and Rick Versace Jr. will explain how technology can streamline operations.
In LCT’s second annual coolest operators round-up, we focus on industry members who have shown they aren’t afraid to try different things.
As times change, so do client’s desires. From tech to good old-fashioned customer service, these businesspeople know how to stay relevant while never sacrificing what it means to be a provider of luxury ground transportation. Some of them have been associated with the business since before they could walk, while others simply had a dream and took a chance. No matter how they ended up in the wonderful world of limos, they all have a wealth of knowledge to share.
Editor’s Note: The following operators are presented in no particular order.
Neil Spenta, president and CEO, American Corporate Sedan and Limousine, San Diego, Calif.
If there’s one term that defines operator Neil Spenta, it’s cutting-edge. It’s not every day you meet someone who commands a fleet comprised mostly of Teslas. “I decided using these cars for a luxury transportation service could help get Tesla some publicity, as well as save on maintenance and energy costs,” he says.
The company uses Model X SUVs, which can travel 260 miles in one charge, and are mostly charged using sustainable electricity. “These vehicles are extremely quiet and eliminate heavy vibration, unlike traditional gasoline powered SUVs,” he explains. “They also feature cool, functional falcon-wing doors for easy client entry and exit.”
For operators who have never really considered using electric vehicles for this kind of work, Spenta urges you to give them a chance. “They’re an amazing vehicle for livery work that can almost drive themselves on the freeway, seat six passengers comfortably, swallow a lot of luggage, improve the quality of life for your drivers, and keep the air clean around you.” The company’s Teslas have driven more than 150,000 miles collectively during the last 18 months. “That in itself saved us from buying around $30,000 worth of gasoline, and reduces around 150,000 pounds of CO2 emissions — and that’s all in just 18 months, with no maintenance other than tires.”
Fun Fact: Neil loves hanging out with friends and family, and traveling in his personal Tesla. As a tech geek, he enjoys tinkering with computers and exploring new technology categories such as drones and wearable tech.
Manager Of Change
Anuj Patel, director of strategic development, Pontarelli Worldwide Ground Transportation, Chicago, Ill.
With a degree in international business from George Washington University and fluency in three different languages, Anuj Patel is an educated, experienced cool guy who’s a great fit for an industry that’s becoming increasingly global.
“The bottom line is this: The core of all business is always people. Being able to relate to and motivate others in all areas of the workplace is my most important quality — getting them to buy in to the strategy. The people drive the business, period. You are only as good as your least talented employee.”
To increase market share in the world of premium car service amid TNC disruption, he believes you must hire top talent and implement creative strategies in all parts of your business.
“For example, if I’m used to hiring mechanics at $15 an hour and they are all more or less subpar, why not get a top diesel tech for $20 who has management experience and can help manage the fleet? Wouldn’t it cost you so much more in time and money to send out all your buses and vans to a diesel garage where you pay a lot more per hour and lose your vehicle for weeks at a time? It’s easier said than done, because you must be consistent and practice these strategies daily. It must become a part of your company culture. Work smart, not hard.”
Fun Fact: Anuj is a die-hard Chicago sports fan (“GO CUBS!”), and loves being a dad. Another area that interests him is social media and digital marketing.
International TNC Combatant
Carsten Kahner, director of affiliate management, Blacklane, Berlin, Germany
Unlike TNC executives, Blacklane’s director of affiliate management Carsten Kahner walks the talk and actually visits companies who want to become affiliates — and that’s pretty cool. His team has traveled to more than 20 countries and met with more than 500 of the company’s local partners.
Although one can schedule rides online or via its app, Blacklane is about the furthest thing from a TNC. “We aren’t just a tech company,” he explains. “Technology is great, and it’s a major facilitator — it’s the backbone of our business, but the differentiator is the local chauffeur and operator. We understand the chauffeur is the face of your company and is the one that has contact with the customer. Our mindset, culture, and daily operations take all of this into account.”
One unique attirbute of being a Blacklane partner is operators get access to customers who normally wouldn’t consider using luxury ground transportation. Most rides are airport runs and the average trip is mid- to long-distance. This allows users a chance to really enjoy the difference in quality and service Uber and Lyft drivers lack.
“The industry by nature is global, and we can provide [small businesses] access to a global customer base, not just additional revenue and rides, which helps them grow,” he says.
Fun Fact: Carsten’s hobbies include sailing, biking, hiking, and relaxing with his family.
Client Turned Operator
Richard Fertig, president, Brilliant Transportation, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Before he became a cool operator, Richard Fertig started out as a cool client. This is an experience that has given him a particularly interesting vantage point when it comes to improving the industry.
“We are constantly questioning ‘is there a better way to do this?,’” he says. “When we look at our business, we look at it forward-facing. What’s the industry going to look like five or 10 years down the road?” In fact, his company was one of the first operations that saw a market opportunity with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van. Fertig spotted them a lot in Europe where he traveled for business, but hadn’t yet seen wide scale adoption in the U.S.
As an operator, he’s always looking for ways to better serve his clientele. “We’ve really analyzed our customers and examined where we add the most value, and are spending every minute of every day on scaling and automating whatever can be,” he explains. “We’re adding value through relationships with our clients by designing event transportation and solutions for them.”
Fun Fact: Richard enjoys skiing, working out, being with his kids, and thinking about his future.
Cool, Calm, Collected Californian
Aaron Schiff, president, Ascot Limousine, Beverly Hills, Calif.
Millennial operator Aaron Schiff proves it’s cool to be kind. With his meticulous attention to detail, Schiff knows it’s important to stay one step ahead by anticipating client needs, and then meeting and exceeding their expectations. To do this, he advises other operators to “treat your employees well.”
He believes keeping your best people happy reduces turnover time. “25% of the chauffeur staff has been here 15 years or longer,” he says. Schiff offers his employees 401k plans, pays for half their health care, and has a profit sharing incentive. “Also, always try to see it from your employee’s perspective. Incentivize those who work late shifts; start them a few dollars higher than you normally would.” He also gives his staff bonuses at the end of the year and holds work parties.
Schiff has been involved in every aspect of the limo business, except being a chauffeur. “I started out doing event coordinating at award shows. Then I came into the office and learned how to do reservations, eventually became a dispatcher, and then worked in accounting,” he says. After experiencing all of those roles, he jumped into the vice president position. “It was a little overwhelming at first, but it made the transition from vice president to president a little bit easier.”
Fun Fact: Aaron loves to surf and bodyboard, plays guitar, and enjoys graffiti art.
Lifelong Limo Leader
Matt Assolin, vice president, Nikko’s Worldwide Chauffeured Services, Houston and Austin, Texas
Matt Assolin was reading LCT before it was cool…and before it was LCT. He remembers the publication by its previous title: Limousine and Chauffeur Magazine. Now an operator and treasurer of the Houston Area Livery and Charter Association, he’s no stranger to the world of luxury ground transportation.
Raised with a “service over all” mentality, he still ensures technology plays a role within his company. However, “at the end of the day, if your customer service isn’t top notch or above and beyond what your competitor can offer, than you don’t have much that sets you apart,” he says.
For those who spend time worrying about what new threat might be here tomorrow, Assolin has some advice: Stop thinking of TNCs as competitors and start thinking of them as introductory black car services.
“We’ve had a ton of new clients come through the door because they are fed up with the service provided by Uber and Lyft. When they get a little taste of having someone else be the driver, they might use the app for a while, and then something will go wrong. The driver doesn’t show up or they have a bad experience, and people are willing to trade up. They are willing to pay more for better service, better vehicles, and proper chauffeurs. TNCs are essentially our industry’s greatest marketing tool for new and potential customers.”
Fun Fact: Matt enjoys golfing and family time, and is trying to earn his private pilot license.
Leandro Pires, president, Royal American Worldwide Limousine, Miami, Fla. and São Paulo, Brazil
After earning a degree in hospitality management and studying finance, Leandro Pires was hired by one of the coolest, most distinguished brands in the world, The Ritz-Carlton, at its location in Naples, Fla. There he observed and learned from the chauffeured service it provided. After he combined his parents’ company in Brazil with the one he started in Miami, he has since been able to implement the same kind of service.
One of the lessons he has learned is that, especially in today’s market, you have to be picky when selecting affiliates. To maintain your reputation and relationships with clients, you have to do more than just call up or email another luxury ground transportation company. “We go to every single location before we start doing jobs with affiliates,” he says. “Our selection process is something that makes us unique. We want to choose the best of every city to represent us.”
Pires also stresses the importance of checking for a company’s compliance with state and federal regulations, as well as making sure the businesses you are working with have proper insurance coverage.
Fun Fact: Leandro enjoys spending time with his two young children, playing golf, and as an entrepreneur, trying to find ways to make people’s lives easier.
Sean Duval, CEO, Golden Limousine, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Sean Duval knows saying “no” to a customer isn’t cool, and avoids doing so at all costs. “We find ways to say ‘YES.’ My clients have a need, and my first, second, and third answer is almost always yes. I know they’ve identified a need, and the need doesn’t go away just because I don’t have availability. If they trust me, I need to engage my resources to ensure my clients’ need is taken care of and not leave them to fend for themselves.”
This mentality of helping others is the inspiration behind the advice he gives to fellow operators: Make strong partnerships. “Creating solid, positive, local, regional, and national relationships is vital to your success both now and in the future. Your hard work is supported greatly by surrounding yourself with encouraging, successful minded people who care about you,” he says.
Duval is also staying connected to the technology, systems, and organizations developing autonomous vehicles. “I serve on the advisory committee for the American Center for Mobility. We are also close to and monitor M-City, the Mobility Transformation Center at the University of Michigan’s test facility for evaluating the capabilities of connected and automated vehicles and systems.”
Fun Fact: Duval enjoys sports (particularly tennis, golf, soccer, and football), good food, and spending time with his friends and family.
Big Dreamer, Hard Worker
William “Billy” Jinks, president and CEO, JET Limousines, Phoenix, Ariz.
Billy Jinks knows the key to running a cool company is having a diverse fleet and keeping up with technology. “I personally couldn’t survive with just one vehicle type, and we really pride ourselves on having one of the most diverse fleets in the valley. I literally have every category in house from sedans to motorcoaches,” he says.
Being a younger operator has given him a deeper understanding of changing customer needs. “This generation doesn’t want to use a phone book or call for a quote. People like to type and text. We have live chat options on our website, a feature where someone can actually text our number for a quote to which we can respond quickly with pricing and pictures.”
Growing up, he became obsessed with the limousine industry in elementary school after his family took multiple trips to the airport from a local company. As time progressed, Jinks started “hanging out” at the company’s office at the age of 10. He began by just watching and listening, and progressed to cleaning cars and stocking them with ice and water. He says he knew throughout elementary school and junior high he wanted to own a luxury ground transportation company.
“My first company didn’t do so well for many reasons,” he says. “Luckily, I started and essentially failed all before I was 21, and was grateful for a second chance. I think having such an early passion for this industry was unique for me. I received a tremendous amount of media coverage being a teenager with 21 vehicles. I also think nearly losing everything and being able to start over several years later was not only a blessing, but a great accomplishment.”
After Jinks sold what was left of his first company, he went to work for a local large bus business and saved every penny he earned. Two years later, he started his current company with three sedans. Today, JET is approaching 50 vehicles and plans to continue expanding.
Fun Fact: In addition to the limousine industry, Jinks also has an equally large respect for law enforcement. Five years ago, he joined the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office as a volunteer.
Gregg Moulton, owner and president, Orlando Select Transportation, Orlando, Fla.
When it comes to cool jobs, Gregg Mouton learned there’s nothing close to the luxury ground transportation industry. He started in the business when a former colleague asked him to take a leap of faith and move to Orlando to start a shuttle and sedan business from the ground up. After five successful years with this company, he left and took some time to evaluate his career options. “At the end of the day, I loved what I did, the people I worked with, and the amazing clients we represented, so I decided to start my own company and do it all over again,” he recalls.
Moulton explains the steps he’s taken to ensure the most success in the future is surrounding himself with “energetic, hungry, and eager folks who are always looking for ways to be better and provide the most efficient way of doing business.”
His advice to other operators is never give up. “Although that may seem simple, it has always worked for me,” he says. Like most successful young operators, Moulton believes in taking a “never say no” approach, and always finds a way to make client requests happen. “I also learned you need to take time for yourself and your family to achieve the most success. This is not always easy to do, and I still struggle at it, but practice makes perfect!”
Fun Fact: Moutlon enjoys spending time with his family. “I could have the worst day, but seeing my kids’ faces and the love they have in their heart makes me a better person.”
If you believe you have what it takes to be listed among the cool operators, contact assistant editor Lexi Tucker ([email protected]) so she can file you away as a prospect for next year’s list.
Related Topics: affiliate networks, Arizona operators, Blacklane, Brazil Operators, business management, California operators, Florida operators, German operators, Global operators, LCTFast40, Matt Assolin, Michigan operators, Millennials, New York operators, Richard Fertig, San Diego operators, Tesla, Texas operators
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