The founder of Pontarelli Companies leaves a legacy of quality transportation and brave service to his country.
Many operators have what it takes to be dubbed “cool.” This industry isn’t an easy one to work in, and those who succeed spend many tireless hours ensuring they provide a service that makes clients come back for more.
Here are just a handful of some of the most interesting entrepreneurs LCT has encountered online, offline, and in person during the course of this year:
The following operators are presented in no particular order.
Anton Kirichenko, owner, Motor City Limousine, Detroit, Mich.
When providing high levels of service, Kirichenko believes nothing’s cooler than making yourself accessible. Every client of Motor City Limousine has direct access to his cell phone. In the rare occasion of a slip-up, he owns up to each error as it were his personal fault. “This places a significant weight on every possible lapse in service,” he says.
Great, consistent service results from a whole puzzle comprised of small elements. This starts with simple things like always picking up the phone and ends with how companies minimize their gaffes. “As Aristotle said, ‘excellence is not an act, but a habit.’”
Kirichenko decided to break into the business because he believed his company could better, more affordable service than many of his local competitors. Part of this requires contemplation before taking action. “Before buying another vehicle, take a breath and think through the decision. Maybe that money could be better spent acquiring new talent,” he says.
In this industry, problems are unavoidable; drivers will quit, cars will get damaged, and reservations will be entered incorrectly. It’s not about what happens, but how you react and what you learn from it. “Use that experience to evolve into a better person and create a better business model. While grit is important, it is foolish to double the effort doing the same thing and expect different results,” he says.
Just For Fun: Kirichenko likes traveling and visiting new places. It doesn’t have to be far or expensive, but rather unique and exciting. He also likes to play video games and watch sarcastic, well-written shows, movies, and cartoons.
Christina Nguyen, reservations and affiliate manager, Concierge Limousine, Huntington Beach, Calif.
Like many Millennials, Nguyen loves to travel. She believes this has helped her become familiar with many different areas, which in turn allows her to relate to all of her affiliates. “I try my best to stay on top of current trends so I can adapt Concierge to the changing times,” she says.
Although she has a background in customer service, she stumbled upon this industry randomly. “I’ve always worked with a high-end clientele, so adjusting to Concierge was not difficult at all.” This has also helped her manage her team.
“When employees are happy, they want to take care of the business. Little gestures matter, like providing lunch on the house, a free Starbucks gift card, etc. You can’t be at the office controlling and monitoring things 24/7. If you treat your team right, you won’t have to worry about trusting them to take care of your clients.”
Something she’s learned while heading the company’s affiliate program is how important it is stay on top of time differences. “When we first started our program and really started emphasizing farm-out runs, we weren’t 100% ready with runs overseas. The time difference is always a challenge, so assigning a member of the team during each shift to take care of things is a good tactic. We text our clients and contact the company typically 45 minutes before the run to ensure things are running smoothly.”
Just For Fun: Nguyen enjoys being active, and does Crossfit Circuit Training, Jiu Jitsu, and boxing. She also loves to cook and bake. “Traveling is also a must for me; I’m pretty much on a plane every few weeks going somewhere, exploring new areas, and trying out delicious foods.”
Nick Boccio, fleet manager, Buffalo Limousine, Buffalo, N.Y.
Although he’s only 23, Boccio considers himself a bit of an old soul. He believes this is why he’s able to appreciate everything that goes into chauffeured car service. “It’s a business much like high end restaurants that use traditional means while still incorporating technology to keep up with the times,” he says.
Buffalo Limousine is a family owned and operated business, so Boccio couldn’t escape the gravitational pull as he puts it. “I realized in the latter part of my college years I was doing everything I could to convince myself I needed to do something on my own; in the end, I eventually just decided to go for it and join the company full time.”
Although young, Boccio has a particularly wise piece of advice: It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re the best at it. “Some of my friends work for the best accounting firms in the world, yet I work for my family’s business. But I firmly believe Buffalo Limousine is the best chauffeured car service in the Buffalo area, so in my eyes, that’s all that matters,” he says.
It’s important to remember no matter how busy you may seem, you have to carve out time for your family and friends. “One of my best friends passed away of cancer when he was 20 and I was 19, and I felt like I could have been a better friend while we were roommates my freshman year. In business you can get money back, if you’re lucky you can get clients back, but you can’t get time with friends back.”
Just For Fun: Outside of work, Boccio loves to play golf. He played in college, and although it was division three, it allowed him to continue to play competitively after high school as well as play for recreation since graduating. “For me, it’s a year round hobby and I hope to continue as I get further into my career.”
Anthony Claffey, owner, K & A Transportation, Newington, Conn.
When a client calls K & A, they’ll speak to Anthony Claffey 100% of the time. “They aren’t going to get an answering machine that directs them somewhere else. I think it gives a better sense of personal touch to the business,” he says.
He saw a need in his local area for the kind of service he wanted to provide, and there weren’t many people within a five to 10 mile radius who offered it. His name spread by word of mouth and he quickly grew organically. Airport work is his bread and butter, but he also transports many of his clients to doctors’ appointments.
Since smaller operators can often bridge the gap larger operators need to fill when working with affiliates who can offer the personal touch they want, Claffey urges big companies to reach out to them. “Not necessarily for the quick stuff, but when you know it’s an important client, we have the attention to detail you need,” he says. “If we can’t handle a specific run because we are busy at the time, don’t just hang up the phone and forget us; we may be able to help in the future.”
One lesson Claffey has learned is to never assume a client will be ok with a different driver than the one they normally request. “The first time that happened, the client was a little startled. He wanted a heads up, so now we let all our clients know a day in advance who their chauffeur will be.”
Just For Fun: Claffey enjoys attending the events and activities his two sons are a part of, cooking barbeque on his smoker, and hanging out at what he calls “a different kind of Starbucks”: A lounge chair in his local cigar shop.
Flavia Coppa, hotels and international service manager for Shift Corporate Mobility, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Flavia Coppa has noticed more females coming into the luxury transportation business, many of whom are managers and company owners.
Shift offers a large luxury fleet in São Paulo and logistic planning services for events worldwide. It has its own app for drivers and invests a lot in technology and staff training. From airport transfers to large medical conventions, the company serves a vast array of clients.
With a background in the hospitality industry, Coppa started by managing a few cars in a hotel when Shift was only two years old. “It was great timing, because the company was growing and I had the chance to grow along with it,” she says. She was invited to manage the international service department, where she excelled.
She enjoys coming into contact with international affiliates. “It’s an exchange of knowledge, because we are in the same business but companies work differently in each country. I learn so much with each service I farm out.”
Just For Fun: Traveling is one of Coppa’s favorite hobbies. She has lived in China and spent some time around Asia, and is always planning her next trip.
Nick Lopez, vice president of operations, JACO Limousine & Transportation, Louisville, Ky.
Nick Lopez’ knack for exploring new management ideas as well as adapting what has worked for other operators has contributed to his quick growth and promotion to VP of operations. He enjoys discovering opportunities others aren’t taking advantage of, and making operations more efficient for chauffeured staff to help them become more of an extension of the team.
Implementing new apps to better connect everyone on staff has certainly made his life easier, and helped forge strong relationships with employees. Slack, an internal social network similar to Facebook, helps breed familiarity with fellow coworkers and increase productivity and awareness. JACO also has its own training video channel on Vimeo, which includes tutorials on every vehicle type and airport procedures.
Although chauffeured transportation wasn’t always on Lopez’ radar, meeting Todd Roberts, owner of JACO, gave him an opportunity to affect the business from a marketing standpoint. “I was never given the chance to do that in any other industry or company, and I felt like I could really take charge and seize an opportunity to help Todd grow,” he says.
He’s learned the smaller a company, the more it’s about you as an individual. But the larger you become, the more success lies in the type of people you hire. “If you are looking to develop, you need the right employees and processes in place.”
A lesson he has learned is the importance of asking the right questions before implementing new processes and technology. After switching to a new phone system based on a partner’s experience with it, he realized he didn’t ask the questions he should have to evaluate how well the system fits his unique environment.
Just For Fun: Lopez enjoys tropical fish keeping, playing basketball, and watching YouTube videos to learn new things.
John Paraoan, assistant VP and brand manager, and Scott Simkus, VP of operations, West Suburban Limousine, Winfield, Ill.
John Paraoan and Scott Simkus believe an appreciation for the history of the now 51-year-old company mixed with an excitement for new tech makes them cool. Their goal is to work together to use GPS, apps, and social media to help propel the business to success for another 50 years.
Neither grew up in the industry; Paraoan started his career in banking and Simkus was an author, but they’ve been friends for 35 years. Therefore, the way they think about the business is completely different. Simkus came aboard first because his mother was the general manager for the company. He joined in 2002 as a chauffeur, and then became a dispatcher. Eventually, he was promoted to vice president.
From there, he started to recruit people he knew from different backgrounds outside of the industry. At the time, Paraoan was vice president of a bank, and had extensive experience in customer service. He was one of the first people Simkus brought on, and has been with West Suburban for four years now.
“Listen to your customers, because they are the boss. You have to listen to feedback and react to it,” Simkus advises. The two have created a mechanism for collecting this feedback called Rate My Ride, where after every trip is done, the client is sent a questionnaire. This allows them to follow up on positive and negative comments so they can track trends and correct or maintain them.
Just For Fun: The two coworkers love to golf with each other, dispatchers, and chauffeurs. Paraoan enjoys going out and spending time with family and friends and traveling, while Simkus likes writing about sports.
Briana Candeub, vice president of operations, Park Avenue Limousine, Trevose, Penn.
Briana Candeub thinks living and operating in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. is pretty cool, because it allows her to enjoy the challenges of adapting to different regions. “Every day, our vehicle footprint is in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Washington, DC, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and more. Companies on the East Coast or in the south sometimes can’t believe how easy it is for us to be in so many different states on a daily basis,” she says.
Although she didn’t necessarily dream of a career in the limousine industry, working side by side with her family and growing the company to the next level has been rewarding.
Her experiences in the industry have taught her much. In her words, nothing is black and white — only grey. “There are certain things that can be taught, but so much of our industry requires common sense and just simply doing what’s best for the client. If you’re the type of person who needs strict guidelines to live by, this is probably not the industry for you,” she explains.
To be effective in problem solving, you have to treat each scenario that comes your way differently. “The goal, of course, is to generate as much business as possible on a daily basis, but customer service is absolutely the key to success. Without impeccable customer service, you will not survive. Anyone can have the newest, prettiest vehicles, but your customer service and quick problem-solving skills are what will set you apart from your competition.”
One of the most important things you can do as an operator is learn from past mistakes. Candeub says some of the company’s senior chauffeurs have their own clients and are allowed to use Park Avenue’s vehicles to transport them. Generally, if the chauffeur is running late for a personal client, they will touch base with them and find out if the client would like to wait for their preferred chauffeur or want another car.
On one particular day, a chauffeur was running late for his personal client, and she assumed the chauffeur and client had touched base because that is company protocol. For whatever reason, the chauffeur did not do so. Unfortunately, the company wasn’t able to make it to the client in time and he had to drive himself.
“The lesson I learned that day was to NEVER assume, and always follow through. There is room for error even with a senior chauffeur. No one is perfect, but there is nothing more upsetting to me then missing a client, no matter who they are. After that incident, I never take anything at face value. I jump in, follow up, and make sure everyone is where they need to be.”
Just For Fun: Although she works with her family every day, she still loves to spend time with them at home or on the weekends. She also enjoys traveling with her family and boyfriend, spending time at her parents’ shore house in the summer, sitting outside sipping a glass of wine, and trying new restaurants.
Jorge Sanchez, owner and president, Hermes Worldwide, Denver, Colo.
Jorge Sanchez believes in trying new things that will help improve customer experience — whether that’s new tech, equipment, or services he can provide. He’s always been in service related industries, but wanted to own a business.
Being his own boss certainly had appeal, and he also enjoyed the idea of having a flexible schedule. Making things happen gives him great joy. He wanted to work in a field with a tech component that was logistics-heavy.
“No two days are ever the same, and I enjoy doing things for others that help make their day better,” he says.
When dealing with obstacles, Sanchez says it’s important not to let it get to you too hard. “Focus on your goals, and years from now you’ll look back on it and take gratification on all you and your team have accomplished.”
One instance that illustrates this approach is the time he had a chauffeur who didn’t secure the rear luggage door on one of his vehicles, which resulted in the loss of two pieces of a client’s luggage. “Unfortunately, the clients took advantage of the situation, but in the end I had to look at the bigger picture. It was costly to make up for it, but I was able to go to bed knowing I did everything I could to make sure those passengers were made whole.”
He also learned although it’s painful to make up for such situations, you have to give employees some slack. They are only human and we all make mistakes. The chauffeur involved was remorseful and is still one of the hardest working employees on Sanchez’ team.
Just For Fun: Sanchez enjoys coaching his kids in sports, as well as camping, ATV riding, fishing, exercising, and travel.
Dennis Jansen, founder and managing director, Dutch Business Limousine, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Dennis Jansen, 38, has already spent almost half his life in the limousine industry; he founded his company at the age of 20 in 1999.
He started his career as a self-employed taxi driver, grinding down the streets for rides. The industry changed in 2000 when the heavily regulated market opened up, allowing him to expand his services. Within eight months of starting, he bought his first Mercedes-Benz E-Class, printed a deck of business cards, and built a simple website to entice clients.
The piece of technology that really accelerated his business was the Blackberry. “It enabled us to quickly communicate via email, one of the key things we still embrace. We always try to respond as quickly as possible, even if it is a simple quote request for a transfer in nine months. You gain a lot of competitive edge when the communication goes quick,” he says.
He advises other operators to always keep improving yourself, network as much as you can by attending shows and dinners, read as many articles about the industry as possible, and never be afraid to walk up to someone and introduce yourself.
“Try to get your network to work for you so you’ll be recommended by anyone who had a good experience with you or your business. But watch out — never promise things you can´t deliver.”
Investing money in company improvements is something you should never fear. “In the long term, it will pay you back and that will give you so much more energy and satisfaction to keep on going.”
The most important part of running a luxury ground transportation company is to love what you do. “I meet self-employed drivers who are continuously complaining about TNCs, new technology, road construction, etc. An attitude like that reflects to your clients, which eventually kills your business.”
Just For Fun: Although running a business is time consuming, Jansen loves to spend his rare free time with his wife and kids.
Jevonne Pollard, president, Carte Blanche Concierge, Beaumont, Texas
Jevonne Pollard believes treating employees as equals makes an operator cool. She is hands on with her business but doesn’t micromanage her staff. She trusts them to take the same level of care with her clients as she does. Being involved as the company’s owner is something that will set you apart from other operators.
“I like to treat everyone like they’re my best friend, which means I will personally call or text a client to make sure everything went well with their ride,” she says.
Being in the luxury transportation industry wasn’t something Pollard planned. She was helping a concert promoter who had an A-list celebrity coming into town in three days who needed a way to get around. Pollard had no vehicles or experience, but the promoter assumed a company named Carte Blanche Concierge would have the solution.
“We ended up being exactly what he needed, and the rest is history,” she says.
She believes there’s nothing that will help you succeed more than studying and educating yourself on the industry. In addition, learning to anticipate your clients’ needs will take you far.
While this industry is filled with kind operators, you still need to be alert. Pollard was recently burned by a fellow operator because he didn’t offer her and her company the same leniency she showed him. “I learned very quickly that at the end of the day, business is still business.”
Just For Fun: Pollard likes to fish, travel, and spend time with her family when she gets free time.
Chris Cardo, owner, Raleigh Dream Limos, Raleigh, N.C.
Chris Cardo says he’s the only company in his market to offer luxury party buses with unique interior designs — and that’s rather cool. After being introduced to the industry by a friend, he was sold and knew it was what he wanted to pursue. “I love designing unique and fun experiences for clients,” he says.
If he could offer one core principle, it’d be the importance of quality over quantity. At one point, Cardo owned six stretch limos, but sold most of them and invested in a newer fleet consisting mostly of limo buses. This cut back on hassles and improved revenue.
“As we all know, buses are the way of the future, so that’s why we decided to go that route. The limo buses provide a much better experience for our clients,” he says.
Staying small has helped the company focus on keeping the interior of the vehicles in a “like new” condition.
Online reviews can make or break you now, and Cardo relies on his solid digital reputation. “We receive a lot of repeat business, which is great, because it means our clients enjoyed our services so much the first time they would like to experience it again,” he says. “It’s imperative you always take care of your customers, no matter the cost.”
Just For Fun: Cardo is a huge hockey fan, and enjoys both playing and watching. He also likes biking and hanging out with his family.
The founder of Pontarelli Companies leaves a legacy of quality transportation and brave service to his country.
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