The Greater Orlando Limousine Association held a festive meeting to close out the year.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Here’s a business strategy to ponder for a small operator: Install a software system geared toward large fleets. Buy at least one of every fleet vehicle. Pay chauffeurs well above average. Let them take vehicles home for the night. Forget about a sales team. Use only three office employees for all tasks. Double down on luxury level service. Don’t advertise, not even on Google.
Doesn’t exactly sound like a winning strategy for a luxury fleet, right? For San Francisco Bay Area operator Harry Dhillon, this approach has resulted in $6 million in annual revenues in less than 10 years with a fleet of 33 vehicles. The two time LCT Operator of the Year — 1-10 vehicle category in 2015 and 31-50 vehicle category in 2017 — defies some industry conventions and enjoys steep growth in the metro region that birthed Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber.
“I’ve always tried to see things differently and take calculated risks,” says Dhillon, owner and president of San Jose-based Ecko Worldwide Transportation. “I didn’t do slow stops and tried to do things out of the box.”
Dhillon entered chauffeured transportation by happenstance. He was pursuing his certification in radiology in 2009 while working as a chauffeur. One day, while talking to other chauffeurs in the baggage claim area at the San Francisco International Airport, he learned about the advantages of going out on his own. “I started a limo company not because I wanted to, but I had a situation where I had no choice but to look for a job that fit my schedule,” Dhillon says.
He bought his first Town Car, and by 2014 had grown his fleet to 10 vehicles with $1 million in revenues. He started acquiring local limousine services in 2015 and grew to $2.4 million in revenue. Ecko averages about 90 trips a day.
One of Dhillon’s most pivotal decisions came in 2016 when he moved his small fleet operation to the Santa Cruz enterprise transportation software, which mostly attracts medium to large fleet operations.
“The reservation system really helped me,” he says. “My previous system was taking too much manpower and time. A lot could be done faster if I invested in a new technology.”
When considering Santa Cruz, Dhillon accompanied the system’s developer, Apurva Patel, CEO of GroundWidgets which owns Santa Cruz, to India in June 2016 and observed his work on the system. Patel’s knowledge and how he configured the system persuaded Dhillon to buy it. As a result, Dhillon needs fewer employees to handle reservations and farm-outs and to communicate with clients.
Patel told LCT that of his 120 luxury transportation installations, about 10% qualify as small fleets. Dhillon’s was among the first to sign up when he launched the full system in 2016. “It was a big jump for him,” Patel says. “I was impressed he was willing to take the challenge. He’s willing to take the business risk and that leap of faith and say, ‘I’m serious about growing my business from a technology and customer service perspective.’”
Patel points out operators like Dhillon can save about $120,000 the first year in reduced labor costs by using Santa Cruz, which means the upfront investment more than pays for itself. “If you have aspirations for growth as a small operator, the biggest thing you have to remember is you can’t scale your business if you do not automate processes in your company. If you are depending on human labor to update, process, and look at things, and make sure drivers are going out, your growth will be constrained based on the number of people you have at the office. At some point you will reach a plateau where you can’t grow because you are constrained by your labor costs.”
The system integrates with global dispatching systems and enables events bookings with minimal entry. “It comes from travel agencies direct to reservations and saves me manpower, increases accuracy, and reduces liability,” Dhillon says. “We understand and use it to the max. We don’t need more manpower or resources to generate more revenue.”
Ecko employs 30 full–time and six part-time chauffeurs, three office employees to handle all tasks, and a team in India to cover nights and weekends. “These are all consolidated positions. That’s the power of technology. Instead of hiring 20 people, we use three.”
Since 2015, Dhillon claims he has not marketed or advertised his business through typical avenues, not even through Google Adwords. “Whatever we do at LCT shows and with affiliates is all. It’s just word of mouth based on service quality.”
Dhillon does not employ a sales team, relying on his networking and in-person pitch efforts and cross-trained employees who know how to convert emails into sales inquiries. He says his national farm out business has grown from near-zero in 2015 to $1.5 million now, averaging about 12 farm-out rides per day.
Ecko’s performance stands out when considering the explosive growth of Uber and Lyft in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they are based. He takes on the role of a “limo-vangelist” in trying to educate anyone about how the value of chauffeured rates includes driver background checks, a secure experience, insurance, and safety all coupled with his “one-stop-shop, boutique level of service.”
“You could be a new customer expecting a quote or price point, and in our response we explain all of these things,” Dhillon says. “We’re helping customers understand faster than before.”
Because of the drawbacks of TNCs, “we’re seeing a shift on the corporate side, as companies are not as concerned about rates or the easiness,” Dhillon says. “Most are now making us sign non-disclosure agreements for confidentiality on their accounts and asking for pools of regular drivers for weekday commuters. With Uber, none of that is possible. That’s how I’m leveraging their presence.”
Dhillon believes in running the most diverse fleet possible to provide a vehicle for every client, brand, taste, and preference. Buying four smaller companies has helped his fleet diversity.
Ecko’s 33-vehicle fleet consists of an all-Grech Motors fleet of 10 minibuses, and 23 sedans and SUVs. Those include the Cadillac XTS and CT6, Lincoln Continental and Town Car, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, a BMW 740i, Audi A8, Hyundai Equus, Lincoln MKT Town Car, Lincoln Navigator, Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Suburban, and Cadillac Escalade.
Dhillon seeks employees who meet his high expectations, and have the mindset to match his specific training so he can grow the operation. “To continue on a bigger scale, I need more people who can work to that high standard,” he says. “The caliber of my hired experienced staff is equal to my newest employee with my training.”
For chauffeurs, Dhillon says he doesn’t have trouble recruiting and keeping them because he pays above average and allows them to keep fleet vehicles at home. But in return, they cannot call in sick on the same day without notice. He also doesn’t waste time with paperwork because they all use iPads.
“I’ve had chauffeurs quit and change companies and come back saying no other company treats them as well,” Dhillon adds. He’s helped five chauffeurs start their own companies and now guarantees them a certain amount of business.
Looking toward the future market, Dhillon hopes to grow to a 40-45 vehicle fleet while increasing his farm-outs. He also plans to target more travel agencies and DMCs interested in luxury transportation service for their corporate accounts. “I’m investing my time and resources to have a database of affiliates. The goal is to fill in the gaps and not compromise on quality.”
Operator Harry Dhillon drew some wide industry acclaim on Nov. 6, 2017 when he and Chicago operator George Jacobs each bid $77,500 on two 2018 Ford Expedition MAX XLTs being auctioned off by Ford/Lincoln during the LCT-NLA East Show in Atlantic City, N.J. The auction was held during the Ford-sponsored People’s Choice Awards gala to benefit the National Limousine Association’s philanthropic arm, the Harold Berkman Memorial Fund, which benefited from the proceeds.
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