The annual LCT Operator of the Year Awards recognize the latest and most current in business achievement.
Three operators who vied for a new Lincoln Navigator L during an industry auction last fall finally had to tap out and agree to a tie.
Auction sponsor Ford/Lincoln could find only one solution to the $90,000 matching bids during an LCT-National Limousine Association charity auction Nov. 5, 2018 at LCT East in Atlantic City, N.J.: Donate three Navigators instead of one.
The competition among the three winning bidders — Clarence Carr of Action Worldwide Chauffeured Services, in Atlanta; Harry Dhillon of Ecko Worldwide Transportation of San Jose, Calif.; and Jason and Kendra Kaplan of The Driver Provider of Phoenix — points to a competitive drive the operators bring to their companies. They are all advancing their operations in ways stretching far beyond use of a premium luxury SUV model.
LCT recently spoke with the winners on how they are improving operations while using a fleet vehicle that defines the industry’s competitive service edge.
The Kaplans’ Driver Provider spans a wide territory from Arizona to Wyoming, home to some of the fastest growing regions of the U.S. The company runs 140 vehicles among locations in Tucson, Sedona, and Phoenix, Ariz.; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; and Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah.
Those areas are all complementary and similar because they draw outdoor luxury-minded tourists and seasonal residents, in addition to corporate conference travelers. “We bought in markets where we already were,” Jason Kaplan says. “We did not enter a market by purchasing a company.”
Cross-Training: The Driver Provider has used technology to standardize cross-training for customer service so all employees are familiar with the locations and can answer questions about them and company services.
“We’re flying employees to the different markets to experience them, and when moving the fleet we will have office staff go with the vehicles so they can see what they are selling,” Kaplan says.
“With the faster pace of business, we are figuring out how to be quicker in responding to any customer inquiries and questions. We’re trying to minimize the pain points so customers who can either talk to a knowledgeable employee or use app-oriented customer service.”
Recruitment Tool: In a tight job market, Driver Provider offers more robust benefits for chauffeurs including health insurance, 401k, PTO, and incentive programs. “We are continuing to create added value for our employees, mainly chauffeurs and office staff. We can hire the office staff we need, but it’s hard to find chauffeurs, especially CDLs.”
Speedier Service: In the on- and near-demand market, The Driver Provider tries to follow a policy of sending a vehicle in at least 30 minutes when getting an ASAP request. The company provides on-demand service at hotels where it has a contract for chauffeured service.
While TNCs circulate in the company’s market areas, Kaplan chooses not to focus on them, but instead perfect client service. “We’re trying to add value and anything we can to differentiate ourselves from the TNCs.”
Sedan Search: While Kaplan’s sedan fleet has consisted mostly of Lincoln and Ford vehicles, they are ordering a few Volvo S90 sedans to test them out. “It’s gotten trickier over recent years and we are searching for the right solution.”
Navigator Switch: The Navigator Kaplan and his wife, Kendra, bid on was the first one they had bought in 10 years. “We have been phenomenally impressed with the Navigator, and then bought the Ford Expedition.”
Until the auction purchase, The Driver Provider has mostly used Cadillac Escalades and Chevrolet Suburbans in its SUV fleet. Kaplan says the Navigator ride is superior to that of the Escalade, and it has excellent touches, finish, and more room in the third seat row. “For the client, it’s about the inside of the vehicle. Anything that provides more comfort for passengers is paramount to us. Our customers are loving the Navigator.”
Related LCT article: 2016 LCT East Lincoln auction winners George Jacobs and Dawson Rutter
Kaplan, who plans to buy six more Navigators and six more Expeditions in coming months, finds the Navigator more practical for clients in ski areas given its larger luggage capacity than the Expedition, which the company mostly deploys to non-ski climates and areas in their service regions.
Shuttles & Tours: Motorcoaches are spurring one big growth avenue for Driver Provider. The company has 17 motorcoaches, including 10 Prevosts, three Setras, two Volvos, and two MCIs. Most are new.
The Driver Provider is growing its bus fleet with mini-buses and motorcoaches while developing over-the-road and fixed-route contract business, Kaplan says. The company has found corporations in the Phoenix area that need employee shuttles, similar to those used in the Silicon Valley. “It’s consistent daily 10+ hours per day shuttle work for businesses with campuses, so employees don’t have to use their own vehicles.”
It also has formed relationships with tour companies serving the western U.S. to generate long distance charter trips for its motorcoaches, Kaplan says. “What we’ve learned is while a lot of tour business starts in California, the tour operators look for operators out of state, not because of quality, but due to California operators facing higher costs than operators in surrounding states. We can bid on work beginning and ending in California because tour operators are savvy about our lower operating costs. We’re trying to get into more bid opportunities.”
For the near term, Kaplan wants to expand the corporate shuttles and motorcoach divisions, while constantly looking out for possible acquisitions. “We’re staying in tune, and if the right opportunity comes, we’ll consider it and move forward. We’re not in aggressive acquisition mode, but have our ears to the ground and would be ready to move forward.”
Team Approach: At Action Worldwide Chauffeured Services in Atlanta, Carr and co-owner Tammy Carlisle have set up stronger chauffeur and CSR training programs and hired new managers. A new operations manager frees up Carr and Carlisle to focus more on marketing and expanding the business.
Their goal is to certify all new team members with PAX Training by the end of the summer and have their most requested lead chauffeurs field train them.
“Our mentoring program trains chauffeurs to work together as a team, and helps them understand one error can affect everyone on the team and their income,” Carr says.
As an incentive, the company awards bonuses to chauffeurs for unsolicited five-star client reviews, which many so far have received.
“We are retraining the CSRs on our new Ground Alliance software, attention to detail, and cross training, along with bonus incentives for booking our clients transportation in other cities.”
Fleet Management: Action runs 41 vehicles, including sedans, SUVs, minibuses, and coaches. Among the makes and models: Lincoln MKTs, Navigators, Cadillac Escalades, Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, and Executive Coach Builders stretch MKT limousines. Others include the wheelchair accessible Stretch MV1, a Hometown Trolley, and two Grech Motors EG40 coaches with under belly luggage.
A new fleet manager oversees every vehicle detail to make sure all are perfectly maintained and ready to roll, Carr says. “That has taken a tremendous amount of work off of me.”
Navigator North Star: “Our Lincoln Navigator has been a true star and our clients love the vehicle,” Carr says. “We have two of these luxury workhorses and are planning to add several more. We are very loyal to Lincoln and appreciate their many years of support in the livery industry.”
Action foresees a need to add more buses and coaches in the future, but will balance any new vehicles with demand.
“We handle many corporate events, weekend, weekday charters, weddings, and more,” he adds. “Both of the [Grech] coaches stay busy, and thankfully with great local affiliates we can accommodate multiple mini-coach jobs with ease.”
Turning Tables On TNCs: Like many operators, Carr and Carlisle’s business first lost some clients when Uber and Lyft fully emerged in their market in 2012, but most returned within a year when the TNCs’ poor service, quality control, and lack of driver background checks became apparent.
“Every operator can make a choice to consider them a threat or an opportunity to prove we are more insured, safe, secure, and reliable,” Carr says. “We offer high quality and superior service while removing these unknowns for our clients.”
Since operator Harry Dhillon was featured on the August 2018 issue cover of LCT, he’s kept improving his operations at Ecko Worldwide Transportation in San Jose, which has won the LCT Operator of the Year Award twice since 2015 and two LCT People’s Choice Awards.
“We’re focusing more on quality,” says Dhillon, who cast the winning bid on a new Ford Expedition at the LCT East auction in November 2017. “The more consistent you are, the better value you have. You can raise rates to match the value and become more of a boutique operation.”
Outsourced Advantages: Dhillon has outsourced key functions such as dispatch and reservations, and only has a fleet manager and a chauffeur manager in the office. He and the two managers handle customer service calls. His 24 full-time chauffeurs and six part-time chauffeurs are all employees. The move caused his office overhead to fall to $10,000 per month compared to $33,000 per month last year.
Dhillon does not have an accounting department, an affiliate manager, or a sales team. He strategically keeps his fleet at 30 vehicles. “You need to have the right balance and right people around you.”
Overall, his $5 million revenue company grosses a 30% EBITDA profit margin, with a net profit of 20%, Dhillon says.
“I started seeing numbers differently,” he says. “Our profitability has gone up by not growing and I cut down expenses. When I had to spend more time out of my personal life to make a few hundred dollars more per day, I asked why and for what?”
All-Around Luxury Fleet: For his fleet, Dhillon runs a variety of luxury vehicles to appeal to various client segments. His makes and models include three Cadillac Escalades, a Ford Expedition, two Lincoln Navigators, three Lincoln-Continentals, two BMW 7 Series, two Mercedes-Benz S Class sedans, five Lincoln MKTs, two Cadillac CT6 sedans, and an all Grech Motors fleet of three Sprinter vans and six minibuses ranging from 20-50 passengers.
Ecko does about $1.5 million annually in farm-out business worldwide. About 10% of his client volume consists of farm-ins.
“I’ve gotten the best value from Ford and Lincoln, and was among the first to have the new Navigator in the market,” Dhillon says. “Often clients prefer SUVs because of the Navigator. It’s unique with a fresh design and good inside layout.” Ecko gets more requests for SUVs than sedans, and the SUVs on average can command higher rate per trip.
Since 2015, Dhillon has bought four local companies to expand his client reach, but he does not want to grow too fast.
“You cannot be an absentee owner and think your quality and brand can be sustained,” he says. “I’d rather have it at a higher level and manage it by running with more technology and using more manpower in India.”
Running a luxury transportation service in the heart of Silicon Valley and the regional home of Uber and Lyft gives Dhillon a special perspective on how to succeed in the home base for transportation network companies (TNCs).
You should offer a level of service clients must have and are willing to pay for, he says. “It’s not common among them to be consistent. We don’t run our company in a rat race.”
Ford/Lincoln Limousine & Livery Vehicles still has 2019 MY Navigators available for luxury ground transportation operators. Here are some key features and details:
Navigator L — Select (200A)
Any Navigator L with a Livery FIN qualifies for livery
Available 4x2 and 4x4
3.5L V6 engine
Available Technology Package (66T)
Active park assist (auto park)
Adaptive cruise control (ACC) with stop-and-go
Advanced heads-up display (AHUD)
Auto high beams
Lane keeping system
Driver alert system
Lane keeping system
Lane keeping alert
Pre-collision assist with pedestrian detection
Autonomous emergency breaking (AEB)
Distance alert/distance indication (DA/DI)
Forward collision warning (FCW)
Fuel tank: 27 gallons
Power illuminated running boards – painted ebony
Available panoramic vista roof with power sunshade
Available second row heated 40/20/20 split-bench with power fold
Personal profiles can be set up to the Key Fob to customize the vehicle for driving comfort.
Head-up display – brighter than any other display in its class.
Available tiered cargo management system with shelf mode.
360-degree camera with front/rear camera wash
See your dealer for current incentives
The 2019 Lincoln Navigator L has best-In-class 1st row hip / shoulder room, 2nd row hip / shoulder room
Related Topics: Arizona operators, Atlanta operators, building your clientele, business growth, California operators, charity, donations, fleet management, Fleet Vehicles, fundraiser, Georgia operators, Harry Dhillon, How To, Jason Kaplan, LCT-NLA Show East, Lincoln Limousine & Livery Vehicles, Lincoln Navigator, San Francisco operators, Utah operators, Wyoming operators
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