Private and public school transportation is a potential niche market operators may consider since it can drive business and brand growth.
BOSTON — Before Terry Murtaugh and Jason Dornhoffer could have it all, they had to put in the time to do it all. Even now, the co-owners and founders of United Private Car must stay on top of everything with data and detailed processes cultivated over time.
The company’s growth track shows how a medium fleet operation can succeed in this marketplace by staying lean and nimble while embracing the latest advances.
United Private Car tries to distinguish itself by the level of service it provides, replicating the offerings of larger fleet companies with 24-hour availability, international reservations, online bookings, and micro-oriented customer attention, Murtaugh says.
“It's been our goal since we started the company to always remain at a size where we can continue to offer a personalized approach to the service we provide.”
As proof of success, United Private Car saw its busiest demand month ever in October 2018, and its busiest May and July this year. The company, started in 2006, moved its headquarters into an office building with a convenient Starbucks on the floor below in late 2017, and opened its fleet garage several miles away in January. The split locations put them near many clients and accesses to primary Boston roadways.
In fact, everything about United Private Car reflects the practical experiences of its founders, who thrive on a multi-tasking, multi-talent approach. The company stands on a solid bond between its owners whose paths crossed while pursuing other lines of work.
The two amiable buddies and business partners riff back and forth and finish each other’s paragraphs like two guys who’ve journeyed from post-college years to middle age. They met in their early 20s while working together at a restaurant and bar in Boston. The former roommates have been in each other’s weddings and remain good friends.
Murtaugh spent 10 years at Commonwealth Worldwide Executive Transportation in Boston, as a chauffeur, dispatcher, dispatch manager, and eventually the general manager before leaving in 2004. Run for more than 35 years by industry icon Dawson Rutter, Commonwealth gave Murtaugh a diverse grounding in luxury transportation.
Murtaugh worked at Commonwealth from the time it had 15 vehicles until it had grown to about 70 vehicles. “I really gained a great education in the industry from Dawson Rutter. When Dawson learned we had won the LCT Operator of the Year Award (2018), when we saw him at one of the parties in Vegas, he turned to another guy and said, ‘What do you expect? I taught him everything he knows.’”
During Murtaugh’s years at Commonwealth, Dornhoffer worked in financial services and sales positions. “It was what you call trench warfare cold calling,” Dornhoffer says of his previous experience. “I was calling on individuals who were not very receptive, and that pretty much primed me and gave me the experience.”
While running a landscaping business after 2004, Murtaugh took a part-time job with a 15-vehicle operation in Boston. He would substitute for the owner and manage the company in the weeks the owner was away.
“After I agreed to that, a large group came in and it ended up being an enormous movement for the better part of a week, which led to this company's record month, which we had to make happen on very limited resources,” Murtaugh recalls. “He had 15 cars, but only about 10 chauffeurs. So I had to reach out to all of the local companies I knew to get vans, limousines, and sedans to cover this huge group.”
Murtaugh called Dornhoffer who was working on a job in Rhode Island to act as an onsite coordinator at a hotel downtown. “He came over to this company and helped manage this large group with me. It ended up being the busiest month in this company's 20-year existence, which we did without the company owner there. I was completely hooked on the industry again and said ‘I have to do this.’ Jason seemed to enjoy that week and was good at managing the people, and it really took a lot of effort to make it happen and make it all go well. So that's how we ended up giving this a shot.”
The two saw the potential with what they accomplished, and instead of accepting the owner’s offer to partner, the two friends decided to take on the limousine business in 2006. They devised a business plan and got advice from a retired executive at SCORE, a network of volunteer business mentors.
They bought a car, signed up for Limo Anywhere software, and rented a small office in Boston, calling their company United Chauffeured Services Worldwide.
“When we first opened, to keep ourselves busy we reached out to local operators who might need help with overflow work,” Murtaugh says. “Companies would call us up and give us all the jobs that were difficult to cover, like the 4 a.m. pick-up in a suburb or 5 p.m. at Logan going out to a suburb. We started to get our wheels moving.”
FAST FACTS: United Private Car
Owners: Terry Murtaugh and Jason Dornhoffer
Service regions: Greater Boston and much of New England
Fleet vehicles: 17
Vehicle types: 7 Lincoln MKT sedans (2019); 7 Chevrolet Suburbans (2017-2019); 2 Mercedes Sprinter (2016); 1 Mercedes S-Class Sedan (2017)
Office staff/managers: 10
Annual revenues: N/A
Client markets sample: Fortune 500s, investment banks, private aviation, pharma, software/technology, professional college and sports teams.
The entrepreneurs put together a logo and sales kits Murtaugh calls basic, and Dornhoffer got back to one of his specialties: Cold calling.
“When we started doing this, I was calling much more pleasant people such as office managers, travel managers, and executive assistants,” Dornhoffer says. His previous experience helped them open some client doors at a time when they couldn’t afford an advertising and marketing budget.
“I would say after a matter of weeks of officially opening for business, we found ourselves on the 35th floor of an office building downtown, sitting in a giant conference room table with meeting planners and their executive assistants,” Murtaugh recalls. “All the while our office phones were forwarded to a cell phone, which would be in my back pocket if it rang. We did have to let it go to voicemail or I'd have to step out of the meeting to answer it. Jason would bring me along to the sales calls initially so I could answer any industry questions. Well, he got us into the room and did the actual selling. But if questions came up about service in other cities or how we operate, he would have me along to help answer some of those questions.”
The pair would alternate wake up times and early morning assignments, coordinating their phone forwarding for the first two years. They also worked other part-time jobs to supplement their emerging business income.
“When we first started, we were 24/7 from day one,” Dornhoffer adds. “Although we weren't extremely busy, we would often forward the phones back and forth to one another. After our first two years, we hired our first overnight employee. We essentially didn't have any real breaks or vacations; it was constant back and forth.”
Dornhoffer also did a lot of networking in different business groups. Within the first two years, the owners were able to quit their jobs and work at the business full time.
“We just kept at it and eventually, things just started to turn for the better,” Dornhoffer says. “Accounts and farming affiliate work started coming in more.”
Finding the right name proved an early marketing challenge. They wanted to keep United, experimenting with UCS Worldwide and United Worldwide, which sounded too vague and too much like the airline. They finally changed the name to United Private Car. “In growing and trying to develop as a company, we've faced the struggles of marketing issues and a branding crisis,” Murtaugh adds.
When you’ve been thrashed by the knocks of a business start-up, you realize all you can do, and it breeds an attitude of never saying no and honing every aspect of operations.
For Dornhoffer and Murtaugh, this means following a policy of never saying no to a client, including requests from ones for near- or on-demand service which they sometimes fulfill with one-to-two car local affiliates.
"If we can't get you the car in 30 minutes, we will tell you when we can get a car there,” Murtaugh says. “There is not a day that goes by where we are not challenged with an ASAP call somewhere and we always do our best to accommodate. We never want to tell our clients or affiliates we cannot accommodate because we don't want to give them a reason to go somewhere else.”
For its fleet, United Private Car uses the Lincoln MKT Town Car for standard service and also relies on a Mercedes-Benz S550 for high-end client requests.
When choosing fleet vehicles, what matters most to the owners is reliability over design. The company experienced too many defects and maintenance challenges with the Lincoln Continental and prefers to stick with the MKT.
“Design is important, but it's more about the quality of the craftsmanship,” Dornhoffer says. “For what we do every day in our industry, these vehicles have to last. I care more about our vehicles running as much as possible per day and staying out of the shop.”
Murtaugh and Dornhoffer are exploring the motorcoach business, as they don’t want to miss out on the revenue.
The company is working on refining a cross-training program where dispatchers and CSRs can work interchangeably.
“We want everybody cross-trained,” Murtaugh says. “We've been talking more lately about erasing that divide between reservations and dispatch.” They work in the same room and overhear each other’s conversations and work practices.
“We really just want to support our team members in a way they're able to offer a high level of service to our clients, but we also want them to be able to support each other in those same efforts.”
On the sales and service front, the company tracks records of every ride booked, including the first-timers. Murtaugh credits a strong SEO strategy as well as sales initiatives led by Dornhoffer, who is joined by a full-time sales assistant Rosanna Velasquez. She started at the company part-time in 2016 and then became full time in 2017, helping the company grow its sales effort.
“Everybody who works in our office and even our chauffeurs are some of our best salespeople,” Murtaugh says. “While that may not be their job title, they are out there selling our company. They're representing us. Jason might get the client in the car, but it's up to chauffers and the team in reservations and dispatch or operations to continue to sell and make sure we're selling our services in other cities.”
“Everything's a sale, as far as I'm concerned,” Dornhoffer adds.
Company managers discuss safety in every meeting with chauffeurs, dispatchers, and CSRs. In addition to tracking vehicles, company software can identify any poor driving habits by a chauffeur, such as sudden acceleration, severe cornering, hard braking, excessive idling, and speeding which can be reviewed at any time.
This data helps prevent accidents, reduce customer service issues, and saves money. It has enabled United Private Car to cut its loss runs since 2017 by 90% due to an increased awareness of defensive driving, training classes, and field observation.
With Boston attracting some monster blizzards, chauffeurs learn how to drive on snowy, slick roads, and how to handle ice. They carry small shovels in the vehicle trunks. Chauffeurs will cut a trail to a client’s door in freshly fallen snow. They also use kitty litter to reduce the chances of skidding if the vehicle gets stuck.
Murtaugh and Dornhoffer use lots of data to help them run and grow their business. They spend time each month looking at metrics and trends from the dates pulled from dispatch software, which helps them forecast and plan.
Last year, the company gained an in-depth look at driver efficiencies and reduced overhead costs thanks to a telematics provider case study on how the company uses its software to monitor driver location, safety, and productivity.
“The combination of the telematics software and our dispatch software allows us to move away from phones and two-way radios of the past and get data in real-time,” Murtaugh says. “It allows us to monitor fuel usage. We can track our vehicles. Our drivers have a better awareness of how they drive. It has changed the way we operate, how we dispatch, and reduced our costs.”
United Private Car uses the Livery Coach software, as its solution and platform are well aligned with the company’s business. Dispatchers monitor trips on multiple screens. They can integrate with other limousine company software and get updates regardless of where vehicles are in real-time without the need for phone calls and follow-ups.
“This software with its Quickbooks integration, user-friendly online reservation system, and other features, allows us to be more productive as a business,” Murtaugh says.
Tying all the technology together, United Private Car last year moved into a new facility with a state-of-the-art call center and dispatch communications which provide its team with real-time tracking for flights, vehicles, and weather, all positioned on 55-in. screen monitors positioned above their communications center room. “This needed expansion allows for an open workspace concept, which provides better teamwork, employee supervision, and morale,” Murtaugh says.
In recent years, the company has increased its marketing on social media. They continuously send messages to keep their name in front of potential and existing clients on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Linkedin. Information includes any company news such as chauffeurs receiving customer safety training or when the company donates to a charitable cause.
“We are always inviting our clients to leave reviews or provide feedback on these sites so others can see the experiences of our customers,” Murtaugh says. “This allows us to identify our shortcomings and correct them for the future. Social media is also used as a vehicle to attract potential applicants for positions within our company.”
United Private Car’s rigid chauffeur training involves classroom instruction and role-playing. Once done, new chauffeurs ride as passengers while the trainer explains service details and practices. They then switch roles and the new hire practices on the trainer in various customer situations.
During these rides, they visit popular destinations such as the airport, local attractions, and areas with numerous client offices. The chauffeurs then spend time with customer service agents and dispatchers listening to calls and situations that arise. Likewise, CSRs are field trained so they can visualize what they are talking about when clients have questions about destinations or local services.
After being taught all the company protocols, the chauffeurs must take and pass a test before driving their first client. A chauffeur mentor is assigned to a new hire to coach and critique. Chauffeurs also learn how to interact with the client, including appropriate topics and how to talk to them. They learn their range of authority if a client has a specific request. Chauffeurs must anticipate client needs while staying in the background unless engaged by the client.
“We believe clients who pay a premium for luxury service expect to receive a very high level of service, and more than just a ride," Murtaugh says. “Anyone can drive you back and forth to the airport, but that's different from a chauffeured car experience.”
Chauffeurs are also trained on the controls, features, and safety equipment of the fleet vehicles they drive. “We demonstrate and test chauffeurs on how to use a fire extinguisher because just having it in a vehicle is not enough if the chauffeur does not know how to operate it,” he says.
Like many operations, United Private Car would like to grow more, possibly to 30 vehicles, but can’t find enough chauffeurs.
“We've had numerous conversations about this between ourselves and our operations manager,” Murtaugh says. “We've seen struggles with other companies in our industry and market, and there seems to have always been this race to put bodies in black suits behind the wheels of the cars. Our focus more lately has been the quality of the chauffeurs we are putting behind the wheel of the car. If we wanted to add a number of chauffeurs now, we probably could, but finding true professionals or someone who wants to pursue this as a career has grown to be a true challenge. We’re not willing to sacrifice the level of service just to have more bodies in the cars.”
That means looking for chauffeurs in related service sector fields, such as event planning, client services, and concierges. On the day LCT visited the company, Murtaugh was impressed with the customer service skills of a Starbucks barista one floor below and hinted to him about the possibility of becoming a chauffeur.
They also participate in Hiring Our Heroes events that match military veterans with jobs.
“You have a veteran who is driving a two-ton and he just came back from overseas,” Murtaugh says. “And he could drive a mini coach.”
“You have to be talking to people wherever you are,” Dornhoffer adds. “You have to engage and when you see an opportunity there, or hear one, you have to ask or try to get them interested.”
Many original clients from day one are still with the company 13 years later. To achieve that high-end, concierge-level quality service, United Private Car takes the following steps:
““We look at whether the chauffeur has backed into the clients driveway in the morning,are they awaiting their client's arrival by standing outside of the vehicle with a sign, are they dressed impeccably, is the vehicle spotless and stocked with cold water?” Murtaugh says.
Related Topics: Boston operators, business management, entrepreneurship, fleet management, Massachusetts operators, operation growth, Operator of the Year Awards, operator profiles, Sales & Marketing, salesperson
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