The founder of Pontarelli Companies leaves a legacy of quality transportation and brave service to his country.
Kern, then in his 20s, recalled how his stepdad became a mentor, taking him through the steps of business evaluations and deals while inspiring him to pursue his career in finance. During a memorial tribute on April 23, Kern summed up what could be an epitaph: “My stepdad knew how to succeed with kindness and humility.”
Sabroff, the founder of Integrated Transportation Services (ITS) and a former rocket scientist and aerospace executive, died April 11 at Kindred Hospital, a rehabilitation hospital used by Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 82. Sabroff, who recently underwent surgery for a severe spinal injury, had suffered from medical complications resulting from a fall in his home on Jan. 14. Conscious and mentally keen until the end, Sabroff spent his final months visiting with family and few close friends, and saying a long good-bye. A private funeral and burial service were held April 23 in Rancho Palos Verdes followed by a life celebration reception at the Sabroff residence.
Brilliant Mind, Smart Words
Eulogists and friends recounted how Sabroff — a quiet, reserved man of few words but vast intelligence and a sharp sense of humor — lived and led by example. His best decision and greatest accomplishment was his marriage to Jonna Hamilton on May 9, 1986. The couple, who worked and met at the former TRW aerospace company in Redondo Beach, would go on to form an unusually complementary partnership running ITS. Over 25 years, they grew and matured the company into a high-end Los Angeles chauffeured service and leading Boston Coach affiliate of 50-plus vehicles that carried an elite entertainment, VIP, and corporate clientele.
Al was the behind-the-scenes financial wizard and business analyst at ITS, minutely documenting the P&Ls on each fleet vehicle, while Jonna served as the out-and-about dynamo in the roles of President, seller, marketer, and business developer. Al Sabroff continued running the business well beyond typical retirement ages. As recently as last year, the couple would work late into the early morning hours at their Studio City home office gathering information and vetting documents for corporate RFPs.
“We both stayed in our own lanes. I do what I do, and he did what he did. We ran it like a company,” said Jonna Sabroff, who is now the director of business development for Wilshire Limousine Services in Los Angeles. The Sabroffs sold their company to Midway Auto Group, the parent company of Wilshire, on Sept. 1, 2015. “It went from nothing to one of the top family-owned companies in Los Angeles.”
Before the limousine business, Al Sabroff lived through an entire career, working at TRW (now Northrop Grumman) for 29 years until he retired in 1990. He started as an engineer in 1961 and worked his way up to Vice President and lead executive of TRW's Federal Systems Division. He served as a team leader and program manager for a number of important Space Programs for the Department of Defense and NASA. These programs included: the U.S. race to the Moon; design, build and deployment of the NASA Lunar Land Rover; Apollo Space Program; the International Space Station; the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI); and numerous other communication and defense satellite programs, many of which are still classified and operating today.
Looking about for a new venture, he bought a construction business that designed kitchens and bathrooms, which played off of his lifelong hobby of renovating every home he ever lived in. He also was drawn to the limousine business since he wanted to move into a service-oriented role, and because of his experience with the house executive fleet at TRW, Jonna recalled. He observed ways a fleet could run better. “He said it was a waste of time and money what TRW was doing with its fleet.”
Al bought two small Beverly Hills limousine companies each with fewer than five vehicles — White Tie Limousine and Beverly Hills Limousine — and formed ITS. At the time, there were no limo-oriented reservation software systems available that Al thought would suit his requirements for a reservation platform, so he tapped his vast engineering and scientific skills to write a more robust reservations system for ITS.
Jonna, who started at TRW in 1980 as a contract manager and negotiator, handled the proposals and negotiations for new business for TRW Space and Defense for NASA, the Department of Defense, and classified programs. She joined Al in the limousine business upon his retirement. As a widowed mother, Jonna had earned her B.S. in Finance and Management while working full time as a programs and contracts director at another aerospace company before TRW.
“Al could have bought a hotel, a bar, and done all kinds of business models,” she said. “He could look 20 years into the future. Things were changing in 1989-90 from the Reagan economy to the Bush economy, and aerospace was contracting. He saw manufacturing jobs going away and came to the conclusion he had to do something different. He knew it had to be service.”
The couple acquired several more small companies, building up ITS into a company with a strong, loyal customer base. They made customer service a cornerstone of their best business practices, which also involved managing the cash flow of the new company on a monthly basis.
“When ITS won a customer, we never lost one because the customers’ needs always came first,” Jonna said. “The motto at ITS was, ‘the customer is never wrong.’ No excuses. If you saw something that needed to be done, you did it. Al never tolerated an attitude of ‘it is not my job.’” Al would hold employees accountable and expect them to show up on time and do work on time, she added.
As the company gained in stature, the Sabroffs developed a higher profile within the national limousine industry as association leaders and advocates. They regularly attended industry and trade group events, with Jonna serving several years as the First Vice President of the Greater California Livery Association.
Those operators who knew Al Sabroff the longest and worked with him as colleagues and affiliates described him as a trusted, generous businessman who knew when to be gentle and when to be tough.
“He was a thoughtful, charismatic guy. I enjoyed hanging out with him when he was putting the company together. I got to see how he viewed the business world, and he brought a fresh perspective to the limousine industry as a whole,” said Rich Cooley, a former ITS partner, consultant, and board director, who during his industry career also worked as an executive in the Los Angeles operations of Carey International and Empire International. Cooley, now the CEO of a solar technology company in Phoenix, owned and ran an executive chauffeuring school when he met the Sabroffs in 1989.
“I worked with them day in and day out,” he said. “Al always had a quiet confidence and manner about him. But make no mistake, beneath the velvet veneer, he was tough as nails.” Connecting with Al’s dry humor was a privilege, Cooley recalled. “You had to be around him to get it. If he made a joke, he expected you to get it. Thankfully, I did most of the time.”
The humor was a noticeable part of Al’s social side, Cooley remembered: “Al liked to dress up and go out. He went to a lot of national industry events. He loved putting on a nice suit and hat. The entertainment and social part of the industry was one thing he enjoyed greatly.”
Another longtime friend and industry colleague, Michael Fogarty, connected with the Sabroffs in the early 1990s as he was setting up BostonCoach’s affiliate network. “When I think of Dr. Sabroff, a number of words come to mind: Intelligence, loyalty, humility and zeal,” said Fogarty, now the CEO/Americas of Tristar Worldwide Chauffeur Services and President of the Taxi, Limousine & Paratransit Association. “My specific memories of Al center on his grasp of the financials within a transportation business. I have interacted with hundreds of owners to review numbers and I have never found another operator who understood financials as well as Al.”
Fogarty also benefited from Al’s generosity and advice, a common theme among people who knew him best. “Just over 10 years ago I had a very important career decision to make, and I flew to Los Angeles to meet with Al and discuss the opportunity," said Fogarty, who also made remarks at the memorial reception. “Al played a critical role in my decision to leave BostonCoach and start Tristar in the U.S. I will be forever grateful for his friendship, the sage counsel he provided, and for his willingness to be a mentor to me.”
Even those who knew Al briefly could pick up on his substance and depth.
“My biggest regret is I did not know that guy longer,” said Gary Macdonald, President of Midway Auto Group, owner of Wilshire Limousine Services. Macdonald negotiated with the Sabroffs the sale of ITS to Wilshire last year.
“He’s smart, honest, and straightforward. He was someone who negotiated in a fair and honest way. He didn’t throw any games, curve balls, or clever things into the mix. We just talked our way through until we got to something that met both of our requirements. Things he said would happen, would happen. He was just a gentleman.”
Albert Edward Sabroff was born on April 24, 1934 in Madison, Wisconsin, the youngest of two sons, to Bertha and Albert E. Sabroff, Sr. Al was a talented athlete and grew up to become a well-regarded semi-professional baseball player with the Chicago Cubs in the minor league system.
He earned his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 1955; M.S. in Electrical Engineering in 1956; and a Doctorate in Electrical Engineering in 1961. He graduated from the UCLA Anderson School Of Management in 1968.
In addition to his wife Jonna, Al Sabroff is survived by a son and daughter-in-law, Eric and Kathy Sabroff of Torrance, Calif.; a daughter, Lynn Sabroff of Seattle; an adopted stepdaughter, Carmen Rodriguez of Los Angles; a stepson and daughter-in-law, Ty Kern and Karina DeMaria Kern of Costa Mesa, Calif.; a step granddaughter, Isabel Grace Kern; a step grandson, Ryan King; and many nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces.
Al was preceded in death by his oldest son, Steven Sabroff, in 2006, and his older b brother, Richard.
The family has received abundant flowers, cards, gifts and meals in the last several weeks, and asks that donations in lieu of above be made in Al Sabroff’s memory to any of the following: Advocates For Fairness In Transportation (AFT); the National Limousine Association (NLA); state and local limousine associations; and/or to the house of worship or charity of your choice. Al strongly supported and participated in industry associations throughout his career.
Toward the end of the formal tribute, the family’s youngest generation excitedly darted about the edges of the backyard pool, gently placing onto the water floatable, white paper bags filled with lit candles. Guests reminisced sitting at tables that ringed the pool.
As the early evening Southern California sunlight stretched lower across the canyon-side backyard and pool terrace, Jonna, Ty and Eric hugged one another and released white balloons into the air in memory of Al, as the speakers played “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
The founder of Pontarelli Companies leaves a legacy of quality transportation and brave service to his country.
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