Just over five years ago, LSW Chauffeured Transportation’s Melissa Thornton returned from a successful career in corporate America to take the reins of the family business she grew up with. Taking advantage of the many opportunities available for woman-owned and minority-owned businesses, as well as aligning her company with many charitable initiatives benefiting women, like the Go Red campaign, Thornton has led the White Plains, NY company she inherited to new heights.
|Melissa Thornton, CEO of LSW Chauffeured Transportation|
LD: Can you give us a brief overview of your company?
Melissa: LSW Chauffeured Transportation is an executive ground transportation company specializing in transportation solutions for meeting planners, executives, VIPs, CEOs and the like. We service the immediate tri-state area surrounding White Plains, NY, but also offer services in over 500 cities worldwide. In business for over 35 years, we are a second-generation family business, and certified as a woman-owned business and minority-owned business. We have a very diverse fleet that includes sedans, minicoaches, motorcoaches, SUVs, and Mercedes Sprinters.
LD: So you’re the daughter of the founders of the company?
Melissa: I sure am! My parents started this business in 1978. My father originally started in the bus business, then gave that up and started LSW with one car out of our home. When my father passed away many years ago, my mom took over, and she was running the business as the only owner until I came on in April of 2008 as Chief Operating Officer. I worked in that capacity for about two years, and then I took over as CEO in January of 2010. Even though I was born and raised in the business, I had left and gone into corporate America, worked there for about 15 years, then came back to run the company. It was never my intention to come back to the family business, but I’m happy I did.
LD: Can you elaborate a little more on your corporate background?
Melissa: I graduated from Pace University with a degree in Management Information Systems. I worked as a business analyst, a project manager, and a systems analyst in several Fortune 500 companies, such as Philip Morris, Pfizer Pharmaceutical and Barclays Capital. That type of experience really helped me in the position I’m in now; it helped me understand how corporate America thinks, what is important to them, and how our company should interface with them.
LD: What separates your company and what helps you stay competitive?
Melissa: Well, we are not the largest company by far, and I think we run it in what you might call a boutique mentality. We get to know our clientele, and they get to know us. You’re not just a number with LSW, and we do all the right things to make right by the client. In hiring, we focus on talent, skills and training, and we want to know, who is this individual picking up our phones? Who is the person driving our vehicles? Because the company is being represented from the time the customer has his first experience with them. So we drive customer service as just a way of life. I try to make that a constant part of our culture—how we treat each other, and how we treat our customers. I’m also a very accessible CEO; when one of my associates is on-boarding a client, I’ll jump on the call and introduce myself. I want them to know who they’re doing business with.
LD: Can you share some insights about how you grow and maintain your affiliate business?
Melissa: As I get out there and network with new people, people become more familiar with our company, and that’s how I’ve been growing some of my inbound affiliate work. As it relates to the outbound, a lot of times I’ve used the connections I’ve made in the industry as a reference. So say, for example, I’m doing business in a city I just don’t know—I’m happy and blessed to say that I have contacts I can call and say, “You know the kind of operation I’m running here. You know what’s important to me. Can you help me find a provider that is going to offer my customers a seamless experience?”
LD: How have the organizations you belong to, like the Women’s Business Enterprise and the National Minority Supplier Development Council, benefited LSW?
Melissa: I have to tell you, the certification process is exhausting and time consuming, but in the end it’s worth it. It’s very important that those who go ahead with the certification process don’t just stop there. Certification gives you the opportunity to network yourself within circles you would not normally have access to, but it only starts there. It opens up a door, and now it’s up to you to walk through and expose yourself to the opportunities. We’re on our second year of being certified as both a woman-owned and a minority-owned business, and we’re now starting to see the net results of that. There are a lot of opportunities out there for women and minority businesses, and I have every intention of exploring them. We’re actually on the tail end of trying to get our DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) certification, as well. The application’s been on file with the processor for over a year, so that we can get access to, for example, the Tapanzee project, which is this major $4 billion construction project that’s been ongoing in our area for many years. Being DBE certified will give us the opportunity to participate in ground transportation and shuttling opportunities for that project over the next five years.
LD: Can you tell us about your experience at the Tuck-WBENC Executive Program last October?
Melissa: So every year they select 50 women CEOs from around the country to participate in this weeklong event, which is co-sponsored by Dartmouth University and IBM. I was selected to attend on a free scholarship, which I was very happy about. They are exhausting 12-hour days, but it’s the most amazing experience. They had about five professors they flew in to coach CEOs to the next level through seminars and lectures covering subjects like financial planning, financial forecasting, how to grow your business, how to market your business, sales, and personal development. Quite frankly, I was among 50 of some of the brightest women I’ve ever had the privilege to be around, and I’ve developed lasting relationships across many different industries.
LD: What advice would you give to other women- or minority-owned businesses trying to succeed in this
or any industry?
Melissa: Running your own business will test your limits, but it will show you how strong you can be. It’s going to present challenges you never dreamed you’d have to face, but be patient, be strong, and fight when you need to fight. But don’t forget to enjoy the highs, because it’s almost cyclical, what you’ll experience—good years, and not-so-good years. You’ll have sleepless nights, but believe in yourself and what’s important. Get out there and network, like I do with Women on the Move, a group of women CEOs in the transportation industry, which has enabled me to meet women I look up to—mentors. What’s so frustrating about growing a business is that you don’t always have the answers, and joining groups like this allows you to simply ask the question: “How do you do this?” You are going to need that emotional and professional support. Lastly—and I say this as the type of CEO who is more comfortable behind the scenes—try to get out of your comfort zone, because you are your business, and nobody’s going to sell your business like you. Make the effort to get out there and meet people, because at the end of the day I have found that people want to do business with people they know.
Call me five years from now, and I’ll probably give you a whole different perspective.
LD: We’ll hold you to that.
For more information about LSW Chauffeured Transportation, visit www.lswlimo.com or call 877.878.LIMO (5466)