Friday, June 13, 2014

Q&A: Martin Ross of Ross Limousine


Martin Ross, Ross Limousine

Martin Ross founded Ross Limousine in Neptune, New Jersey, with a single white stretch limo back in 1992. This Mother’s Day, Ross Limo will celebrate its 22nd year of setting the industry standard for efficiency, professionalism and customer service throughout the tri-state area. In this illuminating Q&A, Ross explores the challenges associated with operating a small chauffeured transportation business, as well as the priceless benefits that come from staying true to his vision of sustainable growth and maintaining personal relationships with his clients.


I suppose I should begin by saying congratulations on Ross Limo’s upcoming 22nd anniversary!

Yes, I started in 1992 with basically one car and myself. Mother’s Day in ‘92 was when I brought the first car home, and I was one of the first guys with a 120” stretch. That was the year they first made them; the model year was ‘93. Then my fleet grew to a couple of cars, and eventually my mother started to help me, so it turned into kind of a family business. I have an eclectic mix of vehicles, so I’m not really a big corporate guy, or a big wedding guy; I do a little bit of everything—vans, sedans, white limos, black limos—so I’m a small, mom-and-pop, middle of the road, 10-12 car company.

Tell me about your “eclectic” fleet.

It’s changed up a bit in recent years. I have Lincoln sedans, Escalades, a Suburban, a shuttle van, three white limos, three black limos and a stretch Navigator.

What would you say the majority of your workload is? On what markets do you focus primarily?

With three white stretches and a white Nav, I do my fair share of weddings. I started doing a little
affiliate work here and there with a couple of my sedans, but the majority of my work is weekend business. We’re still your wedding/night on the town/bachelor and bachelorette party kind of business.

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The passengers in my cars are my #1 sales people.
If we can do a great job for them, they’re going
to go out and tell someone that we did a great job.
 

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What are the challenges of developing an affiliate network for a smaller operation like yours?

The hardest part of breaking into that affiliate network—especially being a small mom-and-pop kind of business—is all these bigger companies aren’t picking up Mr. Ross or Mr. Jones anymore. Basically, they’re picking up a number. You’re picking up traveler #823 when you’re doing affiliate work for the big guys. The hard part for me is that I want to bring that personal touch to the Ross Limo experience. Everything is more personal in regards to what I do: I answer the phone 24/7, you don’t go through dispatch, you don’t go through a reservation, you always talk to someone live at Ross because we’re a small company.

I’d like to deal with a couple smaller companies and keep it more personal than your super corporate travel firm. That’s the way I’m breaking into it: I want an affiliate company to feel like they know me, and know my guys who are picking up their client.

Can you talk about your company’s mission to set the industry standard for efficiency, professionalism and customer service, and how you strive to achieve the goals of that mission in your everyday operations?

We try to do the same thing every day: whether you’re a super VIP, or someone who just found my number in the phone book, we treat everyone the same with the highest level of professionalism
by being on time, and making sure our chauffeurs are dressed properly and the cars are clean. A lot of our business comes from word of mouth referrals. If you pick someone up and the car is clean, the chauffeur is nicely dressed, and the service is very personal, that is worth a thousand times more than any marketing or advertising you can do, because when that guy gets out of the car, whoever he’s going to meet, he’s going to say, “Wow, these guys are great!” That’s the ultimate goal of my business’ mission. The passengers in my cars are my #1 sales people. If we can do a great job for them, they’re going to go out and tell someone that we did a great job.

Your full tuxedo dress code for your chauffeurs is a unique policy for a company your size. Tell me about your rationale for this policy, and its strengths.

I just think it sets you apart. When you show up in a $75,000 vehicle, you can’t have the driver wearing a $7.50 suit. Some clients go out and spend $60, $100, even $1,000 a night, and if you’re spending that kind of money, you want the best service, the best food, chauffeurs in tuxedos, white clad service—you would expect the best, and that’s what I expect when we send a chauffeur. When that chauffeur pulls up in that tuxedo and that car is shining bright, we want people to see that and feel that we are treating their trip like a special occasion.

It’s clear that putting high-quality chauffeurs behind the wheel in your vehicles is important to you. Can you speak about what hiring practices you use to make sure you’re hiring the right people?

My hiring process is kind of unique. I have a great staff of people that have worked for me for a long time, and I only employ about 10-12 chauffeurs at most, so if I do hire a new person, it’s only based on a high recommendation from one of my chauffeurs or office staff. Of course, their driving record has to be super clean. The way they act is very important; if I sit down and have dinner with this person, I consider if they would be the person I’d want interacting with clients. Are they respectful? Do they know their manners? Can you have a normal, five minute conversation with them? You just have to hire the right person to represent your business. I don’t really have a hiring process, I think it’s just being a people person and knowing the way you want to be treated when you talk to someone. I can tell in five minutes whether that person’s going to work out or not.

How has the regulatory climate in New Jersey affected your business?

It’s a major challenge with the state and the way we’re regulated in the limousine industry. We’re regulated so hard in this state with the DOT laws, and anything over 14 passengers is considered a bus, so it’s hard for an operator like me to buy one of these 22- or 24-passenger Hummers or Excursions and rent it out, because legally I really can’t. In this state it’s not considered a limo, but in New York or Pennsylvania you can book that kind of work left and right. I’m not saying it’s like the black car state, but it’s getting hard for a regular limo operator to really run anymore, because now if it’s eight passengers or more, everything’s DOT’d. Now they’re even going to make us pull over at the rest stops and weigh stations. So if you’ve got a bunch of people out for a bachelor or bachelorette party trip to Atlantic City, everyone’s drinking, having fun, enjoying their time in the limousine, and we’ve got to pull over every 30 miles to get checked. It seems very Big Brotherish. They’re already in a chauffeured vehicle with a guy who’s already passed a background check by the state police, so why do we have to stop to get checked again? I think that’s going to hurt our industry big time. People who want to take a trip in these limos and limo buses, they shouldn’t have to be harassed and hassled and pulled over and everything else. I don’t see how it’s going to last. I see it having lots of problems and getting lots of complaints.

I’m sure you’ve talked at length about these regulations with your fellow LANJ members. Can you speak about the unique benefits to be had by small businesses that are active members of industry associations?

The benefits of being in this association are that we have the ability and the means to help protect the industry, which gives you a level of confidence. If you need a question answered, if you need help understanding the legal issues in the state, whether you have one or 100 cars, they’ll be there for you. Our association leader, Barry Lefkowitz, is a rock, and to have that person in your circle, I think, is priceless. I have been a part of LANJ forever; they’ve helped me out, and I’ve helped them out. One hand washes the other. If I need something it’s just a phone call away, and with an association like LANJ, you have a way to fight for what you think is right in terms of regulations.

Do you plan on adding any “green” cars to your fleet? And in general, what are the challenges of adding a new vehicle to a small fleet?

The only green initiative I have is money. [Laughs.] Actually, we’ve been looking at several different things because, as you know, the Town Car is gone, so your standard sedan has turned into basically anything you want to run that fits your business. I think the days are over when your sedan had to be a Town Car or a Cadillac. You can have a Chrysler 300, the Toyotas are in the mix, Suburbans, trucks—you can run anything you want, and there are definitely lots of good hybrid options. As of right now I’m not running anything “green,” but I think the future definitely has a spot for those types of vehicles in the market because of the demise of the Town Car.

That’s sort of the crossroads I’m at right now, especially being a smaller business. You can add anything you want to your fleet, just as long as your customer base knows it’s a premier vehicle. Just for instance, the Hyundai Genesis is an expensive car, and today’s businessman knows that this Hyundai model is not a tiny, inexpensive Hyundai, it’s a premier vehicle. As long as the customer knows—even if you had a Lexus or a BMW truck—these people are aware that the auto industry is changing. These days, it’s not the 90 year old businessman who has to get into a black Lincoln Town Car.

Ross Martin stands in front of Ross Limousine’s diverse fleet


How do you remain technologically competitive as a small operator?

I think technology is great... to a point. Technology is great for streamlining your operations, and for promoting and marketing your business. It’s also great for your chauffeurs to have a GPS and an iPad in the car, but that chauffeur still needs to be trained, and be familiar with the area that they’re working in. My GPS tells me to make a right, but I knew I should have made a left—that happens every day. GPS is a great tool, but they still need to have maps and know where they’re going. You can’t just stick a guy in a car with a GPS.

I love the idea of having technology in the vehicles that is accessible to the passenger, like an iPad in the car where they can check their email or get online to book a flight. I know a lot of companies are already doing this, but when it’s more mainstream or less expensive, I think you’ll see them in more vehicles. My chauffeurs also have a couple different chargers with them in their bag in case someone gets off the plane and their phone is dead. We just try to give it another level of professionalism. I’ve always thought our kind of
business is like the concierge when you walk into the Ritz Carlton. That’s what I think a chauffeur should be.

Tell me about your current marketing strategy.

We just did some online marketing through Superpages and an SEO company. I kind of scaled back my Yellow Pages phone book ads and put that money into the online end of it, because the only thing people use a phone book for nowadays is a door stop. People look online now. I’m very much into online marketing now, but I still like sending out a postcard or a comp card to local neighborhoods, because unlike the phone book, people do still read their mail. And who doesn’t like a nice, glossy little postcard promoting prom season or a night out? Solid grassroots marketing will still help you because it’s right in front of people’s faces. I think you’ve got to reach prospects in different age groups, so you’ve got to have a balanced marketing approach.

Are you marketing on social media?

I have never gotten into Facebook or Twitter, either personally or business-wise. There are definite pros and cons. The pros, of course, are that it can generate revenue and business through your own network, but a major con is that I don’t know if it’s going to increase my bottom line substantially enough for the time and effort you have to put into it. On social media, you’ve got to post once a day, and if you’re writing a blog it should be once a week. I haven’t really made a final decision about what I’m going to do yet in terms
of social media marketing, but I honestly don’t think it’s going to work for me personally, simply because of the size of my business. But I’m not afraid to try it, either! It’s just something we’ve been putting off, because if you don’t update it often enough, if you’re not on top of it, then you look like you don’t care and run a
shady operation. So having to worry about updating your Twitter everyday is a lot without a staffer to do it, and I don’t want to drop the ball and upset someone who was looking forward to my tweet. [Laughs.]
I like to be on the phone with my customers rather than on Facebook anyway. The phone is more personal. I think that personal relationships for a smaller business is way more valuable than anything you can post
on a blog or Facebook.

Speaking of personal relationships, I know your family has been instrumental in your long, successful career in the industry. Can you tell us about how you got into the business, and how it became such a thriving family enterprise? 

I started the business when I was 19, and because you weren’t allowed to get a CDL license until you were 21 in New Jersey, the state had to make an exemption in the law for me. That was my first intro to the rules and regulations of the limo business.

It’s a little personal how I first got into the business. My father was sick at the time, and we had to travel to Boston for him to receive treatment. It was around ‘89 when they first started making these mega stretches with hot tubs and everything, so we rented one of these super stretches because my father had to travel lying down. I wound up talking to the operator, who was a friend of a friend, and he said to me, “If you want to make extra money, I have a sedan and I need some help driving people to the airport.” So just out of high school at this point, I started helping this guy.

One day he said I was doing really good, and told me that a lot of guys, after they work for him for a while, buy their own vehicle and try to work for themselves. It sounded like a headache, but after a while I decided to buy my own car. He said to me, “I only have one white stretch, so if you buy a white one, I’ll give you all my overflow work.” I bought my white stretch and got this guy’s overflow work, then my cousin wanted to get into the business. We got another car, but then my cousin decided it wasn’t for him, so I ended up with two cars around  ‘92-’93, and I ask myself, What do I do? Do I try to start a business be a young professional entrepreneur? So that’s what happened. Then my mother and family jumped into the mix to help me, and now here I am 22 years later, with about a dozen cars. We’ve been up and down, through good and bad. I remember the first car was $60k, the gas was a dollar, and you could make $70 per hour. Now it’s the opposite! The car’s $100k, gas is $4 and you definitely can’t get $70 bucks an hour anymore.

And I’ll tell you one thing: I wouldn’t be here without my mother, Karen. My mother is a rock in my business. She owned a florist business when I was growing up, and that’s where I get all my customer service skills and all of my business savvy. My mother started the flower shop when she was in her 20s, and now she’s 70, so she’s been a business professional for over 50 years. It’s from her that I get my drive, my hard work ethic, and my core values. You can call my office right now and she’ll answer the phone. She really enjoys the customers and the clientele that we have.

What’s in store for Ross Limo in the near and distant future?

My vision right now with all the vehicle changes is very cloudy. Fleet composition is very, very important right now. There is no set stretch and there is no standard limousine anymore, so my goal for my business is to make sure that I have what my clients need. I think that’s the way things are going. And that’s my goal for the next year or two: to make sure, with all the changes and all these different vehicles, that I have what my customers need and want.

My long-term goal is just to grow little by little every year. I don’t think you can make leaps and bounds in this business. Even if I added a big tour bus and charged $250 an hour, I don’t think I’m going to make a million dollars a year.  It’s all about servicing my clients and acquiring long lasting relationships, I’m here to meet their needs.

Do you have any advice for someone in this industry with the same small-and-sustainable business vision as you?

Buckle your seatbelt—it’s a hard road. And just be professional and nice to the people that you deal with everyday, because those are the people who are going to recognize you and support you: your clientele base. My advice is the same your mother gave to you: treat people how you want to be treated, and it’ll come back to you ten-fold. I think in a small business that’s the key to success.

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Written by
Associate Editor & Digital Media Manager
adam@limodigest.com

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