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June 2010
Service with a Side of Showmanship
By Heather Head

     He’s an odd mix of traits, this radio-personality-turned-limo-driver who is now owner and president of Charlotte’s largest chauffeured transportation company. H.A. Thompson is a showman at heart who understands the value of providing exceptional service.

     “Everybody gives ‘good service,’” Thompson says. “But ‘good service’ is defined differently by different people. But for us it means having a gracious service attitude.”

     That combination—the showmanship and the humility—contradictory though it seems, is a winning combination for a chauffeuring company whose customers expect the best of everything.

     The Rose offices themselves are demonstrative of this dichotomy. Housed in a warehouse-style building off Nations Ford in Pineville, the facility is at once homey and unassuming. There is no formal waiting room: Visitors walk straight into a room full of cubicles. The walls are, in places, unfinished brick, and the carpet is industrial grade.

     But facing the entrance is an entire wall is plastered with glowing reviews, thank yous, news reports, magazine features, and over-the-top testimonials in honor of the company and its founder. And, in the center of it all, is a large picture of Thompson himself in chauffeur’s cap washing a car, a brilliant smile brightening his face.

 

Memory Lane

     Forty-nine years ago, Thompson left the advertising agency he was working for, brushed up his broadcasting skills in Chicago, and moved to Toledo for a job in radio. Broadcasting eventually brought him to Charlotte where he built a two-decades-long career, becoming one of the city’s most popular radio talk show hosts.   Although he still had several years left at the station in 1985, Thompson knew it couldn’t last forever. So he bought a limo.

     His sons were 17 and 21 at the time. They drove the vehicle, chauffeuring weddings and proms, while Thompson continued to work at the station. By 1989, the limo business had grown to six vehicles and several part-time employees, but he was still running it on the side out of his home—all six limousines parked in the driveway. Overhead was low and profit margins were high.

     That was before the letter arrived from his homeowner’s association.

     “The drivers were parking their cars up and down this little residential street,” Thompson explains in his gravelly radio voice. “They said it was a violation.”

     But the irony of the situation is that the final straw for the neighbors was Thompson’s uncompromising attention to detail. Clean car detail, that is: “We were vacuuming cars at six in the morning—they’d been out the night before, and we had to pick people up at nine o’clock. The neighbors were sleeping.”

     And the next thing he knew, Rose Limo was looking for commercial space. Their overhead went up, but the company continued to grow, thanks to the same attention to detail that got the company booted out of a sleepy residential neighborhood.

     Thompson says a lot of people buy into the concept of “don’t sweat the small stuff,” but he’s not one of them. It’s the little details that make the difference between customer satisfaction and customer loyalty.

     In his book (yes, he’s a writer too), If You Want Something You Don’t Have… You’ve Got to do Something  You’ve Never Done, he tells the story of a time when he had finished up late and decided his car was clean enough—he was too tired to do anything else, and he figured his pre-dawn customer couldn’t possibly notice if the car was a little less than perfectly clean. But he couldn’t sleep for thinking about the not-quite-clean car, so he headed back out and gave it its customary spit and polish.

     The next morning, he was gratified when the customer commented, “You must have washed this car this morning. It’s spotless.”

     But never trust a character like Thompson to rely on small details and quiet humility entirely. In 1987, he gave into his impulse for the dramatic when he purchased the Cadillac limousine that had belonged to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

     In 1989, he proved his flair for the dramatic when he and his wife, Lucille, showed up on practically every news medium in the country. They had placed magnetic bumper stickers announcing the origins of the Cadillac, then driven it to the courthouse where the Bakker’s trial was taking place, and emerged in Jim and Tammy Faye rubber masks and costumes.

     The publicity was good for business and for the showman’s soul, but bad for the radio career. Later the next year Thompson’s contract was not renewed by the station.

     Not one to dwell on the past, Thompson exited the radio business in 1990, just as his company was growing beyond limousines and expanding into other forms of transportation. In 2002, on the advice of a business consultant, Thompson stopped driving altogether and began running the business behind the eighteen vehicles then in operation.

 

Driven to Success

     In 2007, Thompson again evaluated the business model for his company. A second consultant convinced him that the company had grown past the point where one person could run the whole show, so he hired John Keesee as CFO to run the financial end.

     He changed the name of the company from Rose Limo to Rose Chauffeured Transportation to reflect the change in the business model. Thompson explains that as the company has grown, it has moved further and further from weddings and proms, and added more corporate, university, sports, and events customers to its roster.

     Today, the 26,000-square-foot garage houses 33 vehicles including executive sedans, luxury SUVs, executive vans, mini-buses, and high end motor coaches.

     When Keesee came on board, he looked at the company’s strengths and weaknesses and decided what it needed to focus on were repeat customers He drew on his institutional background to seek out contracts and relationships with universities and organizations—Wingate, Queens, the Carolina Panthers, Bank of America. With those types of clients, Keesee could project revenues as well as driver and vehicle needs on a month-by-month and seasonal basis.

     Additionally, he instituted business practices that allow the company’s productivity to be measured more precisely. Each vehicle in the garage is treated like its own business, with its own sales goals. If it’s not hitting the revenue goal, then it’s time to divest the company’s investment in that vehicle.

     As a result, the company has not only remained solvent through the current down economy, but has continued to grow. Although he has no plans to retire any time soon, Thompson expects to pass a healthy, growing business to his son Andy, who is currently vice president.

     But having sound business practices in place is not the only reason the company is growing. Far from it. Thompson and company still adhere to the founding principle that delivers customer loyalty and a file cabinet full of thank you letters: True service.

     When Thompson. talks about service, he doesn’t just mean answering the phone with a smile and being on time, although those things are certainly part of it. He’s talking about a true attitude of being of service, going out of your way to create an exceptional experience for the customer. He likes to tell the story from a few years ago when Bill Gates was coming to Charlotte to make a corporate donation.

     A few minutes before his scheduled arrival, Thompson received a phone call from a young lady who was aboard Gates’ personal aircraft. She wanted to know if one of Rose’s drivers could pick up a hamburger for Gates before he arrived.

     “How long before you touch down?” he asked. Ten minutes, she said. “No way,” he thought. The drivers were already parked and waiting, and there was no fast food close enough to get back in time. “They’ll be happy to take Mr. Gates through a drive-through as soon as he arrives,” offered Thompson. But Gates didn’t want to do that.

     So Thompson dropped what he was doing, and ran to the McDonald’s himself. Ten minutes later, he was standing on the highway outside the airport when a luxury sedan pulled up beside him. The driver rolled down the window, accepted the paper package he held out, and drove off. Gates got his Big Mac, Thompson got a pat on the back and a big check.

     But the Rose model is not about seat-of-the-pants service situations. It’s also about the GPS units in every vehicle, the 24/7 dispatch center that monitors vehicle location as well as weather and flight conditions, and systems that run every aspect of the business.  “Systems run the business, and people run the systems,” says Thompson.

     Nevertheless, it still comes down to making sure every employee makes every customer feel like a million dollars. “The way we treat our employees is the way they will treat our customers,” says Thompson. He is adamant that every employee in the company has an impact on customer experience. Once a month, the management staff holds employee meetings in which he reminds them that everyone touches the customer, even the porter who washes the car.

 

Rosie Outlook

     The Rose Chauffeured Transportation commitment to service shows in everything they do, and the customers have noticed. “We’re not the cheapest chauffeured transportation in town,” Thompson admits. “Someone with a limo parked in his driveway is going to be cheaper. But if your service reputation is superior, the customer is willing to pay more.”

     And their service reputation is superior. If the wall of testimonials and thank you letters isn’t convincing enough (plus the file drawer full of more), the stories themselves are.

     One mother wrote to thank Rose Chauffeured Transportation for saving her night with her daughter at the Hannah Montana concert. They had flown in for the event, but just as she got in the Rose luxury SUV, she realized she had forgotten her digital camera. The driver reached into a glove compartment, pulled out his personal camera, and gave it to her to use. After the event, he sent her the digital images she had captured on his equipment.

     The service mentality is so embedded in the Rose culture that it happens as if on autopilot. The day that I met with Thompson, I left my briefcase in the conference room when I followed him back to his office. At the end of our interview, I arose to bid him goodbye and return to my car. Neatly placed outside his office door, I found my briefcase as if by magic, placed there for my convenience. That’s paying attention to details!

     “Growing the bottom line is easier than growing grass,” says Thompson, “if you use great service as fertilizer.” By that gauge, Rose Chauffeured Transportation is certainly motoring in the right direction.

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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