Partnerships drive this limo company's growth

By Ambrose Clancy

Friday, March 28, 2008

Before a chauffer can get behind the wheel of one of the 215 luxury limos operated by Valera Global, the prospective driver must spend 180 hours in the classroom and pass five examinations on safety, geography and customer relations. Then the newbie spends hours riding shotgun with an accredited chauffeur on jobs before hitting the road solo.

Safety is everything, said Robert Mackasek, chief executive of the Long Island City-based firm which does at least half its business on trips either originating or ending on Long Island. And it pays off. If a customer doesn't feel safe or has a driver who doesn't know where he's going or is rude, there is zero return business, he noted.

Paying off might be an understatement. Formed in Maspeth, Queens in 1987 by two married couples, Rod Barfield and Dolores Battelli, and David Eckstein and Naomi Glaser, under the name Computer Car, the venture started with six vehicles and took in $142,000 that first year. Last year, with a fleet of 215 luxury limos, 87 employees and more than 200 chauffeurs and rebranded as Valera Global, the company's gross revenue figure was $27 million.

Mackasek, a former official with the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission and an attorney specializing in transportation issues, said repeat business was one benefit of having safe, knowledgeable drivers, but there's the added bonus of lower insurance rates.

Computer Car was a difficult name to give up for sentimental reasons, Mackasek said, but it was necessary to keep the company growing. "We've had a total rebranding last year of name, image and look designed to represent what we are: a high-end, luxury service," he said. "What we had didn't represent us."

Because of its record of safety and courtesy, the company grew steadily strictly through word-of-mouth referrals. But to move the company into being a real player in the ground transportation field, Valera hired a salesperson to do nothing but beat the bushes for business, and also brought in a public relations firm to keep the brand current in people's consciousness.

PR operates most significantly in helping Valera to get "events" action, such as working with companies launching new products and bringing editors of magazines and other journalists to events pushing the totally new as well as the new-and-improved.

Another growth strategy which is paying dividends is taking the "global" in their brand seriously by lining up national and international alliances with other transportation services. Valera already has alliances with companies in France, England and China as well as 32 destinations across the country.

"About 20 percent of our business goes to LaGuardia, Kennedy, Newark and Teterboro," Mackasek said. "We came up with the idea of one-stop shopping, and we're careful every affiliate comes up to our standards."

The benefit to the client is obvious, with the same level of service and simpler billing for a client who, for example, takes Valera to Kennedy Airport and has a Valera affiliate waiting upon arrival at Heathrow Airport in London.

As client demand grows, more Valera affiliations will come on line. "We've been discovering the Toronto market and have analyzed it and will be opening up there," Mackasek said.

Gaining intelligence on prospective partners is done by Eckstein, who goes to an airport and watches chauffeurs, checking their appearance and demeanor, and then sets up ghost rides before beginning talks with the company as a potential affiliate.

Mackasek believes in turning up the volume, even with the company racking up its three-millionth ride since its inception and its ranking within the top 15 ground transportation companies in the U.S.

© 2008 Long Island Business News
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