Premiere Transportation Group capitalizes on its eclectic market through solid leadership and diversification.
Can you think back to 1986 and recall the job you had at the time?If you can, chances are that it didn’t really turn into a career. It was something to get your parents off your back while you tried to figure out what you wanted to be when you grew up. But for David Brown, president and owner of Premiere Transportation Group, a part-time job at a mom-and-pop limousine company turned into a lucrative, lifelong career.
At his mother’s urging, a then-20-year-old Brown applied to be a chauffeur at nearly every limousine company in the Albany, N.Y., area. He was turned down by all of them, except one. “Nobody would hire me,” says Brown. “But I got a call back from a company that said they’d hire me, but not as a chauffeur. They needed someone to wash cars and take reservations.”
It became more than a summer job. For 4 years—during college breaks—Brown worked in just about every area of the company, from reservations and dispatch to detailer and chauffeur. After graduating from college, Brown had an obligation to the Army, and after fulfilling his duty, he returned to the limousine company—Carey of Albany—in a management capacity. Just a few months later in 1990, Brown bought the company; brought on his business partner, Denise Crisafulli; and got to work. They changed the name to Premiere Limousine a few years later.
“In 1990, we expanded upon our biggest account with GE,” Brown says. “It was the momentum we needed to continue to move toward the corporate aspect of the business.” He saw that having white cars meant only doing business on the weekends, and Brown wanted a model that would pay the bills all week long.
Since then he has transformed the limousine company from a predominantly retail operation to a diversified transportation business with vehicles running daily for funerals, corporate trips, military personnel, medical transport, higher education, and more. The company’s current name, Premiere Transportation Group, more accurately describes its range of services.
Diversity is ideal in a market like Albany. New York’s state capital sits alongside the Hudson River, and Albany’s metropolitan area is home to approximately 858,000 people. It’s often called the gateway to the Northeast due to its proximity to various cities: Boston is about three hours east, Buffalo is four-and-a-half hours west, Vermont is only about an hour away, Montreal is four hours north, and, of course, New York City lies three hours south.
Albany itself is an eclectic mix of industries. It’s an epicenter for higher education, including several campuses in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. Other major industries include banking, health care, government, and military. But Albany’s surrounding Capital District remains relevant to its nickname “Tech Valley,” thanks to a boom from nanotechnology.
“There’s a renaissance happening in Albany, and big technology companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Samsung are bringing this surge of business,” he says. Recently, GlobalFoundries—a manufacturer of integrated circuits for companies such as AMD and Qualcomm—broke ground on a $4.6 billion manufacturing complex in nearby Saratoga County. Local universities are responding to the nanotech boom with special institutes and educational programs.
Of course, Albany does have some disadvantages, especially if you’re in the business of transportation. “Every part of the country has its downfalls,” says Brown. “California has earthquakes, Florida has hurricanes. For us, we have some brutal winters.” Premiere has invested in vehicles that handle particularly well in the snow, including SUVs, Chrysler 300s with all-wheel drive, and Cadillac XTSs with front-wheel drive that will continue to replace his Town Car fleet.
Even with this planning, sometimes the vehicles just can’t get on the road. “Severe weather like snowstorms or blizzards can cause the government to shut down the major thruways, which we can’t control, so there will be the warnings to stay off the road. We ride it out, but when flights are delayed or cancelled during a storm, that’s 24 hours of revenue we’ll never see again.”
But Premiere has capitalized on the various facets of business in the Albany area—in good and bad weather—and has a range of vehicles to service any niche. Premiere’s 47-vehicle fleet consists of sedans, SUVs, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, minibuses for both corporate and retail clients, shuttle vans, and limousines. There is even a Premiere Express Shuttle division of the company, which makes daily trips to and from JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark International Airports in the New York City area. Premiere is also one of the few transportation companies in Upstate New York certified by the Department of Defense—no easy feat—and handles military personnel in its buses every day, says Brown.
Another win-win for the company is in the realm of medical transportation. Premiere has a contract with an eye surgery center, taking patients to and from eye treatments. “We have four to six vehicles a day on medical runs picking people up and taking them home. It’s a great fit because many senior citizens need this kind of transportation, and it’s another opportunity to have vehicles on the road,” Brown says.
Premiere is also the official transportation provider at several entertainment venues such as the Saratoga Performing Arts Center—which is the summer home for the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra—and the Times Union Center. “The Albany area is a big destination for artists,” he says. “We see classical acts, rock bands like Phish and Dave Matthews Band, and giants like Billy Joel and the Rolling Stones.” Premiere has transported them all, Brown proudly says, because of the relationships he has established with concert promoters through the years.
“So many companies want to handle these acts, but there’s one thing we abide by, and that is respecting the performer’s privacy,” he says. “We’ll never ask for photographs or autographs, and the promoters know they can count on us to do the job without trying to get any perks.”
Additionally, nearby Saratoga Springs is home to the oldest race track in the U.S., providing Premiere with a much-appreciated boost of business every summer. “The Saratoga Race Course is a five-week summer event involving some of the best thoroughbreds in the country,” Brown says. “We drive jockeys, trainers, horse owners, and attendees to and from the track and other venues in the area.” And it couldn’t come at a better time for Premiere’s revenue stream. “The summer months are the slowest for our corporate services since many people are on vacation, so this event is a great boost to our business.”
Servicing this diverse range of clientele didn’t happen overnight. Premiere took a unique route to growing its book of business through the years. In fact, acquiring other transportation companies was a strategic way of gaining accounts. In 2004, Premiere purchased two: Main Limousines and Tri-City Limousines. “We found that the formula of buying additional cars to grow was not the way to go. It’s acquiring companies and folding their customers into our company that works best,” Brown says.
He did learn to keep his acquisitions local, however, after purchasing a company in Fairfield, Conn., in 2006. The company was about 150 miles away. “It did well at first, but then the recession hit and we were pumping too much money into running it from a distance. There were too many variables we couldn’t control. We realized we’re much better at running companies in Albany.”
Just this year, Premiere acquired two other companies—Diamond Limousine Service in April, and Capital Region Limousine in August. Diamond offered Premiere the opportunity to increase its funeral business, which was the company’s specialty, and Capital Region was a small, five-car outfit, but with solid corporate accounts.
When asked if Premiere has held on to employees after an acquisition, Brown says, “Absolutely. Some of the main reasons a client likes a particular company are because of its vehicles or its employees. Why get rid of the people these clients have relationships with? With every acquisition we’ve accepted the employees into Premiere so those clients can have those familiar faces and voices, except it’s now Premiere delivering the service.”
Training remains integral at Premiere. With 87 employees, including full- and part-time chauffeurs, Brown makes sure nothing is overlooked. He has the assistance of his VP of Operations, David Ericsen—who keeps the vehicles rolling in tip-top shape—and Office Manager Janis Michalski. Brown says her role is so much more than just making sure people stay on task. “It has evolved to be very technical, managing computers and servers. She has really risen to the occasion to keep it all online,” he says.
Brown says the late Tom Mazza’s chauffeur training program is “the bible of chauffeur instruction.” Chauffeurs spend a lot of time training in various facets of the position. Each chauffeur attends three days of classroom training, which includes the chauffeur manual, employee handbook, and video presentations, and is followed by a full-day orientation. “We take the chauffeurs through the area so they can get to know the landmarks, airports, or backstage entrances at the venues,” Brown says. “When they get to behind-the-wheel training, Laurie Kinnicutt, our NYS 19-A driver instructor, will work with them in every vehicle. We always make sure they can handle the bigger or more unique vehicles in the fleet. There are also staged scenarios to teach them how to deal with some situations that may present themselves, such as unruly clients. We won’t just throw them to the wolves.”
Before getting on the road with clients in the car, chauffeurs must pass a criminal background check and a drug test, and have a clean driver’s abstract through the New York State DMV. Premiere also holds mandatory bi-annual chauffeur meetings. During these meetings, chauffeurs are given safety updates and afforded the opportunity to voice any issues or concerns they have.
Employees are motivated throughout the year. Brown will sometimes offer cash prizes for reservations competitions, and annual bonuses are awarded based on performance. “All customer feedback—whether positive or negative—is put into an employee’s file and it affects their bonuses,” Brown says. “It really encourages people, and in the end it helps them, the client, and the company.”
Another investment that has spurred growth in the company is—believe it or not—in various so-called green initiatives. In a time where most chauffeured transportation companies are hesitant to commit to a certain alternative fuel vehicle, one-third of Premiere’s vehicles run on propane. “We had been researching alternative fuels in 2007 when gas prices started to rise,” Brown says. “We were approached by a propane company that would convert our vehicles and put in a fueling station with a 500-gallon propane tank for free, as long as we purchased the propane from them.” After doing the math, Brown figured the system would pay for itself within a year. “With the amount of money we were spending on gas, the economics were there. It was a no brainer.”
For the vehicles running on propane, the mileage is not as good as it is on gas, Brown says. Where it outshines gas, however, is in the cost. “It’s not as efficient but we’re paying less per gallon. As soon as the car is out of propane, it switches to the gasoline in the tank.” Premiere also gets 50 cents per gallon back from the government every quarter for its propane investment.
Clients have responded positively as well. “Customers were impressed, including GE, who was interested in our green initiatives. It loved the idea of propane,” Brown says. He notes that some have a misconception about the dangers of using propane, saying, “In reality, the propane tank is ten times thicker than a gasoline tank, and the safety is built in. A leak automatically shuts off the system. It’s completely safe.”
Premiere is also increasing its savings with the use of solar panels. The company is currently expanding into the building next door, which will double its square footage, and the two buildings will have hundreds of solar panels combined.
Business decisions like this have also drawn the attention of affiliates. While Premiere does not farm out much work, it is a part of some of the industry’s biggest networks sending work to Albany. “I follow the adage of never telling the customer no, and that is especially true with affiliates,” says Brown. “We became an affiliate to many companies because we are big on saying yes. It’s easy to say all of our cars are out and can’t take more work, but we need to make money whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
Brown believes that vehicles are going to play a big part in garnering affiliate work in the future, namely with sedans. “Small companies who may not be able to afford new Chryslers and Cadillacs and are hanging on to their Town Cars may find that networks won’t want to send them work without an updated car,” he says. “Come 2016, a 2011 Town Car is going to feel dated. I think it’s going to be a big divider in the industry.”
Looking outside of the company, Brown is a big proponent of association and chamber memberships. Premiere is a member of the NLA; Limousine, Bus, Taxi Operators of Upstate New York (LBTOUNY); and various local chambers of commerce. “You have to be out there in today’s world,” Brown says. “As an industry, we’re not just limousines. We have all vehicles and we need to spread that information to consumers.”
Premiere utilizes the services of a full-scale marketing company to get in front of consumers. “In 1990, 70 to 80 percent of our marketing budget went to ads in the Yellow Pages. Now the Yellow Pages is used to prop things up around the office,” he jokes. A variety of inbound and outbound marketing methods makes up the pie now, including billboards, TV, radio, social media, eblasts, and SEO.
Charity involvement is another huge piece of what Premiere stands for. The company supports the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Leukemia and Lymphoma Association of Upstate New York—of which his wife, Danielle, is a board member—and Northeast Association of the Blind, in honor of Brown’s niece who is blind. “We have known people who have suffered from these diseases or friends and families who have a loved one suffering. There are a thousand charities out there, and they are all worthy, but in the end you have to support the ones that have a personal connection,” he says. “It’s important to give back to the community.”
Brown has come a long way from that college student washing limousines. When he reflects on the chauffeured transportation industry, he is most impressed by how professional it has become. “When I would go to the trade shows, you’d see the people in satin jackets,” he says. “Over the years, it transformed to suits and ties. The industry as a whole has adopted a more professional atmosphere, which I think really reflects the clients we’re going after. Now when you go to a limo show, you’re not going there to see limousines; you’re going to see buses, Sprinters, sedans, and SUVs. The fads have phased out and this is a bona fide way to make a living if you run a quality company.”
Brown owes a lot to this little job that turned out to become the cornerstone of his family. His original partner, Denise Crisafulli, is his brother’s wife, and Brown says she was instrumental in making Premiere what it is today. It turns out that it afforded Brown a love connection as well. He met his wife, Danielle, while she worked at Premiere, and they now have two children: Maxwell, 6, and Alexa, 1.
After 23 years as an owner-operator, Brown says his experience working at every level of the company influenced how he leads. “I understand that every job in the organization is just as important as the next,” he says. “I know what it’s like to get into the cars and scrub the carpets, or wash the exteriors at 5 a.m., and I sympathize with the chauffeurs who are getting in at 2 a.m. from a trip to New York City. It’s not easy, but a successful company means all cylinders are firing at once.”
Brown shows no signs of slowing down. He says he is keeping a close eye on potential technology threats—namely Uber—even though it’s not yet an issue in his market. “Things like this could have the potential to hurt our industry, but I don’t see it happening overnight. Operators should be flexible going into the future and those who are prepared to make changes and diversify will rise to the occasion.” [CD10/11.13]
Ascent in Albany - Premiere Transportation Group
Premiere Transportation Group capitalizes on its eclectic market through solid leadership and diversification.