Cover Story: JET Limousines - A Magnificent Obsession
BY ROB SEMENTEK
To commemorate his company’s 10th anniversary, JET Limousines Founder & President Billy Jinks wanted to do something that would make his company unique.
“Last year, I got a random, crazy idea: I figured we were in business for a decade and we needed to do something different,” says Jinks. “All the motorcoach companies in our market have black buses, so I played with different colors from auto manufacturers and found a really cool gray color. We were getting ready to order new motorcoaches and settled on Van Hools from ABC Companies. We came up with a new color scheme of gray with black accents, and we converted our whole coach fleet to it.”
This striking new fleet would be responsible for earning JET Limousines a high-profile gig during the busiest ground transportation week that Phoenix, Arizona, has ever seen. “It was someone’s bright idea to schedule the Super Bowl at the same time as the Waste Management (WM) Phoenix Open golf tournament, which is just as big an event for the city,” laughs Jinks. “We provide transportation for the WM Phoenix Open every year, which is held the same weekend as the Super Bowl, wherever the game is played. We had the Bowl here in 2015, but both events have grown tremendously since then.”
Initially, Jinks had no plans to handle transportation for football’s largest event, but that changed weeks before the big game.
“The NFL called us about a year in advance and asked if we’d be interested in moving a team, but the price they offered was about half of what we’d get for the Phoenix Open, so we respectfully declined the offer. Then, five or six weeks before the game, they reached back out and said, ‘I know you told us no, but hear us out...’ Basically, they had another company contracted but the powers-that-be weren’t happy that the fleet was multi-colored, and they were worried that, depending on which team was going to be in the Super Bowl, they would be riding in an opposing team’s color. Then someone had been walking out of a meeting and saw one of our new gray buses. They went back and said, ‘Why didn’t you book JET; they have a cool neutral-colored fleet.’ When they called us, I told them our whole bus fleet was recently converted to gray, and they were able to meet the rate, and had us transport both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs. Having a single company move both is pretty much unheard of.”
While Jinks and his company were accustomed to the amount of effort needed to provide transportation to the WM Phoenix Open—they’ve been a preferred partner of the event for years—tackling the Super Bowl (pun intended) had a whole new set of logistic challenges.
“There was a lot that went into handling the transportation for the Super Bowl. There were several different parties involved, including a lot of law enforcement agencies—local, state, and federal. Then, there were the brokers, logistics people, and NFL security. We had one giant meeting with 60 people at our Phoenix home office. They had their staff onsite inspecting buses, checking drivers’ credentials, seeing them off. They put their own GPS trackers on the buses too. It was quite the production. It was a lot of work, but I was grateful for the opportunity.”
While the luxury ground transportation industry is filled with operators who developed a passion for the business through their love of cars, you’d be hard pressed to find an owner as enthusiastic about limousines as Jinks. In fact, his love of all things limo related dates back to when he was just a little boy.
“When I was 6 or 7, I developed an obsession with limousines. My grandparents used to rent them a lot to go to the airport and things like that. Then, there was a day—when I was around 9—where one of my neighbors rented a limo, and I was just infatuated. The driver was really nice and patient, and he answered my questions. Several months later my mom got a job at an HR company across from my elementary school, and it happened to be in the same building as a limo company. It turns out—small world—that the driver I met was a manager at the company, called Sky Mountain. I used to go over there regularly; I was an annoying kid asking questions about the cars and the business. Eventually, they started giving me a few bucks here and there to clean out the trunks and throw away water bottles. As I got older, I cleaned cars on the side. It really became a hobby. I would hang around the office every day after school and on weekends. I’d answer phones and help do silly things. The owners kind of took me in as an adopted little kid.”
While most kids concern themselves with school sports, Pokémon cards, or acquiring the next generation of PlayStation, Jinks had one thing on his mind: limos.
“Everything was all about limos. Every school report, every project, show & tell ... it was all limos. It was a weird obsession for a kid,” admits Jinks.
But, by the time that Jinks entered adolescence, there was more to his interest in limousines besides cool looking cars: he developed a true entrepreneurial spirit.
“In 2004, when I was in junior high, Sky Mountain wanted to buy a new limo for the company, and for whatever reason they couldn’t get approved. I talked my stepdad at the time into buying a new stretch to lease to them. Ultimately, that would get me involved and get my foot in the door because I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. So, when I was 15, we ordered a brand-new Tiffany limousine, and struck a deal with Sky Mountain. Unfortunately, we parted ways after a few months, and we had a brand-new limo sitting in our backyard for a while.”
It would have been easy to dismiss Jinks’ first attempt to enter the industry as a folly. However, the young man continually displayed drive and ambition well beyond his years.
“Eventually I talked my parents into insuring the car for my mom to drive and me to book. It started as kind of a side hobby and then business began to grow. We got a lot of farm-outs from companies in town. Back then, limousines were really popular, and the retail side of the business was strong. Things got busy enough where after a year, I convinced them to buy another limousine.”
Still attending high school, Jinks spent his nights and weekends booking, advertising, and doing social media for the steadily growing company. By the time he was a junior in high school, Jinks and his mother got hooked up with a casino that provided steady work for the company.
“Not long after we started working with them, the casino decided that they wanted to develop some bus routes for seniors, and they asked if we’d ever consider buying a bus. Again, I convinced my stepdad to buy another vehicle, in this case a minibus. Soon enough, we grew to 20 vehicles,” says Jinks. “By the end of my junior year, I switched to online schooling, so I was able to work and study from home. We worked mostly out of the house and had a lot nearby for the vehicles. I was up every morning at 4:30 cleaning six or seven buses, then I’d go in the office and do booking and dispatching. It was fun.”
Unfortunately, in 2008-2009, things took a downturn for Jinks’ burgeoning operation. The combination of the economy tanking and his parents’ divorce presented some challenges for the young entrepreneur—especially when many of the vehicles were purchased by his stepfather.
“I only had a few cars in my name, which left us struggling. I couldn’t handle our contracts with the reduced fleet.”
Realizing he required assistance to keep his wheels running, Jinks turned to a friend who was with Ryan’s Express Transportation on the West Coast, a huge transportation company in multiple cities with several hundred vehicles. Jinks explained his situation in detail—he was a young man with no credit that couldn’t handle the work his organization was contracted to perform.
“I asked if they’d consider taking us on and folding us into the operation. After a few meetings, they gave my mom and I a decent job offer. I actually started in sales in their Phoenix operation. They had 12 buses at the time, but within a year and a half, we grew it to 35 vehicles. They told me, ‘If you bring us the work, we’ll give you the vehicles,’ and they held true to that.”
About a year later, Jinks was promoted to a general manager position at Ryan’s Express, but soon realized that working in the numbers-heavy world of private equity wasn’t for him. Soon, he was approached about joining another bus company. Jinks found himself at a bit of a crossroads.
“I told my mom that I kind of wanted to get back in the limo thing again, but also wanted to work for this bus company too. That’s when, in 2012, we started JET Limousines with two sedans. I started it part-time while I worked for the bus company full time, but after a year I realized that I didn’t want to work for anybody anymore ... I wanted to do my own thing.”
In the decade that JET Limousines has been in business, the company has grown to a full-service fleet of just under 100 vehicles.
“Although we’re not the biggest operation in our market, we’re the most diverse. We currently have 98 vehicles in the fleet. We’re running sedans, SUVs, Sprinters, and rare stretch limos—a Maserati, the new body Escalade, and a new Infinity QX80, all built by Pinnacle. We have a party bus, minicoaches, as well as motorcoaches, an entertainer coach, and school buses,” says Jinks.
Despite unwavering ambition, being a young—very young, some would say—operator did present a few obstacles for Jinks.
“I basically had to do sales over the phone and via email. I was always a good writer. I never did the personal face-to-face thing until I got older because I don’t think people would have taken me seriously. For instance, I remember one time I went in to buy a Mercedes S-Class, and I had a cashier’s check with me. I knew exactly what I wanted—I’m the easiest buyer there is. I walked in, and the dealer was a jerk. When I said I wanted an S-Class, he said ‘oh, you must mean a C-Class.’ I told him that I wanted the S-Class that was on the show floor and asked for a test drive. The dealer said, ‘No, we don’t test drive those.’ I asked why someone would buy it without driving it, and he told me that you had to be ‘qualified.’ I took out the check and said, ‘well, I was going to buy it but I guess I can go somewhere else.’ He changed his mind pretty quickly. It was tough for a while to be taken seriously.”
While Jinks still has a zeal for the ground transportation industry, he now shares his passion with another hobby. For a better part of a decade, he’s served his community as a volunteer with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. He’s an airboat operator (lake patrol division) that patrols the Lower Salt River and Saguaro Lake and is very active in the DUI enforcement programs. You can find him on the water during the weekends and in the summer months.
“It’s a ton of fun,” he says.
Without the support of adults during his formative years, it’s unlikely that Jinks would have turned his “weird obsession” with limousines into a successful business. He’s quick to credit his mom as his number two in the company, but he also had a teacher who made a huge impact.
“My fourth-grade teacher was AMAZING. She fully supported my whole weird limousine obsession. She used to joke with me that when she retires, my company can pick her up on her last day. Then, last May, 22 years later, her kids hit me up on social media, and said ‘mom always talked about this kid who wanted a limo company. Would you pick her up on her last day?’ So, I surprised her with a ride on the day of her retirement. It was great.” [CD0323]