BY LIZ HUNTERAnyone in the chauffeured transportation business will tell you: If the phone rings at midnight, you pick it up. Tony Mehdiof certainly followed that advice when he took a late-night call from Jim Baron, then a manager for Music Express. “He told me I had been recommended to handle one of their VIP clients at 5 a.m. I didn’t know who and what Music Express was at the time, but I said it would be no problem to handle the job and asked if he had a credit card. Jim laughed and gave me the card number,” says Mehdiof.
Mehdiof got his start in the industry in the ’80s as a part-time chauffeur while attending grad school for business administration and marketing. He started to put his education to use by visiting hotels and wooing corporate clients, eventually becoming the face of the business. It wasn’t long until Mehdiof was offered the chance to buy the company, which he called 1st Corporate Limo and ran with his brother Moe.
Along with Moe, Mehdiof expanded 1st Corporate’s fleet to become one of the largest in Atlanta. Then he got that call that made the company focus on national affiliate work going forward.
“After we did the job for Music Express they called us back and said the client gave great feedback. They told us they were looking for a new provider in Atlanta and I assured them we could handle their business—which wasn’t much back then—and that’s how our relationship started,” Mehdiof says. “I met Harold Berkman a few months later and he said, ‘Oh, are you the guy who saved us in Atlanta?’”
It became clear that affiliate work was a solid source of revenue, so Mehdiof looked into finding other companies to work with. Since those early years, and even now, Mehdiof’s business has been built on the foundation of those partnerships.
The Birth of North Point
For the first half of the ’90s, 1st Corporate held its own with a mix of corporate, retail, and affiliate clientele. The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta brought about another turning point for the operation: Major companies were coming to town and booking cars way in advance. 1st Corporate was booking limousines with a 15-day minimum and sedans with a five-day minimum. It went really well for the company, but that wasn’t the case with everyone in Atlanta.
“At the time of the Olympics, there was a venture called Park N Fly that had purchased the Gray Line franchise, and invested heavily in sedans and limousines in addition to a fleet of new buses with the hopes of doing a lot of business for the Olympics. But most of their cars sat,” Mehdiof says. “The company approached us with a business opportunity to merge. It seemed like a good idea because Moe had suffered a heart attack and underwent a quadruple bypass, so he was looking to get out. We agreed to merge and they paid us a good amount, plus let us keep a small percentage of the business but they had control.”
The merger took place in 1997 and Mehdiof had hopes of using Park N Fly’s sister company, BCD Travel (then called World Travel), to take 1st Corporate global by using their resources. But internal disagreements between the CEOs of those two large corporate divisions showed that there would be no progress with this vision. After a year, Park N Fly bought out the Mehdiofs completely.
Mehdiof tried establishing other ventures after that, such as a fine rug gallery business, but without the success he had experienced previously. He became heavily invested in dot com stocks and day trading, but when the markets started falling apart in 2000, he lost most of his capital and money at the time.
“I was seriously questioning myself for selling the successful company we had, and then losing it all to the market. I went from rich to poor,” he says. He yearned to get back into transportation but was hindered by a five-year non-compete clause.
Besides being a specialist in affiliate relations, we have a proven track record of handling major roadshows for the financial segment and servicing entertainment clients.” – Tony Mehdiof, COO of North Point Transportation
But as fate would have it, Park N Fly was not doing well managing the transportation division and ended up selling to Carey, which threw Mehdiof’s non-compete out the window. After consulting an attorney, he started to prepare plans for what is now North Point Transportation Group in 2001.
He excitedly planned, and set up shop in Alpharetta, a suburb north of Atlanta, at the behest of a friend from the city’s convention and visitors bureau. North Point opened on September 1, 2001.
The world remembers what happened 10 days later.
“All of a sudden here we were, a brand-new company and no business,” says Mehdiof. “I was asking God if this was a sign, thinking I should not have bothered coming back to the industry and I should have moved on. But we hung on. In early 2002, I realized I needed to tap into the national affiliate business. Despite travel concerns, people still needed to get around, and I knew the entertainment industry was still moving.”
He reached out to old friends and once they realized he was back in the business, they were immediately supportive and started sending business from Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. “By spring 2002, we were back in motion. Word of mouth traveled and people knew my reputation for the affiliate model so the trust was there,” Mehdiof says. “We started to see companies of all sizes send us work and it became our specialty.”
Mehdiof prides himself with the trust people have put in him and his team, and says, “Our success is based on my employees’ dedication and hard work, and the chance and support given to us over the years by many in our industry including people like David Seelinger, Dawson Rutter, Bijan Zoughi, Cheryl Berkman, Neil Goodman, and other leaders who I truly admire.”
Currently, North Point operates a fleet of 52 vehicles, ranging from sedans to large minibuses. Most of the fleet’s sedans and SUVs are GM and Mercedes-Benz products, but a few Lincoln MKTs remain. There are also Sprinters in both executive and limousine style and two cargo vans, which help with equipment for their music industry clientele. All vehicles are company owned and operated, says Mehdiof.
North Point has made a name for itself in the industry as a high-touch, reliable service, specializing in a range of clientele, including corporate travelers, entertainers, and financial professionals, according to Mehdiof.
“Besides being a specialist in affiliate relations, we have a proven track record of handling major roadshows for the financial segment and servicing entertainment clients,” says Mehdiof. “Both of those segments are very high-demand, sensitive clients to have. Everyone on the team—from vehicle appearance and fleet management to reservation, dispatch, billing, and chauffeurs—has to be trained and capable of dealing with those kinds of clients.”
Roadshows come with strict schedules, with clients visiting different banks and investment firms to put billion dollar deals together, says Mehdiof. “It requires flawless service.” The same goes for the entertainment side, although it’s much more unpredictable. “Entertainment clients tend to make last-minute changes or will go as-directed. They might get in the car and we’ll have no idea where they’re going, and how long they will keep the vehicle until they tell us. Chauffeurs have to be knowledgable and trained to think on their toes,” he says. “Of course, they may also make strange and unorthodox requests, and we need to know how to discreetly and politely let them know our policies, such as smoking in the vehicles. Our policy is that we will do anything that makes them happy as long as it’s legal and safe.”
This flexibility and professionalism has built North Point’s reputation. “One of the reasons we’ve been successful and the choice for many of the major networks is basically being familiar with the mentality and expectations clients have,” Mehdiof says. “I am very grateful for being allowed to take care of their clients in Atlanta.”
Thriving in The ATL
More than five million people live in the metropolitan area around Atlanta, making it the ninth largest in the U.S. It has everything a major city should: commerce, technology, education, art, entertainment, and more. It’s estimated that the economy in Atlanta is the eighth largest in the country, at more than $300 billion, and there are more than 50 Fortune 500 companies headquartered, or with major regional offices, in the area. Companies like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta Air Lines, Chick-fil-A, UPS, and Mercedes-Benz, which recently relocated from New Jersey, have offices in Atlanta, and it is also home to CNN, TBS, and The Weather Channel.
It’s a cultural hub, thanks to its diverse population. Atlanta is cosmopolitan, with its own opera, ballet, orchestra, and theater. Museums include the High Museum of Art and the Museum of Design Atlanta. Tourism attractions include the Georgia Aquarium—the world’s largest indoor aquarium—the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and historical sites like the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum, and Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Library.
Atlanta’s a popular sports town as well. It is home to the MLB’s Atlanta Braves and the NFL’s Falcons, both of which are getting new stadiums, with the Falcons’ sponsored by Mercedes-Benz. According to Mehdiof, it’s going to be a standard-bearer for stadiums, with an eight-panel retractable roof (resembling a pinwheel) and an LED screen that goes around the top of the stadium, which is set to open in 2017. It’s no surprise that the city will also play host to the Super Bowl in 2019 at this new stadium.
While A-town has always been known for its role in the R&B and hip-hop music industry, Mehdiof says Atlanta is quietly becoming known as the “Hollywood of the South,” bringing in movie and television production as well. This helped inject about $6 billion into Georgia’s economy in 2015, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Mehdiof says this is an area he wants to tap into for further opportunities.
What these industries—and residents—find appealing about Atlanta is not just the exciting lifestyle, but the low cost of living. “A lot of people are moving here because it’s affordable compared to New York, Boston, or LA,” says Mehdiof. “You can get a good education and experience all four seasons, plus the combination of cuisines, and nightlife ... it’s a good thing, but it has caused a lot of gridlock and traffic.”
That’s one downside to running a business in Atlanta, he says. Traffic is a constant burden. This of course is compounded by the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), the world’s busiest in both passenger and aircraft traffic.
For this reason, location is key for North Point. After a few years in Alpharetta, fighting the traffic congestion started to wear on Mehdiof, prompting him to search for a new place to relocate. “Most of our business was inside the city, and I knew we wanted to buy, not rent,” he says. They purchased one in 2005, which was suitable until they outgrew it 10 years later. In June 2015, Mehdiof closed on a new property less than five minutes from ATL.
Located on three acres of land, the new location consists of three buildings. A two-story main building that has 10,000 square feet of space, a second building with 3,000 square feet of shop space, with room enough for four motorcoaches inside and additional offices, and the third building is a bus wash being converted and equipped with a fully automatic car wash.
Throughout the last year, these buildings have been gutted and renovated, beginning with the office space. Mehdiof wanted an open floor plan. Sales, dispatch, and reservations share the first floor and the second floor is for the executive offices, accounting, chauffeur training, and a conference room. On the other side of the building, space is dedicated to the fleet maintenance management team, storage and the chauffeur’s lounge.
It’s the piece de resistance for Mehdiof. “I’ve always wanted a nice chauffeur lounge where they could hang out and relax and be entertained while waiting,” he says. “I wanted to make them feel important and not just give them a room or a space in the corner of the shop.”
This is more than a corner; the chauffeur’s lounge is about 2,000 square feet with amenities anyone would want at their office: a pool table, leather couches, computer station, big-screen TV, vending area, showers, and even a bedroom for the times when the company is running big events and chauffeurs need rest between shifts.
Mehdiof is also considering solar power for the new facility, which would generate 30 to 40 percent of the business’ electricity in-house. “It’s a big upfront cost, but the ROI would be there within seven years, and it would help us achieve the green goals we have as a company,” he says.
This building and the vision it brings to life represent a new phase for North Point.
Building a Culture
While attending a presentation in an owners’ group in Chicago earlier this year, Mehdiof met Kirsten Zoub, a life-business coach. Impressed by her skills and mentality, he asked if she would be open to coming to Atlanta and implementing some of the ideas she had into the culture at North Point. “She said she would be happy to do so, and that it would take some time,” says Mehdiof.
Working with Zoub, he hopes to revamp North Point’s core values, mission statement, and culture. “Beginning with the new location, my goal was to create an environment where employees would look forward to coming every day,” Mehdiof says. In some ways that’s installing all of the latest equipment to help people do their jobs, but it goes beyond that. North Point’s staff gets a free lunch on Tuesdays, but it’s not just sandwiches, it’s a gourmet order. There are plans to put in an exercise area for employees to use as well as a picnic and cookout space.
“We want an environment where it’s clean and fun to work, and part of the culture aspect we’re working on is instilling a sense of ownership. Our goal is to give our employees space to feel free and motivated to participate in the company’s growth, not just impose a certain strict way of doing things,” says Mehdiof.
Right now, the culture building is beginning with Mehdiof’s management team, who are now referred to as “custodians” by Zoub’s suggestion. “For now we took away all titles internally and use the term custodian. When we meet, we meet as a community with all custodians participating. When there’s an issue, the community talks about it, votes on it based on all custodians’ input,” he says.
This management community includes people who have been with North Point for years and others who joined only recently. Frank Diaz, who has been with North Point for more than a decade, fills the GM role and helps in delegation. Glenn Evans has been operations manager for six years, as has dispatch manager Willie Gibson, an industry veteran with experience working for companies in New York. The company’s dispatch supervisor is April Campbell, and Reanne Matthews manages reservations.
Debbi Upthegrove has been with North Point nearly 13 years, starting off part-time with accounting and filing. In 2015, she joined full time and is now head of accounting. Jocelyn (Jo) Manuel joined two years ago coming from a food/beverage industry management background; she now fills the role of office manager and revenue processing manager. Mehdiof says sometimes she’ll come into the office 12 days in a row, or log in from home, until he has to tell her to take a break.
Fleet Manager Sam Richmond has been with Mehdiof for practically his entire career—25 years. Under him is another fleet manager, Greg Matz, who is responsible for fleet appearance; fleet maintenance is handled by two people, one of whom—oddly enough—came from the building he just purchased.
“When I purchased this property there was a gentleman working out of one of the buildings, fixing up cars and doing body work. I saw how skilled he was and asked him if he wanted to stay on and be part of our team. He agreed. We’re trying to keep all of our body and light maintenance work in house with him and one other full-time person,” Mehdiof says.
Mehdiof believes in giving his team room and space to do their part. “I used to be a micromanager, but I learned I was not only wearing myself out that way, but it’s almost like I created an excuse for my staff. Why should anyone make a decision if I was going to step in anyway?” he says. “When I stepped aside, they felt more enabled. They are going to make mistakes but that’s how they learn. I reserve the right to veto a decision, but I stress that they not take that personally—it’s just that sometimes I’m often looking at a bigger picture than they are.”
He says the team—now 80 employees—works as one to achieve a greater degree of success for the company. “We have a low number of incidents because we’ve always tried to be proactive. We’re not one step ahead, but two,” he says. Reservations are audited and scrubbed at least three times before dispatched out, which Mehdiof admits is extreme, but it ensures a degree of flawless service.
Technology helps with this as well. Tablets were integrated into dispatch a long time ago and chauffeurs can confirm receipt of an assignment on an app, but North Point believes in keeping the human side. “I don’t trust the push of a button. We verbally go over the trip information and the chauffeur must repeat it all back to dispatch. Then we’ll go over it again two to four hours prior to the trip, depending on the location and how far it is,” Mehdiof says.
In the new building, he is also upgrading to VoIP phones and bringing in fiber optics since business is so dependent on communication and the internet. He also installed an automatic generator that operates on natural gas in the event they lose power. “It will keep our entire dispatch, server, phone system, half of the reservations stations, and some other key areas powered,” he says.
Perhaps in response to TNC activity, other technology being considered for North Point is a passenger app. “As an industry it would be foolish to dismiss their presence, but we have a different type of client. If nothing else they have woken up the industry and shown we need more technology. We need to think about ways to make it easier for clients to make reservations, track their vehicle, and pay for services,” he says.
Behind the Scenes
Outside of work Mehdiof refers to himself as “Mr. Mom.” He’s a single dad to son Danny, 18, and daughter Gia, 16. “I’ve learned how to cook, do the laundry, and all of the house chores trying to be that Mr. Mom,” he says, adding that his children’s mothers are incredibly active in their lives and they share responsibilities as co-parents.
“I try to get to as many of their extracurricular activities as I can. Both of my kids are very artistic, they both like to paint. Danny is more business-minded and paints as a hobby, and he also speaks three languages. Gia is a very skilled writer. I’ve read some of her stuff that has blown me away for her age. She is interested in pursuing art and we’ve been looking at schools in New York. It’s interesting for me as a dad to see them develop and hopefully I can keep up with them.”
Mehdiof is still an avid collector of antique and fine Persian rugs. He says he’s built a nice collection over the years and checks auction sites like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. “I see some selling for hundreds of thousands, and millions and I wonder if I could have a piece of that—it’s a daydream,” he says.
If nothing else, Mehdiof’s career can be best described in one word: resiliency. Even when facing incredible personal and professional challenges, he adapted to the changes and always persevered.
Something tells us, if Mehdiof sets his mind to it, he just might achieve it. [CD1116]