BY MADELEINE MACCARA lot has changed since 1986. From travel trends to technology, from analog technology world being eclipsed by digital, Arthur Messina and Create-A-Card Inc. have spent the past 30 years immersed in—and adapting to—a world where the only constant is how quickly everything changes.
Take the business cards that started it all for Messina: What were once black-and-white calling cards with a stiff name and number have become colorful, eye-catching mini advertisements heralding the personalities behind the businesses they represent. Those calling cards now reflect their bearers’ portraits and vehicle photos with a variety of finishes, the splashy hallmark of the now-ubiquitous Create-A-Card, of which Messina is the founder and president.
Messina began his professional life armed with real-world experience gleaned from his family’s restaurants and a degree from the State University of New York at Oneonta, which prepared him for a career in business and hospitality. He found immediate employment at the Long Island Marriott, which almost as quickly revealed itself to be anything but his intended path. A cursory, though fateful, glimpse through Entrepreneur magazine during that time of dissatisfaction soon shed light on his next move: the very business cards upon which the foundation of Create-A-Card would be built.
“I worked at the Marriott for about a year and a half before I knew it was just not what I wanted—I wanted to start my own business,” Messina says. “I was looking to see what other opportunities were out there and then I read about picture business cards. At that time, really nobody had anything like that: Business cards were plain and one color. If you did something in full color, you were the bomb.”
From there, Messina diligently went to work building up a loyal client base, first benefiting from Jim Ficarra of Richard James Limousine allowing photos of his fleet’s Cadillacs to be used in Messina’s marketing collateral. News spread of his burgeoning venture, and Messina realized that he had found the market that would eventually dominate his client base: ground transportation.
Part of what made working within a luxury service industry such a lucrative business for Messina was the steep cost required to keep a successful business afloat, and how such expensive investments needed to be marketed correctly in order to recoup those necessary expenditures.
“The limousine industry was a strong market to go after because of the purchase price of the product. If anyone was spending up to $80,000 for a vehicle, they definitely needed to market it much better than they were doing, which was just a line drawing of a limousine and the company name,” he explains. “Being able to take a picture of the vehicle and put it on a card allowed them to advertise to their market better. If you hand out business cards with a picture of your vehicles, people see exactly what you have to offer.”
Though Messina began concentrating on Create-A-Card, he still needed a job with benefits that would support his growing family; he and his wife Kathy (who’s also the company vice president) had been married the year before their company was founded, and their first son Drew was born a year later in 1987. So Messina turned to nighttime jobs to make some extra money while also working for Chrysler and other companies that allowed him the flexibility to simultaneously “hawk [his] wares.” As for those after-hours gigs? That’s when he took to chauffeuring Long Island’s prom-goers for various local companies.
“Being a chauffeur gave me the knowledge of the frustrations operators face because running their businesses is not easy,” Messina says. “It also gave me insight into how their customers look at their products, like how they’re shopping for weddings, and how these companies needed help in their marketing, which I was able to use.”
More importantly, though, were the relationships that Messina began fostering by taking the wheel for local ground transportation companies, which laid the foundation for working partnerships turning into life long friendships. Indeed, Messina attributes Create-A-Card’s longevity to the decades-long friendships he has formed during his time working with the many operators and fellow vendors who comprise the industry, as well as his early experiences with the nearby Long Island Limousine Association (still the Nassau Suffolk Limousine Association when he became a member—the first association for which he’s served as a vendor board member, which later included the NLA), which exposed him to a wider swath of the industry on an intimately local level—and introduced both Create-A-Card and the Messina family to scores more potential clients and friends.
While Kathy has accepted a more active role as their children—Drew, 29; Ryan, 24; and Kristin, 21—have grown up and even accompanied their parents to trade shows, Create-A-Card has always been run by the Messinas working side by side. “Not many couples can work together all day, every day like we do,” Kathy says. “We have put our hearts and souls into creating a company that we are proud of, and I look forward to seeing what the next 30 years will bring.”
The Messinas’ industry involvement has only increased with time, with almost 90 percent of Create-A-Card’s business coming from ground transportation companies—which includes paratransit, motorcoaches, taxis, and, of course, luxury and black cars. (Restaurants and realtors account for that remaining 10 percent.)
While business cards remain the company’s most popular item, Create-A-Card now offers three distinct services these days: print, digital, and promotional items. The print line ranges from business cards, rack cards, and brochures of all sizes to trade show booths, banners, signage, and “anything to market your business in print.” The digital offerings are more supplementary, often digital cards and PDF files that can be attached to an email, but also include website development. The promotional items, or tchotchkes, are intended to “help keep your name in front of your clients,” like pens, mints, the increasingly popular cell phone accessories like holders and chargers, and the tried-and-true memo pads.
“Every time you use a tchotchke, it’s gimmicky but it’s also a gift that instills your brand name into people’s minds,” says Messina. “The goal is that people always see your name, number, and web address. Even if you give your kids a branded stress reliever as a toy, you see that name around the house all the time.”
In 2012, Messina took his interest in the industry a step further. Along with longtime industry consultant Lenore D’Anzieri, he debuted the Driving Results peer groups, starting with owner/GM group Spinning Wheels. The Driving Results family recently grew to include five groups and more than 85 members; Messina says that all groups will be full by 2017. Going Global and Global Partners are the two affiliate managers groups, while the new-for-2016 owners’ groups cater to two sizes of companies: Wheels in Motion is dedicated to those that generate less than $2 million in revenue; The Wheels Group is intended for companies with annual revenue greater than $2 million.
“I really enjoy the peer group dynamics,” says Renzo Ormsbee of Elite Limousines of Houston, a founding Spinning Wheels member. “The meetings are always structured in a way that not only makes sure that you get insight into what’s going on and on how people handle various issues, but also allows enough fun and free time to strengthen relationships individually.”
According to Messina, the groups were his response to clients who had asked him to serve as a one-on-one consultant to operators, which is a role he was reluctant to take on.
“I saw what others like Charles Tenney or Tom Mazza did in the past with their groups,” says Messina. “What I learned from Create-A-Card, the publications and trade shows, the associations, and my communications with owners and operators is everything that goes into planning these meetings.”
Messina insists that he is more of a facilitator than an educator, freely admitting to not having all of the answers and preferring to let his groups talk amongst themselves to address their common pain points, shared successes, similar failures, and advice pertaining to best practices to arrive at an effective solution. He also routinely brings in speakers with knowledge of key specific areas to members’ benefits. He feels that the groups play to his strength as the glue that holds an already close-knit coterie together.
“I 100-percent know that I’m not the smartest guy in the room, but I can keep those groups together and coming back for more,” he says. “I’m able to take the pieces that get people to start talking and opening up, share their business experiences and what’s going on, and help them think outside the box when it comes to many of the topics we’ve discussed,” he says.
After 30 years of Create-A-Card, Messina admits that the groups are the most gratifying work for him, as he enjoys seeing members grow, utilize the lessons they’ve learned in their meetings, and deepen friendships with their peers. Part of why he can now afford to spend so much time focused on the groups is that he feels Create-A-Card now runs as a well-staffed, well-oiled machine that no longer requires his constant supervision. And with Kathy taking on a more active role with the company in the past four years—as well as acting as Driving Results’ meeting planner—Messina has taken full advantage of the time to explore new grounds to cover.
“Driving Results is exciting to me,” he says. “If I’ve been a parent to Create-A-Card for 30 years, Driving Results is like a grandchild. I love the camaraderie: It’s brought people together who might have worked together before but hadn’t met face to face, and now I see them at industry events having dinner together, walking down the showfloor together, and introducing other people to each other.”
Another part of what helps Messina cater to the transportation professionals he serves is that ever-changing technology and even the disruption accompanying an advancing world are not unfamiliar territory to him.
In fact, he cites those changes as the most influential element in the progress of his own business: Design trends that are influenced by improvements in the production cycle flourish as more options become available. What’s more, turnaround times that were beholden to manual interference with tape, glue, X-ACTO knives, and film transfers have, with the help of more automated processes, all but evaporated: What once took two or three weeks to usher from the initial order to the final delivery can now be done in days, if not within 24 hours in some cases.
“Technology helps advance everything,” Messina says. “It’s like ground transportation: The mobile apps are helping the industry; in our case, technology allows you to do these things more quickly. I remember getting one of my first scanners in the late ’80s or early ’90s: Once we were able to scan the image, use a graphics program, and put text over that image all while seeing it all the on the screen—it was an “oh my God” moment, a true turning point.”
Also like the for-hire vehicle industry, Messina’s livelihood faces competition from a more hands-off, tech-based interloper in VistaPrint, which he sees as comparable to a TNC appealing exclusively to price-conscience consumers who just want a quick-and-dirty cache of inexpensive business cards—and who get the budget solution they pay for.
“Our Uber is VistaPrint: You can go in and do your own thing, it’s cheap, and you can do it yourself,” Messina explains. “But that’s not the same as coming to me, with the knowledge of the industry, understanding the industry, even consulting with the industry. I’m able to make sure that the product helps them get business coming back in.”
But Messina isn’t worried. He firmly believes that the personal touch of a longtime or budding yet genuine relationship is the cornerstone of any successful company that aims for longevity and mutual benefit—which is why he feels that there will always be a demand for his products, just as driverless cars will never replace the personal touch that comes with having a professionally chauffeured car. There is a mantra he emphasizes to his Driving Results group, just as he follows it in his own business, and will continue to for as long as he’s at the helm of Create-A-Card.
“People work with people they like,” he says. “If you learn from each other and build relationships, the business will follow. I built an entire business within an industry built on relationships, and it’s the personal touch of what we do that’s helped us grow and stay strong for 30 years.” [CD1116]