BY LIZ HUNTER
Within the state of Texas, you’d be hard pressed to find cities that differ as drastically as Houston and Austin. One is built on the foundation of oil: a competitive, cyclical market with corporate high-networth individuals. The other is a new, emerging market attracting young tech talent and growing faster every day as a meetings and events city.
It would take a diverse, confident, and experienced chauffeured transportation company to serve both markets. Luckily, Nikko’s Worldwide Chauffeured Services is all of those things and more.
In 1982, husband and wife Nikko and Linda Assolin founded Nikko’s Luxury Limousines, after Nikko had been in the hotel business for 15 years and served as VP operations of Holiday Inn, where he learned about hospitality and leading employees. By 1986, the company had 15 stretches, and in 1987, they introduced exotic car rentals—a venture that ran its course and ended in 1991. In 1995, as Houston’s nightlife was in decline, Nikko bought a corporate-based transportation company, which has since been the framework for Nikko’s Worldwide.
Decades later, Nikko now serves as president alongside his son Matt, who is vice president. Matt grew up in the company, washing cars as a kid—a common rite of passage for many in this industry; as early as age 16, he started dabbling in managing events and conferences for Nikko’s. But high school-age Matt had a different career path in mind.
“I wanted to be a naval aviator and I was vying for a naval scholarship. When I didn’t get into the Naval Academy because of a knee injury, I fell back into the family business,” Matt says. At this same time, his mother Linda was undergoing her first bout of cancer treatment, making his presence in the company a comfort and a help. “The growth really started at this point. I was able to focus on sales to take things to the next level. I was going to school full time, working on my degrees in finance and economics, and I graduated from the University of Houston in 2008. The past eight years have been constant, nonstop madness of business growth.”
The father-and-son duo work together nicely, each demonstrating their strong suits in different areas of the company. Nikko oversees the day-to-day operations, from dispatchers and reservations to chauffeurs. “I am very quality-oriented, and I want no mistakes,” he says. “I want clients to feel they can call here with confidence.”
Matt focuses on finances, strategy, new client acquisition, and sales, but he is also involved in Nikko’s Worldwide’s events, whether they are being handled locally or globally. Matt has also become a familiar face at industry events in recent years, representing the company in the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) as both a participant and as a member of their government relations committee, while also serving on and chairing Texas Business Travel Association (TBTA) committees. And he was recently elected to be the vice president of the Houston Area Livery & Charter Association (HALCA). Despite the recognition involved with these organizations, Matt admits that anywhere he goes, people ask about his father.
“My father is still well-known and loved by everyone I meet in the industry,” he says. “There have been times I couldn’t make an event, so we’ll send Nikko and all I hear from my friends is that he was the center of attention. He has threatened to retire but I know better. He’s not going anywhere.”
The attention is well-deserved. Since those humble beginnings, Nikko’s Worldwide has grown into an approximately 40-car company, running everything from Lincoln Continentals, Cadillac XTSs, Suburbans, Escalades, Sprinters, Grech buses, and, potentially within the next few months, a motorcoach. This growth came despite the dramatic ups and downs of the economy in Houston.
“Houston has a lot of legacy: old-money oil and gas clients,” says Matt. “But no matter the economy, they still need to travel. We have taken the approach over the past five to seven years to only focus on business that won’t get cut back so much in a downtime. There have been four downturns in Houston over the past 35 years: savings and loan, real estate, oil, and gas. Oil controls so much of the economy here, so if oil prices are down or up too high, it’s not good for everyone. It suppresses the economy.”
Although Houston is recognized for its economy of energy—oil and natural gas—it has also built a reputation for biomedical research. The city is home to the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest concentration of health care and medical research, including 21 hospitals, seven nursing schools, four med schools, pharmaceutical schools, and others—all exceeding 50 million developed square feet. It also has the largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies outside New York City. Houston is the top U.S. market for exports, and it’s a leading center for oilfield equipment manufacturing.
Culturally, Houston holds its own, too. Officially nicknamed “Space City,” it’s where you’ll find NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and Mission Control. Houston’s Theater District consists of multiple performing arts organizations and the Museum District, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the Houston Zoo, attracts more than 7 million visitors annually.
Nikko has lived in other cities—Manhattan and Toronto—but says Houston has treated him and his family well. “It’s a good city. We’ve built strong relationships, put down roots, and we have a solid customer base,” he says. But as good as Houston has been for him personally, he mentions the dips and spikes of oil prices as being a challenge from a business perspective.
After being faced with economic hurdles, Nikko’s Worldwide had to re-evaluate how it did business to not only survive those downtimes, but also thrive. In two of the past three years, the company has experienced a 35-percent increase year over year. “We have been lucky to get new accounts and expand those we were in. If we were the secondary provider, we became primary. Oil and gas clients are only 20 percent of our business,” says Matt. “We’ve grown more into the medical side and meetings and events. That has helped us absorb the losses in Houston. We don’t want to cut vehicles or employees. That’s why we opened in Austin. We knew it was the only way we could keep growing.”
Matt says Austin is on its way to becoming a tier 1 market. “It’s the second largest tech capital in the country behind Silicon Valley. Apple actually has more employees in Austin than in Silicon Valley,” he says. “Where Houston is a suit-and-tie city, Austin is shorts and baseball caps. Austin feels like a different state compared to Houston. It’s a different personality.”
With a motto like “Keep Austin Weird,” Austin is a community built on small businesses also struggling with the massive growth happening there. Forbes rated Austin its #1 Boom Town in 2015 because of its economic strength, and, as a result, commercial development now threatens many of its downtown businesses. But undoubtedly it is Austin’s culture that gives the city its real flavor. It’s unofficially recognized as the live music capital of the world; Austin has more music venues per capita than any other U.S. city, and its Austin City Limits is the longest-running TV concert music program. A festival by the same name is held annually, along with South by Southwest (SXSW), an interactive film and music festival that attracts tens of thousands of attendees from all over the world.
“Wherever I traveled this year, people wanted to talk about Austin,” says Matt. “Everyone wants to visit there. It’s the second-largest destination wedding venue in the country, and it’s very fast growing in meetings and events. Conferences are coming here for team-building excursions. You could have 25 people for a food or brewery tour. A lot of this business is coming from the corporate side.”
When Nikko’s Worldwide opened its Austin office in 2013, Nikko himself was initially skeptical. “I wasn’t sure about moving into another city and giving up control,” he says. “But we decided to go on a very low scale—two cars and a bus—with two full-time chauffeurs. Matt had a good vision and it paid out. But you’ve got to be skeptical in the beginning.”
Austin has helped Nikko’s Worldwide get more experience on the events side of the company. Paul Arndt is director of sales in Austin, and Matt says he has helped bring on those meetings and events clients. They work with the Hotel Granduca Austin—the city’s only five-star hotel—and the Omni Barton Creek. Throughout the years, the company has built relationships with DMCs and hotel management groups for local events in Texas, and those connections are now translating into national work. “If you build the right relationships with the right people, then you get some incredible things to bid on. In the next three to five years, this is our next big play,” Matt says.
With their intentions to garner more of this business, investing in a motorcoach or two makes sense. “We do a lot of motorcoach moves now, and it would be great to have one or two of our own leading the charge on a move with 12 motorcoaches,” says Matt. “We are not looking to turn into a motorcoach company, though.”
Equally important to having the right vehicles for growth is having the right people. “If we aren’t adding quality people, we won’t have a quality product,” says Matt. In addition to Arndt, Nikko’s Worldwide has recently added to its team. Carina Orfilia had previously been with Greene Classic Limousine in Atlanta but moved to the Houston area. Highly recommended by Founder/President Jeff Greene, Orfilia is now head of reservations, where she will also be helping to standardize training on Livery Coach software, thanks to her 10 years of experience using it.
Orfilia’s past experience with the Super Bowl was also beneficial in the planning stages of how the company would handle the Houston-hosted game. “Having that experience on our team put us one step ahead and it means we can hold onto clients and do their work in any other Super Bowl city,” says Matt.
The Assolins are further supported by two other key employees. Mindy Becerra, who came on board in 2012, is in charge of administration, billing, and reservations, and James Long oversees all operations on a day-to-day basis.
Clearly the Assolins aren’t interested in resting on their laurels. Matt is always thinking ahead, and because he is from the oft-maligned Millennial generation, he has to prepare for the changing client demographics. But for Nikko’s Worldwide, that doesn’t mean becoming more like TNCs.
“Historically, when you look at corporate travel trends, there is always leakage,” he says. “In a way, Uber is our greatest marketing tool because as an executive gains more wealth and status in their company, they want to trade up in their transportation. As an industry, we need to be more responsive as on-demand, but I don’t think we should be an app industry.”
Instead, he believes the industry should refocus on quality. “We have to go back to our core competency: being on time with a clean, well-kept car and knowledgeable chauffeur. You could have all the technology you want but it won’t make a difference. At the end of the day, it’s still about the high-end chauffeured service experience. We’ve taken on new clients who [came from] Uber or Lyft because they got tired of drivers canceling on them, or not knowing where to go, or making lewd comments,” he says. “People will come back the more the TNCs fail them.”
We have to go back to our core competency: being on time with a clean, well-kept car and knowledgeable chauffeur." – Matt Assolin
If he seems well-versed on this topic, it’s because he has to be. Besides the organizations mentioned previously, Matt is a board member for the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) and serves on their limousine and steering committee as well as the NLA’s legislative committee. He is experienced in fighting TNCs both locally and nationally. “At the state level, we are trying to unite and figure out the direction we want to go. Do we want TNCs regulated by the state, or do we want cities to regulate them? This is going to the next six months. It’s a big legislative fight,” he says.
It’s a lot to balance with running a company, helping to create fair regulations for the industry, and also being a husband and father. Matt’s wife Xochitl is Nikko’s Worldwide CFO—a role she filled after his mother passed away two years ago—and together they have a three-year-old son, Matthew William, with a daughter on the way in March. “I traveled this year more than ever and I foresee that increasing,” he says. “I usually spend at least one day of the weekend here in the office. It’s a lot of stuff to do, but I try to get away with my family and relax, to have a balance.”
Matt doesn’t shy away from the term “workaholic.” “One of the joys of owning a business is seeing the fruits of your labor come full circle,” he says. “I’m having a blast every day—for the most part. It was hard work through my 20s, working 24 hours a day, taking the night shifts when we didn’t have enough coverage. I missed most of my 20s because I was so focused on the business. But now, being in my 30s, I’m seeing it all pay off. I do wish it had come a bit sooner for my parents, especially for my mom, to see where we are now versus two years ago.”
That’s not to say Matt is all work and no play. He enjoys golfing and has been wanting to pursue his pilot’s license. One huge passion of his is wine. “I have Sam Amato of Gateway Global to thank for that. He introduced me to wine and sparked my passion,” Matt says. “I have close to 300 bottles in my cellar. I could have worse addictions,” he jokes.
Many of his friends are from the industry. “It’s a strenuous, tough lifestyle and we all relate. These are relationships that will last a lifetime.”
Nikko—who Matt teasingly calls “Mr. Single Man”—has been trying to relax more now that Matt has taken over a good deal of the workload. He enjoys cigars, dinner with friends, and spending time with the next generation of Assolins. “I’m constantly thinking even when I’m not in the office,” Nikko says. “But as you get into retirement age, you start focusing on taking better care of yourself, staying healthy. It’s important for your mental health to stay close and keep yourself busy.”
From the sound of it, his son plans to keep the company pretty busy in the years to come. “I see some acquisitions in the future,” says Matt. “Buses will definitely play a bigger and bigger role, to the benefit of the whole industry. In five years, I know the revenue I want to get, but getting there is going to take multiple course corrections during that time.”
Nikko’s Worldwide’s vision and strategy will evolve, but the high-end service won’t change. “We’re at an interesting juncture in the industry,” Matt says. “We’re seeing a line between transfer companies and those who are more chauffeured transportation. The middle ground is going to disappear, whether going out of business, through acquisition, or first-generation owners retiring. Our growth will come from large-scale event management and new corporate contracts. We will try some new things, but our principles will be the same.” [CD0217]