BY SUSAN ROSE
There is much to love about Dallas: great year-round weather, a solid economy with an unemployment rate lower than the national average, tons of industry, no state income tax. For Eric Devlin, moving to the Texas city was both a love letter to his family and the realization of an opportunity.
Back in the early 1990s, Devlin was getting his insurance career off the ground at State Farm, when he realized that the only way to move up the ranks as an auto underwriter was to be mobile, which meant moving to a new regional office every two years. His wife, Dee, was itching to plant permanent roots in her native Texas—and Devlin knew that frequently relocating wasn’t the best thing for a growing family that would soon include his son Cole and daughter Macey.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that you don’t take a Texan out of Texas,” says the Missouri native who met his wife while they were attending Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Before his insurance career could take the family on the road, it was time to head to Dallas—and blaze a new career path in the process.
Even before Devlin founded Premier Transportation Service in 1996, he had his first customer. His father-in-law, a corporate executive in Dallas, suggested the idea of opening a sedan service, and it intrigued Devlin. After all, hundreds of public and private companies had headquarters or major satellite offices in the area, with plenty of business to spare. Even then, Dallas was a magnet for Fortune 500 companies and a steady influx of transplants who all needed corporate transportation. His father-in-law’s company would be his first client. A $150,000 per year account right out of the gate was a great start that also allowed Devlin to build a solid reputation in town and close deals with other corporations.
“Back then, it was rare for your Town Car company to come and visit you in your office—our clients were impressed that we made the effort. We won a lot of business early on, which grew our reputation in town. It was a lot of hard work by many people to get where we are today,” he says.
What unfolded over the next 20 years was a chauffeured transportation company with a healthy blend of corporate and retail services, an office staff of 35 and more than 100 chauffeurs, as well as a fleet nearly topping 100 vehicles.
“Some smart hiring moves and acquisitions over the years have increased business, but we try to walk before we run and grow intelligently instead of impulsively,” he says. “It’s been a steady 10-12 percent growth year over year.”
We won a lot of business early on, which grew our reputation in town. It was a lot of hard work by many people to get where we are today."
– Eric Devlin, President of Premier Transportation Service
Devlin definitely put his own blood, sweat, and tears into building the company. Like most new operators, he did his share of cleaning cars (and, on occasion, still rolls up his sleeves to do so) and answering phones on nights and weekends. It was years before he had enough revenue to sustain an overnight team to take the burden off the young father—so he could finally sleep through the night without being awakened by his pager.
“My wife still has pictures of me where I’m mowing the lawn with the pager clipped to my hat because I wouldn’t hear it if it was clipped to my belt,” he laughs. “I’m happy to be at the point where I’m no longer putting out fires every day and can strategize for the company—smaller owners have to be entrenched in the daily operations of the company and can’t tear themselves away from the daily grind until they hit around the $5 million in revenue mark. I look for and come up with the big ideas, but surround myself with really good people who are hardworking. I give them direction and when they need my input, they’ll ask. I’m proud to say that my office can run without me.”
Affiliate work—farm-in and farm-out—has been an area that Devlin and his team continue to nurture and build. He estimates that current out-of-town affiliate work is a solid 30 percent of sales, although he knows it can be stronger. To help ramp up efforts, Devlin just hired Jami Crouch, business development/affiliate relations, to work with Affiliate Manager Corey Witzel to expand Premier’s service well beyond Dallas. “Both Corey and Jami are going to make a great team and assist the process of streamlining quotes, rates, and execute all of our farm-out groups business. Jami will also be working on growing our inbound work too.”
Devlin adds that Dallas has such a vibrant social scene that the retail side of his business grew organically. “We started as a corporate travel company for sure; however, all of our corporate clients also attend Cowboys and Mavericks games, and their kids have proms or get married, so it was a natural progression to take on retail work. Dallas has a huge professional sports culture as well as a fervent high school and college football obsession. There’s a high society ball almost every month in addition to fashion shows, premieres, and celebrity events. People don’t just leave work and go home and go to bed; they go out to dinner, parties, concerts, and sporting events,” he says.
Dallas is a meetings-and-events town, breaking the top 10 of leading convention cities for the No. 8 position, according to Cvent, so it’s no surprise that Devlin identified groups and big event moves as a way to steadily increase revenue. The company has a dedicated department that is managed by Director of Groups Vicki Stanbery. She and the sales team regularly attend area events for travel executives and association meetings like Meeting Planners International to make connections and build on those that already exist. He says that they work closely with local convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) and DMCs, a relationship that has been symbiotic. “Vicki and her staff are rock stars,” Devlin says.
“The Texas economy is so strong,” he continues. “The Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau is second to none and brings lots of business and groups to town. Our DMC partners work extremely hard to be competitive in the market and draw groups here, and we are grateful for them funneling business our way.”
Devlin is thoughtful in how he grows his business by taking a 35,000-foot view of his operations and trusting his leadership that includes Stanberry, Director of Global Sales Lori Clark, and his longest serving employee, General Manager Don Hammond. Devlin says he’s meticulous about not letting any one account dominate his revenue stream, and he won’t jump onto fads or purchase vehicles before carefully running the numbers to ensure that there is enough demand to support the capital outlay.
Some smart hiring moves and acquisitions over the years have increased business, but we try to walk before we run and grow intelligently instead of impulsively."
– Eric Devlin
However, he jokes that Clark’s efforts are testing his resolve to grow slowly. “Talk about rock stars—she is our clean-up batter and she’s leading the league! I’m always cautious because the worst thing you can do is grow too quickly: You’re over-capitalized from a personnel or equipment standpoint and then you start making mistakes. We aim, aim, aim, then shoot. Some people shoot and then aim.”
One such decision, however, was a no-brainer after watching and running the numbers over the course of a few years: finally purchasing motorcoaches. Premier was already using trusted local bus affiliates to accommodate its customers’ demand for buses and larger vehicles—which Devlin says was between $600,000 and $800,000 worth of coach bus work per year.
Leveraging buying power, Devlin worked with local affiliate and friendly Dallas competitor Matt Johnston of AJL International to purchase a total of four buses—two for each company—in November 2015. Less than 16 months later, Devlin has already added two minicoaches and six more motorcoaches thanks to a steady increase in revenue.
“We were leaving a lot of money on the table, so we needed to get into the bus business,” he says. “We had great partners in town who helped and continue to help us, but we also did it a little differently by painting our coaches black, which gave our buses an air of sophistication in the corporate arena. We also call our bus drivers chauffeurs because we have high expectations for all our employees.”
He appointed Ted Hernandez, director of operations, whom Devlin calls the company’s “bus guru” to manage the transition. Hernandez works with Todd Davis, fleet manager, to oversee DOT compliance, handle the tremendous amount of recordkeeping that comes with bus ownership, and training of new staff on safety issues and hours of service.
“One of the barriers to entry in the motorcoach business is not having the right people in place to manage it. If not for Todd and Ted, I would not have purchased coaches. They make it work!”
The company also had to secure a secondary lot for the larger vehicles, located about three miles from the headquarters and with cleaning crews at both sites, but Devlin reports that he is currently shopping for a larger office space and warehouse for his entire fleet. While Texas may not get heavy snowstorms like higher elevations on the East Coast or tropical storms like in the Gulf, Devlin says that the Dallas area is prone to damaging hailstorms three or four times a year. To protect vehicles, it’s been an all-hands-on-deck situation where staff would jump in a fleet vehicle—including sedans, SUVs, minibuses, Sprinters, limobuses, and limousines—to move them out of harm’s way based on the track of the storm.
Owning his own bus equipment, which he says was an obvious hedge against TNCs, allowed him to bid directly for local tour, DMC, and CVB bus work and augment his groups and roadshow business. The timing was also perfect for the recent Super Bowl LI in Houston, only about 250 miles away from Dallas, where Devlin says more than 20 of his vehicles were on hand for football fans flocking to the game (including several motorcoaches). Devlin estimates that he will purchase one or two additional motorcoaches by the end of the year, and is on track to have 12-14 in his fleet by the end of 2018.
“It took a long time as an industry to react to TNCs, but now we’re doing a better job of educating our clients and being more technologically savvy,” he says.
But Devlin notes that technology and competition, including TNCs, have changed the industry and how he does business. For one, he’s stepped up his investment in his staff—even more than usual—through consistent training and employee retention measures (higher salaries and per-hour rates).
“Just 10 or 15 years ago we could put an ad in the paper and find great quality chauffeurs, but now we really have to work at it. The good economy plays a part, of course,” he says. “But we have to make sure that we are providing our chauffeurs with the newest vehicles, the best pay and benefits, and a great working environment so that they are proud to work here.” Devlin really enjoys the employee appreciation lunches and potlucks—a favorite of his chauffeurs because they can show off, in many cases, their impressive culinary skills.
He says that some of his proudest moments are when an employee tells him that he’s putting his child through college or buying her first house because of their role at Premier.
“Our longtime Office Manager Sherry Wilson is key to providing a positive environment for our office staff. As our company grew, it was imperative that we hire an HR manager. Kimberly ladevaia joined Premier three years ago, committing to 15 hours per week. She is now instrumental in creating policies, hiring, and, with Sherry, handles our incident reports. Both are extremely dedicated and loyal to Premier and the team,” he says.
“We have high expectations for our team, but we do take care of our people,” Devlin continues. “We consistently pay more per hour than our competitors because we can afford to—but more importantly, we want to. We offer plenty of training and invest in our staff so that they can be better and happier employees. I use the term ‘servant at heart’ because that’s what we are regardless of job title, including myself. I can’t teach that; it has to be innate. I never hire someone who needs a job: I want to hire someone who wants a career that will hopefully grow into a passion.”
In January 2016, Devlin awarded ownership interest to Davis, Hernandez, Wilson, and Witzel, noting that “after more than 10 years of loyalty, they deserved a piece of the pie.”
This appreciation, he says, also applies to his customers. For quality control, clients receive a five-question survey minutes after pickup that asks about the professionalism of the chauffeur, condition of the vehicle, and if they would recommend Premier to a friend. The comment section goes directly to Devlin, who addresses any issues immediately—but who is also quick to share the positive comments with the team and chauffeurs.
“With the TNCs’ advertising spend, it’s more important than ever to focus on our sales efforts, but also to maintain relationships and thank customers regularly,” he says. “It keeps us on our toes and reminds us to offer a strong value and excellent service at a competitive price. We’re in business to make money, not to give away our service or break even, and I think customers understand that. I try to be my team’s cheerleader 80 percent of the time, a motivator the other 20 percent, but I’m here—I think it means a great deal to our employees that the guy who signs the checks is here in the trenches with them ... and our clients love it when I answer the phones.”
My advice to any operator is to get involved in a peer group and get to know key people in the industry who are willing to serve as a mentor.”
– Eric Devlin
About four years ago, Devlin joined the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), a peer benchmarking group of industry operators from around the country that is facilitated by Strategy Leaders’ founder and business consultant Andi Gray. Devlin didn’t have a traditional entry—if there is such a thing—into the industry like many of his colleagues; he never worked as a part-time chauffeur or as dispatcher before he founded Premier. Being asked to join ESG, he says, has been one of the most beneficial things he has done for his business and his own professional growth.
“I’ve formed great relationships with all in the group,” he says. “We meet three times a year but there isn’t a week that goes by where I’m not reaching out to someone with a question or someone is reaching out to me. My advice to any operator is to get involved in a peer group and get to know key people in the industry who are willing to serve as a mentor.”
He says that the members also frequently visit their respective cities, especially if their rival sports teams are scheduled for a match-up—which often results in some good-natured banter. “Kathy Kahne and George Jacobs of Windy City Limousine were just here a few weeks ago to watch the Stars and Blackhawks. Tony Simon of Reston Limousine and Alan Candeub of Park Avenue Limousine are huge Eagles fans, so they came to Dallas and watched the Cowboys whip up on their chicken hawks. We play golf, we take guys’ trips. But when we’re at dinner, we’re talking about our businesses and asking for advice on how to handle certain situations. I learned a trick from Scott Woodruff at Majestic Limousine & Coach: During an interview, he makes it a point to drop a pencil on the floor. If the chauffeur he is interviewing doesn’t pick it up, then he doesn’t hire him. There is a lot of invaluable camaraderie between the members—both personal and professional.”
Looking ahead, 20 is a special number for Devlin: 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the company, and 2020 is just around the corner. But when he recently announced an initiative to his team to be at $20 million in revenue by 2020, it was met with an unexpected response.
“Both Vicki and Lori laughed at the idea. I thought that they were scoffing at the challenge, but they both said ‘No, we think it’s too low!’ That was refreshing,” he says. “We have the right people in the right places and that makes all the difference in the world.” [CD0317]