BY SUSAN ROSEThe North Hollywood-based company is an example of a well-run family business that is thriving with second-generation leadership while staying true to its roots.
The halls of the Exclusive Sedan Service (ESS) office in North Hollywood feel like a time capsule of some of the most beloved and iconic shows and movies ever produced. Studio placards and posters line the walls like an homage to the work that built ESS: St. Elsewhere, Friends, Lost, just to name a few. A cardboard cutout of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow greets you in the conference room. There’s no mistaking that you’re in Tinsel Town.
ESS, a family business run by founders Jackie and Ron Stein and their son Brandan, has been a fixture in Hollywood since 1980 when a borrowed limousine with a maroon velvet interior and some great personal connections helped to launch a new career for Ron. In this case, he was trusted to handle the all-too-important transportation for a sponsor of the hit TV show Greatest American Hero. It went without a hitch and Ron was hooked.
And what a great time it was to start in the limousine business. It was 1980s Los Angeles, and home-state favorite Ronald Reagan was resoundingly elected as president twice, ushering in an age of glitz, glamour, and excess after the precarious economic uncertainty and crushing inflation of the late ’70s and early ’80s. You made it if you were traveling in a limousine.
For as big as the film and TV production world is, Hollywood is a tight-knit town where word of mouth can make or break you. Ron skillfully worked those connections with studios, actors, agents, and staffers, and little by little he earned the business of those powerful elites—thanks to ESS’ impeccable reputation, strong relationships, and quite possibly a dose of luck. Entertainment and all of its various offshoots still represent about 60 percent of their work today (affiliate and corporate work make up the remaining 40 percent). That led to corporate work, especially with financial firms in Los Angeles. Before long, the Steins were operating a handful of vehicles and had a small roster of chauffeurs. When clients needed service in other cities, Ron would call upon his trusted affiliates across the country.
“It wasn’t necessarily a big company but I had a great lifestyle,” says Ron about his nearly four decades working with Hollywood “royalty” and corporate clients. The days were long for the founder and there were never enough hours, but he loved how ESS gave him a balance between a reliable, sustainable living and time to spend with his young family without being tethered to a desk or a traditional 9-to-5 gig. It afforded him the opportunity to be an active part of his son’s life, whether it was taking him fishing as a preschooler to attending activities like gymnastics, karate, and later, football. Those moments with family, in Ron’s eyes, were most important.
Brandan was pretty lucky, too. While he jokes about being one of the only kids in his class to have a TV in his car, he grew up in the business while watching and learning from his parents. From his perspective, he saw how hard his parents worked during his childhood. His mother maintained her full-time job as the assistant to Remo Belli, founder of the world’s largest drumhead manufacturing company Remo Inc., while also managing accounting, communications, and marketing for ESS. Ron would split his time between driving and all of the other necessities of the business, including lugging around his client book and the old-style cellphone everywhere he went to capture the frequent incoming business calls—which often meant dashing from a dinner date with Jackie or ducking out of an evening with friends.
But what really shook Brandan was when Ron suffered a heart attack; he knew then that he wanted to take that burden off his father and do the heavy lifting for the business. Ron and Jackie didn’t necessarily intend for ESS to become a family business; they wanted their son to forge his own path in a profession that he would enjoy, but Brandan’s passion won them over ... eventually.
“I had to pitch Dad on taking a job at the company full time because he was against it,” recalls Brandan of joining ESS in 1998. “I had a lot of ideas and wanted to grow too quickly, but Dad made me slow down and learn from the ground up. Looking back, I’m so grateful he did it the way he did.”
On Ron’s part, he says that he attempted to dissuade his son at every turn by throwing the realities of not-so-glamorous tasks at him like detailing cars or handling a 4 am call for an ESS vehicle to be on set at one of the many studios they worked with—but Brandan did it. When Brandan would propose an idea, Ron would make him put together a sales presentation to justify spending and ROI, not only to ensure the idea was viable for the company but to help his son work through the details. In most things, they would come to an amicable decision.
“Oh yes, I actively tried to get Brandan to give up, but he surpassed all of my tests. Even when I tried to micromanage him, he was so patient and reassured me that he could do it. He’s willing to take more risks. He just has that ambition, and I couldn’t be prouder of what he’s accomplished,” says Ron. “He’s my son, but he’s also my partner.”
It’s often a precarious endeavor when working with relatives because it’s easy to let emotions get in the way of progress or reason, but the father-and-son team have genuinely found homeostasis. Ron’s experience, wisdom, and conservative nature blends well with Brandan’s big-picture growth mentality, while Brandan pushes Ron outside his comfort zone to take a little risk. They can disagree, but it’s always with respect.
“The father-and-son team have genuinely found homeostasis. Ron’s experience, wisdom, and conservative nature blends well with Brandan’s big-picture growth mentality, while Brandan pushes Ron outside his comfort zone to take a little risk.”
Brandan was like a sponge when learning the industry, especially as he grew into his management role in 2005 and later, his executive role as president and CEO. Inspired by well-known consultant Tom Mazza, who Ron also called a friend, Brandan soaked up ideas and dreamed of ways to evolve ESS for their clients’ changing needs.
“I met Tom Mazza around 2005 and would call him for advice because he knew everyone in the industry and who would be a good affiliate. He was a wealth of knowledge,” says Ron.
Brandan says he also learned a great deal by attending seminars at the industry shows where he was exposed to numerous transportation leaders. “Whether they know it or not, I was inspired by people like Rick Brown [of La Costa Limousine], Trevor Franklin [of MTC Limousine], and Dawson Rutter [of Commonwealth Worldwide] when they spoke at podiums or gave me a few minutes of their time when I had their attention. And I will always remember that no matter how many times I called Charlie Horky (CLS)—and I called a lot—he always picked up the phone and gave me good advice.”
One of the biggest influences that Brandan had on ESS was hiring a team and delegating much of the work that Ron and Jackie had been carrying themselves for many years. When the Steins first started in the industry, they didn’t have the benefit of today’s technology to easily invoice customers or wrangle reservations and dispatch electronically, so much of the work was cumbersome and time consuming. Appointing staff to manage the daily operations not only helped Ron and Brandan make better use of their talents, it helped ESS flourish. Ron was even able to serve on the board of his local association, the Greater California Livery Association (GCLA), in the early 2000s. Ron is also currently an NLA board member. For the past four years, Ron has participated in the Chauffeur Driven Show’s Operating Mentor Program and is on the Advisory Board of the magazine. Brandan is part of CD’s Show Committee and has served on the GCLA board for the past few years.
“I delegated and trusted a little more than Dad, and we’ve had failures, but it taught me how to hire at a different level in each area,” says Brandan. “I’ve learned that we as owners have to be very clear on what our expectations are for each job responsibility and help them to succeed.”
Having an office staff of 13 gives them more flexibility to be out of the office, and they can log in at any time on the road to check KPIs or daily runs.
“We feel so blessed because the majority of the people who come to work with us stay with us,” says Ron. “It makes us feel good.”
The team includes department heads Wes Travis, operations manager (14 years); Maureen Kostin, accounting manager (five years); Sandy Sigala, lead reservationist (six years); Chris Hammer, lead dispatcher (six years); Jason Santiago, IT and fleet manager (12 years); and Ron’s brother Dan Stein, vice president of worldwide sales (10 years). Jessica Pechlert has served as an executive assistant to both Ron and Brandan for the past four years.
The managers hold a weekly status meeting while a monthly meeting includes the rest of the team; Ron sits in on the latter as frequently as possible and meeting minutes are shared with Jackie. Brandan is the company’s president and CEO, but whenever there is a major decision to be made, the three still discuss and chart the pros and cons—usually held quarterly.
However, while they work well together, they don’t always come to unanimous decisions. A few years ago, Brandan proposed the idea of adding tour work: Jackie was ambivalent but open, while Ron was legitimately concerned about the large expenditure required to purchase minicoaches. Brandan says he created a sales presentation that included costs of hiring additional staff to maintain the coaches, and they came to a tentative agreement. Today, tours represent about 5 percent of in-house business. ESS continues to use partners for a majority of their minicoach and motorcoach business.
ESS’ fleet is now around 40 in-house vehicles ranging from standard sedans and SUVs to minicoaches and Sprinters. They were among the first companies to pledge their early support for the Lincoln Continental, and took delivery of their first vehicle late last year. They have plans to tap into the motorcoach industry, possibly through an acquisition in the near future, although they already work with trusted affiliates for these types of runs.
ESS has completed several acquisitions—some that didn’t always pan out financially, but from which Ron says they gained some outstanding chauffeurs. Finding quality chauffeurs has been a perennial issue for many operators, so it’s always a happy accident when you find those who embody your company’s message in the way you want to be represented.
“I had to pitch Dad on taking a job at the company full time. I had a lot of ideas and wanted to grow too quickly, but Dad made me slow down and learn from the ground up. Looking back, I’m so grateful he did it the way he did.”
– Brandan Stein, President and CEO of Exclusive Sedan Service
Company culture has been an area of focus for Brandan of late as the organization continues to grow stronger, larger, and more complex. While providing a good workplace environment was always of importance to the Steins, Brandan has taken steps to make it a tangible, organized program within ESS as well as one that extends to its expanding affiliate network.
To keep communication through the organization consistent and strong, they implemented a regular “culture” email that details any policy changes, shares compliments from clients, and features a monthly theme; recent thoughts of the month have included teamwork and safety.
A large component of ESS’ culture is giving back, so the email will also include details about charitable contributions to local and national organizations. The Steins involve the team in the process—not only through participation but also in suggesting charities to support. Ron is also part of the CD Show Charity Committee. Donations have been across the spectrum: U.S. Holocaust Museum, National Stroke Association, Alzheimer’s Association, Kid’s Wish, SCV Sheriff Foundation, Special Olympics, Zero Cancer.org, American Cancer Society, Mixed Roots Foundation, Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Painted Turtle, Y.E.S.S., Save the Children, Vietnam Veterans, Able ARTS Work (Arts & Services for Disabled, Inc.), Legacy Uganda, Kings University, National Parks Conservation Association, Jack Hayford Ministries, and locally to children’s hospitals.
ESS is also creating a recycling program.
Ron, who is also a bladder cancer survivor of six years, has served on the board of advisors of the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network (BCAN) and is now part of a survivor-to-survivor program where he mentors new patients and helps them with their treatment. For the past three years, he has participated in the Limo Patriot Ride, which raises money for the Semper Fi Fund that helps injured or critically ill veterans transition back into society. Last year, the group—which has widespread support across the industry—raised $30,000 for the charity.
“We aim to be a socially conscious company that gives back to employees, clients, and our community both in time and in donations,” says Ron. “We try to do things that better our environment or city, and it’s always important to us that our staff feel welcome to suggest their own charities. Jackie has hers, I have mine, Brandan has his. I feel that the more you give, the more you’re blessed.”
Building on core values that include safety, customer service, and efficiency, Brandan says that their team of nearly 50 chauffeurs demonstrates those words every day. The words hang on a banner in the garage, so it’s a constant reminder of their importance. To foster a camaraderie within the ranks, ESS developed a chauffeur mentor program that is completely facilitated by a handful of lead chauffeurs who work with 7-10 of their colleagues to answer questions, share best practices, and help to keep them motivated.
“Each mentor goes over and above what is required of them and have the position because they believe in our culture and stress the safety and excellence that we represent,” says Brandan.
A few years ago, Marc Emmer, a close family friend and business coach, recognized Brandan’s ambition and introduced him to a peer-to-peer membership organization called Vistage. These high-level groups are often reserved for CEOs and business owners leading companies with gross revenues in excess of $20 million—on the low end—and are designed to function like a board of advisors. ESS was operating at a small percentage of that, but it didn’t deter him.
“I was grilled by each member of the group; it was pretty tough,” he says. “They wanted to make sure that I could also contribute to the group since I would be the smallest company, but soon after they invited me to join. We’re talking about CEOs of companies managing gross revenues of $400 million. Now I have a board of advisors who will pick apart an idea—they do it out of love—or make suggestions on how to better allocate spending. In the end, the decision is still ours, but their input is very beneficial.”
Relying more on Brandan and the rest of his management team, Ron has been able to take a step back and enjoy time away from the daily grind. He’s frequently in the office and is a regular at industry events as the face of ESS—although Brandan also takes an active role in promoting the company—but nowadays he’s less salesman and more chairman. It leaves him time for some of his passion projects and surfing ... always hitting the waves whenever possible.
Brandan, like his father, has found the right balance of work and play. He works hard and puts in those hours, but he is also an active guy who loves wake surfing, hitting the gym, and is a CrossFit enthusiast. He’s married to Whittnee, his wife of 12 years with whom he has two young children, and manages to find the time to sneak out for his daughter Brooklyn’s dance recital or to ride dirt bikes with his son Braedan—just like his father was able to do for him. Ron and Jackie are proud grandparents and relish the time spent with their grandchildren.
Working with family presents a dilemma: When do you stop talking about work? One of the places where they find peace is on the ocean. “We’ll go surf and call it a ‘board meeting,’” says Ron. “We’ll talk shop all the way to the beach, when we’re on the water, in the office, but when we’re with the family, we turn it off. We just don’t do it.” [CD0617]