BY SUSAN ROSEMichael Campbell likes to joke that the smart money wasn’t on his success as the new CEO of Grace Limousine, a role he was thrust into in 2009 when he was in his late 20s. Luckily, the gamble paid off.
At the time, Campbell had two young babies in diapers, was still finding his place as the head of his family’s company, and was reeling from the crippling recession that affected the worldwide economy. In eight years, however, he managed to lead the business through a difficult climate while doubling revenue and streamlining operations—and all without laying off a single staff member.
“I had quite a baptism by fire because in my first week as CEO, I had to sell two vehicles to make payroll and I had to break it to the staff that we were temporarily cutting benefits,” he says. “I was able to give those benefits back within a few years.”
Before joining the family business, Campbell was already cultivating a career in sales for a computer components company when his father asked him to come work for the company full time. Ian Campbell, a proud Scotsman and former Marine, had founded New Hampshire-based Grace Limousine in 1990, less than 50 miles north of Boston, and often worked 20-hour days seven days a week to nurture the business over nearly two decades.
“He asked me during a game of pool one night. He had been sick at this point, and so I took this time to learn as much about running the business from him as I could,” he says. The family patriarch left the company in December 2008 and succumbed to his illness that following March.
Campbell, who says he always knew he was on the CEO trajectory, had a bumpy start. Still dealing with the heaviness of losing his father and mentor while also keeping a financially wounded company afloat, he did one of the smartest things he could as a newly minted CEO: He asked for help.
“I wanted this role—it was an opportunity and a privilege—but I didn’t yet have those skills to manage people. I had the sales chops, but people management was a different story. It was almost in desperation that I reached out to Tom Mazza that summer,” he recalls. Mazza, the industry’s leading consultant at the time, helped countless operators and was a well-known facilitator of 20 groups.
“Tom Mazza picked me up, set me on the right path, and invited me to join one of his groups where I made some of my first friends in the industry—relationships that continue today without exception,” says Campbell.
One of the company’s best assets was the “insanely strong core of a family business,” according to Campbell. He and his six siblings—with 21 years between the oldest and youngest—all worked in the business at some point as kids; after their father’s passing, they wanted to honor the legacy of what he had created.
“My father didn’t know how to fail”, he says. “Before he founded Grace, he had a booming wallpaper and painting business in the ’80s—until the market crashed in the second half of ’89. He liquidated what he could, got a small loan to supplement, and used it to purchase a Grand Marquis sedan and six-passenger limousine. One of the many things that my dad and I had in common is that we bounced back pretty quickly; we never stayed down for long.”
“Tom Mazza picked me up, set me on the right path, and invited me to join one of his groups where I made some of my first friends in the industry—relationships that continue today without exception.”
– Michael Campbell, CEO of Grace Limousine
The elder Campbell passed on more than a company; he also imbued his children with his voracious work ethic. Two of Campbell’s siblings also joined the company full time: His sister Heather, now operations manager, had her own business and was helping out where she could, and his older brother Geoff, a detailer at the time, stepped up to run the fleet. The youngest, Joseph and Isaac, were both teenagers in ’09 but would eventually take on responsibilities as a detailer and lead reservationist, respectively. Their 90-year-old grandfather, affectionately known as “Papa John,” also puts in time at Grace, often spearheading supply runs providing support for the day-to-day facility needs. You may recognize Papa John from his internet fame when a video of him doing over 20 push-ups to raise veteran suicide awareness featured on Grace’s Facebook page went viral in 2016. Campbell says that they all naturally fell into their roles, and surprisingly, with very little sibling rivalry or disagreements among them.
“I don’t think we’ve had a bad day,” Campbell says about working with his siblings. “We all have a strong work ethic, are proud individuals, and have that drive to honor the legacy of this business. Heather really enjoys managing people, and Geoff is mechanically inclined and likes working with his hands. We all really do have our own skillsets, and there’s not a lot of overlap that causes conflict.”
Within a few years, the company was again stable and, more importantly, it was growing, in part because of its close proximity to Boston (about 80 percent of its trips are in or around Beantown). The company is located in Southern New Hampshire in the state’s largest city of Manchester, a burgeoning community in its own right. Consistently rated as one of the best small cities to launch a company by several finance publications, its location is prime for small businesses to thrive thanks to a low tax rate and no state sales tax. Campbell says that it allows them to be a bit sharper on their price point, although it is hardly a low-cost service and never has been.
“My father didn’t know how to fail ... One of the many things that my dad and I had in common is that we bounced back pretty quickly; we never stayed down for long.”
– Michael Campbell
With fresh eyes, Campbell set out to identify areas of growth and cost savings. In the past five years, he’s made a push to increase his affiliate partnerships—based on client needs—to send work outside his New England locale. He also wanted pursue more predictable revenue, which he found with retail and shuttle work.
“Shuttle routes have been a game-changer for us, and are currently about 15 percent of our business. It’s predictable work for predictable pay that brings a balance to the business,” which he says is often lacking with less profitable trips like airport transfers. Corporate business is the majority of Grace’s clients, but the hourly rates that retail work garners through weddings, proms, and even funerals, is also a nice addition to the bottom line.
Grace won its first major shuttle contract through the state about six years ago during the reconstruction of a heavily used pedestrian bridge. That work led to several other contracts, now which include university routes and a commuter shuttle between Boston and New Hampshire, among others. Minibuses, ranging from 36-passenger shuttles to 14-passenger Ford Transits, have become a tangibly profitable portion of Grace’s fleet—and motorcoaches may be next.
He spent a good amount of time “right sizing” his fleet so that his vehicles were optimized for profitability. When he took over Grace, there were 40 vehicles in the fleet. Today, the company runs 42 vehicles but with a higher total revenue per each, with everything from the standard SUVs and sedans to party buses and a classic 1956 Rolls-Royce.
“In our industry, if we hit profit margins of 10 percent, that’s an amazing year. But those low margins are unheard of in most of the business world, and I had really looked over all areas of our operation to find those cost savings,” he says. Once looking, he found plenty, he says. One of the first opportunities identified was raising rates with current clients, and holding firm on affiliate pricing. He said that he had to alter his affiliate strategy because, while grateful for the work, the relationship wasn’t always mutually advantageous from a financial standpoint—and was more often than not costing him money. The result is quality partnerships and a healthier profit margin that benefits everyone.
Campbell also ended the industry trend of giving away 15 minutes of free wait time, of which clients would take full advantage. “We stopped giving clients that wait time and charged by the minute of arrival. And none of our clients outside the industry complained about it: It wasn’t weird to them that we were charging from the time on-site as opposed to when they got in the vehicle. I think we came up with some interesting and profit-enhancing solutions, and I still don’t understand why more of the industry isn’t taking that lead.”
Company growth, however, was taking a toll on Campbell, and it wasn’t long until he realized that something needed to change. “My quality of life was terrible,” he says. “I was working several 4 a.m. shifts per week, handling dispatch and everything else that came up, and had two young kids at home. It was just a constant struggle for the first several years. I had gone from being a physically fit, active individual to just being drained and grinding through week after week.” It was by chance that he was chatting with a longtime friend, Kristen Carroll, an experienced HR and operations consultant, about what he was going through and she offered her assistance. Carroll joined Grace full time as Executive Director in late 2012, and together they embarked on a total company transformation.
“We all have a strong work ethic, are proud individuals, and have that drive to honor the legacy of this business.”
– Michael Campbell
“When Kristen joined Grace, she asked me what I wanted personally and I told her I didn’t want to be boring anymore,” he says. “I had turned into a person I would never want to associate with: I was working myself to death and didn’t have any balance at all. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were under-staffed. We had 80 employees and no other management staff to assist.”
Over the next two years, Carroll helped Campbell identify areas that needed the most immediate attention. They tackled human resources policies and moved toward becoming a paperless office right off the bat.
“We had gone from a family-owned company to a big business but we still operated like a little family business. We had a lot of room for growth. Our hiring process wasn’t what it was supposed to be: We got by but Kristen helped us make it better because she had the experience that we needed. We were run almost entirely on paper, but we changed over to LimoAnywhere and became nearly paperless. She gave us some input on cleaning up sales and focusing our marketing. Across the board, she encouraged us achieve a new level of professionalism.”
He also had to learn some personal lessons along the way when it came to hiring. Like most managers, he traditionally opted to employ people like himself, which often worked but more often meant he was hiring a “yes man.” While easier to work with for sure, he found that surrounding himself with those who never challenged him led to stymied growth or static opinions.
Grace’s foundation was rock-solid, however, since its first employees joined the team. Ian Campbell was a one-man show until he convinced chauffeurs Myron Greene and Mark Skiathitis to take a chance on his fledgling service. They did and are still with the company nearly 30 years later.
“My dad told them that if they joined at the ground level, within two years they would have full benefits. He kept that promise, and we’ve made good ever since. We were lucky that my dad’s first two hires were impeccable, service-driven individuals by nature. They just wowed customers.”
“We had gone from a family-owned company to a big business but we still operated like a little family business.”
– Michael Campbell
Myron Greene has also been a bit of a Grace celebrity due in large part to his striking resemblance to James Bond actor Roger Moore. He’s affectionately known as “007” by the team and Grace clients alike.
Benefits have been a part of the Grace package for as long as Campbell can remember, and they have expanded over the years to include paid time off, long- and short-term disability, life insurance, retirement plans, and dental. Until two years ago, health insurance was offered but Campbell found that the Affordable Care Act offerings in New Hampshire provided lower costs and more comprehensive coverage to the vast majority of his team—better than anything he could offer at twice the price.
“We’ve always looked long term in how we hire, retain, and train staff, especially our chauffeurs. We’ve consistently paid our chauffeurs higher wages, and that is on purpose: It allows us to attract and retain only the best. From the day my father started this company, he wanted career chauffeurs.”
The team of chauffeurs and drivers stands at more than 60, which includes two instructors. In fact, Jim Stewart and Jen Goulet have been with the company more than 20 years and handle all of the training for new and seasoned chauffeurs, using a modified module based on the Smith System.
Acquisitions, one of the industry’s hottest trends, have also fueled Grace’s growth, and Campbell has completed four in his term as CEO. Most were smaller companies with owners looking to exit the industry, with one notable exception.
“I had worked with Sheri Barnes of Avante Limousine and Transportation for years before we discussed the purchase of her company. I told her that I only had one condition: that she stay on and work with us. She did and is now our finance manager. We were thrilled to have them on board.”
Several years ago, Carroll founded an industry-focused professional management company, The LMC Group, but her impact on the company—and Campbell—was lasting. The office staff increased to 12 with the addition of employees like Lucas Dionne, who handles sales and affiliate work, and Rae Pierson, event coordinator. Campbell’s younger brother Isaac, whom he calls a “master of spreadsheets,” took the lead with key client management in the reservations department. Best of all, Campbell was able to break away from the office and spend more time for his sons Ian, 9, and Evan, 8.
“They are the most amazing little dudes in the world,” he says. His oldest, Ian, is very interested in his father’s business and they often chat about all aspects of operations—when he’s not busy planning his career as an astronaut. Evan, on the other hand, says that he wants to split his time between detailing cars, being a professional musician, and playing basketball. Hey, the kids are Campbells; they dream big.
Campbell was able to find that equilibrium he felt was missing with his personal health goals. If you think Papa John is the only athlete in the Campbell family, you’d be very wrong. While the entire family enjoys all kinds of active pursuits, Campbell has been particularly interested in mixed martial arts over the years and is back in training—although he’s “still” smaller than his big brother Geoff. He’s an avid cook and can often be found manning the grill during company BBQs. Campbell also plays softball and all kinds of outdoor activities with and without the rest of the clan. Despite spending so much time together at the office, the siblings will often plan their free time with each other on vacations, as Campbell says that they are “all best friends.”
The residual effects have been beneficial to other members of the family as well. Both Geoff and Heather have young children but have also struck that balance that so many find elusive in this around-the-clock industry.
“Heather has work-life balance on lock: She comes in four days a week, but she dedicates her home time to her family,” says Campbell. “Geoff is a single father and is a ‘super dad’ in my book. He’s always done what he’s had to do, and he is a marvel to watch as a father. We had pretty good modeling when we were growing up.”
Relationships within the industry have been integral to Campbell and his continued success. He joined the board of the NLA in 2012, which has expanded his professional growth by working with “the best leaders in the industry,” he says—although being a board member is a lot of work that he says is worth the investment. Additionally, he’s nurtured several important friendships with those he would also consider mentors.
“Mark Mollica of Black Tie Transportation was a terrific role model when I was trying to find my place: He’s just a guy who does everything right and a really good person to emulate,” he says. “Scott Solombrino of Dav El/BostonCoach has been an incredible friend and mentor. His friendship extends into my personal life and I’m certainly a heck of a lot better because of it. Brett Barenholtz of Boston Car has also been a great friend. He’s become one of my closest friends in the industry, and we try to grab lunch every chance we get.”
In 2015, Campbell added a new title to his CV: Grace Limousine owner. Upon the death of his father, the company moved into a family trust, and he purchased it outright in 2015.
Campbell has certainly become one of our industry’s rising stars—and a lot less “boring” one at that. A CEO at 29 and a company owner before his 40th birthday, he has grown into a seasoned veteran who has successfully navigated a recession and overcome growing pains all within less than a decade, with the assistance and backing of his siblings, of course. He’s been faithful to his father’s legacy while still being able to make his own mark on the 27-year-old company. It’s safe to say that his father would be proud. [CD0917]