BY ROB SMENTEKNot many people have the chance to fulfill their childhood ambition, but Infinity Transportation Founder and President Api Dogan not only lived his dream, he exceeded it.
Like many of his peers and predecessors, Dogan entered the biz for the purest reason possible: He loved cars. As a young man growing up in Ankara, Turkey, he found himself especially transfixed by the glamour and prestige associated with limousines.
“I was always fascinated with limousines,” he says. “I never saw one in person back home. You’d only see them on television. In fact, I would watch TV just to get a glimpse of a limo. When I first came to the U.S. in 1996 and would see one on the street, I’d stop and stare. I just wanted to drive one.”
As a new arrival in the United States, he pounded the proverbial pavement looking for any chance to get behind the wheel. Fortunately, the limo enthusiast found an acquaintance who drove for a firm in Chicago. Dogan got his foot in the door and was set up with an interview.
“I told them that I would drive for free,” Dogan laughs. “When they hired me, I wouldn’t drive a sedan or SUV; I insisted on driving the stretch limousines.”
However, that time behind the wheel of a limousine gave Dogan much more than just the simple satisfaction of driving a luxury vehicle. His experiences as a chauffeur gave him a lesson on the true ins and outs of the business, and it wasn’t long before he saw himself making bigger plans for his career.
“Once I started meeting people in the business, I was able to build my own network. I saw that I could do things better. It was the perfect storm for me to start my own company.”
So, after fulfilling his boyhood dream in less than two years, Dogan took off the chauffeur cap for good.
In 2000, the year Dogan started his fledgling company—then called American One Limo—the Chicago market provided a lot of opportunities for a start-up ground transportation company. The city’s role as a travel hub afforded limousine companies ample work, not to mention its bustling nightlife, sports, and tourism markets. As a result, American One got off to a strong start, showing a profit year in and year out, says Dogan. At least until the 2008 recession hit.
“While we were doing business primarily as a ‘limo company,’ we had been accepting bus bookings and farming them out. However, I decided to become a complete bus service—but solely provide luxury buses with a unique design.”
– Api Dogan, Founder and President of Infinity Transportation
“Every year from our start in 2000 we saw an increase. But in 2008, we had a less-than-one-percent decrease. The economy was falling, so I had to take action immediately. We were doing everything right, but the numbers were showing otherwise.” Seeing the writing on the wall—at least in terms of where the market was heading—Dogan made a drastic change to his business plan: He said good-bye to his beloved limousines, and hello to buses.
“While we were doing business primarily as a ‘limo company,’ we had been accepting bus bookings and farming them out. However, I decided to become a complete bus service—but solely provide luxury buses with a unique design. I realized that when we had a reservation for a 35-passenger trip, we had no choice but to reserve motorcoaches; I wanted to do something in between. So I called Executive Bus Builders and talked to Carter Read, their chief engineer, and asked if they could build a 52-passenger shuttle to my specifications.”
Dogan and EBB worked closely together to develop a vehicle that would suit the operator’s vision of providing a service that would change the perception of buses among his customer base.
“At the time I started getting into bus work, a lot of us in the limo industry really looked down on bus companies,” confesses Dogan, comparing buses to the no-frills option for college students on a budget, not the level of executive transportation that our industry delivered. “We thought they didn’t care about what equipment or engines they used. When we started coming in with our luxury buses, I studied the heavy-duty equipment. I made sure to buy Freightliners with high horsepower and torque. We use 190,000 BTU air conditioning units. Our vehicles were built based on what I felt was lacking when we were farming out work. Now, if you follow the trend, everything has become luxury transportation. It’s completely different than the mentality that existed five years ago.”
Having adopted a new business model and fleet, it was only natural that a change in branding was necessary as well, and thus, in 2014, Infinity Transportation was born. However, a name change was the tip of the iceberg. With the new name came new staff, and Dogan brought aboard a new managing partner to assist in expanding Infinity’s sales reach: his wife, Karla Garza-Dogan.
With a background in finance, Garza-Dogan joined Infinity at a key moment. Her experience in bank management gave Infinity a new approach to its sales, which paid off immediately.
“The banking world was about growing people’s business and showing business owners how to be more profitable,” she says. “So I figured, I had a great tool to bring onboard and share with my husband. As a new company, we needed to reinvent ourselves and do something different. Looking at our competitors, they’ve been in the industry for 30 years, so we’ve worked to develop innovative ways to find new business that makes us stand apart. Also, being certified as a Minority and Women Business Enterprise, we have been able to obtain transportation contracts. This is definitely an edge in attracting more business.”
Once Garza-Dogan took over Infinity’s sales force, she brought aboard another veteran of the banking world, Liz Arnold, to further enhance the sales department. Arnold’s role as vice president of Midwest operations is seen as invaluable by her colleague.
“I feel so comfortable as a business owner that I brought someone on board who understands how to create client loyalty and how to deliver,” says Garza-Dogan. “She has been our key person in terms of sales. We work together to bring in accounts and take the company to the next level.”
Arnold enjoys her position and the challenge of finding a new customer base in a competitive market. “Our focus as a sales team is to kind of find a balance between reactive sales—where we maximize on people who reach out to us and translate calls into more sales—and proactive sales—where we market ourselves and reach out to clients to let them know who we are and what we do.”
“Our perspective is that our chauffeurs are the most important part of the business. They are the ones that are in the field representing our values of customer service and safety.”
– Liz Arnold, VP of Midwest Operations
Operating in a market as big as Chicago certainly presents huge opportunities for a transportation company. With 2.7 million residents, Chicago is the largest city in the Midwestern United States, and third most populous in the country. While often given short shrift in comparison to New York—hence, the town’s moniker of “The Second City”—Chicago is one of the most important business centers in the world with the second-largest central business district in the United States. Among the major corporate players based in the city are Boeing, Kraft Heinz, Allstate, Miller Coors, and Google. Also, McDonalds recently announced plans to move its global HQ to Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood in 2018.
“Chicago is the hub of the transportation industry,” says Dogan. “While New York City does more tourist work, Chicago is the leading city for corporate travel. Large companies are coming in, and there are many conventions and corporate meetings. We enjoy working with the corporate side. I don’t think we could have this size operation in, say, Milwaukee.”
Culturally, Chicago is recognized as a “foodie” paradise, with its world-famous hot dogs, deep dish pizza, and sandwiches attracting hungry eaters from around the globe. The city also has a rich musical history—especially when it comes to jazz and the blues—and is cited as the birthplace of electric blues, house music, and industrial rock. However, Chicago is perhaps best known as the nation’s preeminent sports town with the most loyal hometown fans. The metropolitan area virtually erupted with glee when perennial underdogs, the Cubs, won the 2016 World Series after more than 100 years. The town’s other sports teams include another MLB franchise, 2005 World Series champs the White Sox, 2014-15 NHL Stanley Cup winners, the Blackhawks; legendary 1985 Super Bowl victors, the Bears; and 1990s’ NBA dynasty, the Bulls.
Despite the wealth of prospective business through all the corporate and tourism travel available, operating in Chicago is not without its challenges. Currently, the city is involved in a controversy regarding its perceived favorable treatment of the TNCs. It’s worth noting that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother, Ari, is a major investor in Uber. What’s more is that the city has an enormous amount of regulatory oversite, which makes things difficult for even the most experienced companies.
“Not everyone goes by the book in our market,” says Dogan. “But we insist on following every single federal, state, and local regulation. Also we do not have the contractor/IO model, as it’s not allowed by Department of Labor. All these things—especially having employees on the payroll—increase our costs. Many of the smaller operators in this market don’t do any of those things, and we still have to compete with them. They’ll have a 40-passenger, 10-year old bus with none of the licenses required, and none of the payroll required by the Department of Labor.”
“It’s an infestation in terms of having these people operating when they shouldn’t be,” adds Garza-Dogan. “Obviously, the clients don’t know any better. Liz and I work hard to educate potential clients on the ordinances and how they’re regulated, and how they’d impact them in case anything was to happen.”
“Furthermore, city officials are constantly adding and changing ordinances on bus companies because of companies that are doing things wrong,” says Arnold. “In N.Y. and N.J., there tends to be a lot of politicians advocating on behalf of bus and transportations companies, but here, we’re in the dark. No one supports us.”
Arnold also emphasizes that Chicago is a unique city to navigate—not just politically. The streets are very congested and anyone driving a vehicle requires a keen sense of navigation. She’s thankful for Infinity’s 38 on-staff drivers who make transportation from the burbs to the city, and back again, manageable.
“Our perspective is that our chauffeurs are the most important part of the business. They are the ones that are in the field representing our values of customer service and safety. They create the experience we want to create repeat business.”
Garza-Dogan sees the company’s chauffeurs as vital part of the Infinity customer service process. “We want to create a seamless experience—from sales lead, to closing, to dispatch, to delivery. It’s fundamentally important that our drivers translate that in the most effective way. That’s how we’re going to continue to grow our business.”
In terms of providing excellent service to their customers, the other half of the equation is the fleet. Currently, Infinity has 35 buses, which includes MCI motorcoaches, EBB 42-passenger buses, Berkshire 26-passenger shuttles, a single limobus, not to mention one of the only luxury ADA buses in Chicago. Each of the vehicles has been built to Dogan’s strict specifications.
“First and foremost, the equipment we provide sets us apart from our competitors. The amenities we offer on our buses stand out. Also we provide preventative maintenance on all our vehicles. We have a dedicated team that actively inspects our buses to make sure they’re up to par,” says Garza-Dogan.
“We were one of first companies in our market to have a uniform fleet. From a sales perspective, what sells is the bus. We’ve taken a lot of care to create a luxury experience and a bus that no one has seen before. We want to break that mold of the peoples’ perceptions of what a bus can be. When we did that, other people followed suit.”
While Infinity takes a huge amount of pride in its diverse fleet of luxury buses, there are times when a client may need a sedan. For those instances, Dogan has an exclusive agreement with O’Hare-Midway Worldwide (OML), a well-regarded company that has been providing luxury transportation in the Chicago area for more than 60 years. This arrangement not only allows Dogan to closely regulate the level of service provided to his clients, but also gives OML’s clients access to Infinity’s fleet.
“I met Api about four years ago, when he started his bus company, and we slowly built a personal relationship, says OML COO Dale Schahczinski. “His vision was similar to mine: We were running a parallel track. It made sense to create a relationship. Api had quality equipment and was taking care of my clients. He’s done everything a good partner could do. They’ve come a long way, and have upgraded their drivers, fleet, and office. It’s been perfect.”
Schahczinski, an industry veteran who’s held every possible position at OML during his 35-year tenure with the company, has noticed a change in customer expectations in recent years, largely due to the rise of TNCs. He believes that many, particularly in the retail market, have sacrificed quality in favor of convenience. As such, he’s made it OML’s mission to separate itself from that side of the market because, he says, “there is no substitute for great customer service, and there will always be a market for quality transportation.”
It’s evident from the partnership built with OML that Infinity is interested in fostering loyal relationships, and this extends to their staff as well. Garza-Dogan is firm in her outlook that employees are family, and she makes each member of the team feel valued and respected.
“Our office staff is largely comprised of young professionals,” she says. “It’s new blood, people who have drive and want to grow in a company. I’m not a micromanager. I like for people to do their best. We brainstorm every morning to determine how to conquer the day.”
Arnold points out that the office is managed through the model concept of human sigma. “Our culture is based on keeping employees happy and engaged. We have a culture of recognition, which creates loyalty and heightened production. Everyone is working to that level—and it attracts people. We’re driven and goal-oriented. We share in company pride. And we’re able to see value in a family-owned company.”
While Infinity management holds each member of the team in high regard, Garza-Dogan is quick to mention one exceptional employee. “Our operations manager, Rita Camarillo, has been with Api since he started his car service company. She will tell you that she saw Api as a visionary and she wanted to be part of it. She runs the company and knows all the challenges. We continue to be proud of her. She’s essentially Api’s right hand lady—sort of another personification of him.”
As a company lead by a husband and wife team, it’s logical to wonder if there is ever any disadvantage—or tension—when it comes to sharing a professional and family life.
“There are no disadvantages. He does his thing, and I do mine. There are days we don’t talk or see each other during the day. When people say ‘I don’t know how you can work together,’ I tell them we have a really good dynamic. It works out well. We even have two children who sometimes help. The kids know they have duties. Our oldest son Okan is 8, and Neylan is our 6-year-old girl. We also have a newborn son named Aydin.”
“Had I known that getting my wife involved would have made such a huge difference, I would have done it sooner,” insists Dogan. “I need my wife in my life and work. I can’t do it without her.” [CD1117]