By Madeleine Maccar
Like most problem-solvers, Ken “KJ” and Kristie Carter tend to think outside the box. Even before laying the groundwork for their business, the brother-and-sister co-owners of Indianapolis’s Aadvanced Limousines have been no strangers to finding creative solutions to benefit the company they founded in 2005 as well as the people and communities they’ve served over those 14 years.
So what if Kristie’s prom transportation was threatened by a dearth of local limousines? Just buy a 14-passenger stretch Expedition and build a company around it. So what if Kristie’s college experience included studying in Spain while also helping to build their business? Living in the digital age means constant contact despite both owners’ continental divide. So what if, as Ken says, they “came into the industry backward” by planting their flag in retail instead of getting their feet wet with corporate travel?
“If you can meet the demand of 500-plus brides every year, getting a guy to the airport with his newspaper and any other special requests is no problem—each wedding is unique, so we’re used to super-high-touch clients,” Kristie explains. “Starting in the retail market sets you up for success in corporate. Our staff is already well-versed in high-maintenance, soft-touch, no-photos demands, so it’s business as usual even when someone sends us a celebrity client.”
Both Ken and Kristie describe retail work as the roots of the company, so it should come as no surprise that Aadvanced’s fleet of 34 vehicles includes a whopping 14 stretch variations on the Escalade, MKT, and several still-in-high-demand limousines—in addition to a handful of traditional sedans, SUVs, and two Grech buses.
If Aadvanced’s penetration of the local retail market differentiates their approach to doing business, then their wholly open-minded embrace of technology puts them in a league of their own.
From automation to an active, engaged cross-platform social media presence, from back-office software to public-facing blog posts and Facebook videos, both co-owners have been adamant about utilizing technology to benefit their employees, passengers, and the company itself.
“I can’t even tell you how many pieces of technology we have in play today: It’s 30-plus processes, platforms, products, and services that are all integrated and working together, so I would say we have always had an open mind to evolve and adapt to leverage technology to make us a better, more efficient operation,” Ken says. He’s also the primary voice of the Aadvanced blog, where he strives to connect with clients by offering evergreen advice to help them make educated ground transportation decisions.
The Carters (both of whom are ’80s babies) know that they have youth on their side when it comes to utilizing technology almost like a second language. They grew up as early adapters who learned to use and pivot with technology through its limitless iterations, both for personal and professional purposes: Kristie had the advantage of being in college when Facebook was only open to those with an .edu email address, so she learned the ins and outs of the site nearly a decade before the industry began taking reservations over Facebook Messenger—and Aadvanced even had a Myspace business page well before social media became the omnipresent marketing tool it is today. They both believe that advantageous timing has not only helped them stay ahead of industry tech trends but also connect the dots for their peers and clients who aren’t as technologically savvy.
“We were so willing to embrace technology early on because we were so young,” says Kristie. “I couldn’t have been in college at a better time because, as things like Gmail, Facebook, and iPhones were launching, I got to become a pro at them right out of the gate.”
Ken, while fully embracing innovative platforms today, admits that his younger sister had to make a case for it at first—“I can recall the exact conversation Kristie and I had when she said she wanted a website: I was trying to wrap my head around even needing one when I wanted to spend thousands of dollars a month to be in the Yellow Pages, which is why our name is spelled with two Aas, so we could be first in the phone book”—but he was soon convinced.
“We have adapted so many technologies that we used when Kristie and I were first starting and trying to figure this thing out,” Ken adds. “We have taken that same process and bridged the gap with our customers and our affiliates.”
Diminishing the disconnect between people is a recurring theme in the motivations that underscore Aadvanced’s leadership decisions. As Ken and Kristie are both learning to delegate more of the company responsibilities they once shared ownership of, they’re also finding that communication with and among their team is crucial—and much easier to do with all the technology at their disposal these days.
“Since our company’s inception, we’ve pushed to be a little better and a little more cutting edge, and it’s helped us communicate more effectively to keep our circles close,” Ken says. “I think of our company as a solar system: Kristie and I are at the center; the next layer out is our office staff, then the next layer is our mechanics, then our chauffeur team, then our customers. The final layer is the email receipt and the after-ride survey. I think that we have leveraged technology to keep communication connecting all layers of the business.”
"Since our company’s inception, we’ve pushed to be a little better and a little more cutting edge, and it’s helped us communicate more effectively to keep our circles close.” – Ken Carter, Co-owner of Aadvanced Limousines
That metaphorical solar system is cozily nestled in a renovated fire station right off Highway 74 in Indiana’s capital. Indianapolis is recognized as a world city for its importance to the global economic network, and has long been heralded for a racial and ethnic homogeny that fosters a richness and variety in food, entertainment, and local commerce. Its 368 square miles are home to not only an estimated 863,000 people but also everything from the world’s largest children’s museum, the Indianapolis 500, and late writer Kurt Vonnegut to six diverse cultural districts, three Fortune 500 companies, and two major league sports teams.
The thriving Midwest metropolis—also known as The Crossroads of America—enjoys an auspicious location; that, along with its extensive highway system and rail infrastructure makes it a hub for both commercial transportation and personal travel.
And Aadvanced has its fingers on the pulse of its region’s ground transportation needs, though it’s not just about business. Both Ken and Kristie place a premium on giving back to the community they’ve grown up in, with their own humble beginnings never far from their minds as they strive to be helping hands for underprivileged children, struggling veterans, abused animals, youth sports teams, the terminally ill, families of fallen police officers, and more. There is no shortage of worthy causes that tug at the Carters’ heartstrings, and they accommodate as many as they can without rendering themselves in need of some charity, too.
“When it comes to our specialty vehicles, especially the pink stretches, I feel like the amount of donation requests we get is astronomical for such a small business: We probably get five a day, so we could literally run a full-time operation giving away service—which, obviously, isn’t feasible,” says Kristie, whose hands-on experience with nonprofits and charities goes as far back as her college days. “We like to support people who support us. If it’s a regular client’s charity or their daughter’s charity that they really feel passionate about or they booked us to go do that black tie event that’s a huge fundraiser for a charity, we’ll do it.”
"I feel like the amount of donation requests we get is astronomical for such a small business: We probably get five a day … We like to support people who support us.”
– Kristie Carter, Co-owner of Aadvanced Limousines
Beyond donating transportation services, serving as a corporate partner for the likes of Indiana’s Children’s Bureau, working with the statewide youth charity Indy Wish, and Kristie’s pet project of supporting “lots of dog and animal places, because dogs have a soft spot in my heart,” Ken and Kristie are keen on walking the walk by volunteering their own time whenever they can—sometimes in an attempt to offset the over-use of the technology they champion.
“I’m on the board at our local high school,” Kristie says. “Our graduation rate is something that could use a lot of improvement, so I try to reach out to those kids so they can see their potential is limitless if they just put in the effort. Even if I only reach two of the 400 students I’m talking to, it’s worth my time: There are so many who aren’t getting the attention they need because of technology. They’re sitting down with their parents at dinner and their parents are on their phones—or the kids are. It’s fun and exciting that they’re exposed to that technology but at some point there needs to be a cap. They need to be engaged with other people, they need to talk, and they need to care about one another.”
Aside from being personally invested in the city they grew up in, Ken and Kristie were the beating heart of Aadvanced for much of the company’s history, hiring minimal staff to support them and handling everything right on down to jumping in the driver’s seat themselves. But being the public face of the company they also ran had its advantages—some of which had ripple effects that permeated throughout the luxury ground transportation industry itself.
The Carters have been the sole sponsor of the Charity Dinner & Auction at the past three Chauffeur Driven Shows; the beneficiary, WISH for OUR HEROES (W4OH), was first introduced to the Aadvanced team when Kristie used to drive Aadvanced’s clients to the military charity’s fundraising events. After getting to know the W4OH key players through “being there for at least five or six of their events,” she was impressed with not only the range of donations the nonprofit offered active and retired veterans and their families but also how much of the proceeds went directly to those who need it—a staggering 97 percent, which Kristie says is “astonishing in the non-profit world” where CEOs and overhead tend to gobble up a sizeable piece of the pie.
But it was the stories she witnessed that compelled the Carters to advocate putting W4OH in the spotlight at CD’s capstone charity event—which raised more than $385,000 for the nonprofit across three years.
“There’s very little support for your active military members who are overseas right now and their families back home,” Kristie explains. “I got to know the WISH for OUR HEROES guys, the families they help, and the basic necessities that they were meeting. Often those families are displaced while the spouse is deployed, and many more families are living off-base, so they’re far away from their support network—that’s where these guys come in.”
It’s gotten easier for Aadvanced to prioritize community outreach in the past few years, as Ken and Kristie made the decision in 2016 to focus on cultivating their company’s culture, which has empowered their own staff to make decisions like ensuring that a child with cancer not only gets a comped limo ride but is treated to “the works” with balloons, flowers, and all the fanfare a young VIP will never forget.
“I think the most beautiful thing is that we have bred this culture to the point where the staff also wants to go above and beyond for our clients,” Ken says.
“Hire for personality and train for skills” has been the Aadvanced mantra these past couple years, and the success of that approach has let Ken and Kristie become increasingly comfortable when it comes to handing over the responsibilities they have taken primary ownership of throughout their company’s history—even though Ken jokes that “fully letting go might be closer to a 15-year project” for them.
As the Aadvanced team becomes more and more engaged in company decisions while leadership does more to ensure they have a proper work/life balance, the Carters have noticed an auspicious trend: Turnover is at an all-time low while teamwork remains on a steady incline.
“Our turnover is low because of the culture, for sure,” Ken affirms. “But company culture goes deeper than just understanding an employee and their work/life balance needs. It’s easy when you have a staff who understands that their actions impact not only them but also their team. If you breed a strong team culture, everybody understands that we win together and we fail together.”
For that reason, it’s difficult for Ken and Kristie to identify just one standout employee from their team of 50 full- and part-timers who include office staff, chauffeurs, management, detailers, and shop workers.
“This is a job where everybody has to perform every day on all cylinders, or else it directly affects your colleagues,” says Ken. “So they do better work because in an organization our size; this isn’t a job when you can clock in and hide in the back corner and nobody will notice that you’re missing.”
"I think the most beautiful thing is that we have bred this culture to the point where the staff also wants to go above and beyond for our clients.” – Ken Carter
“Everybody plays a vital role in making each other successful,” Kristie agrees. “We’re all so reliant on each other. After a decade—a good, solid decade—of ridiculously long hours and dedication spent building this business we have worked so hard to achieve, we have a strong foundation AND the staff and management to sustain it.”
Both Ken and Kristie have enjoyed the benefits of handing over the reins to their staff, particularly when it comes to the family time it has allowed them to reclaim.
Kristie, who had previously lived at work in the most literal sense—she had a bedroom and an office in Aadvanced HQ—says that she has gone from “living and working for Aadvanced,” to recommitting herself to being the best, most present mom she can be for her and her fiancé Ruben’s three-year-old son Alexander.
“’I want to provide a good life for him but I need to make sure we’re living in the moment,” she says. “Time is flying by. It’s happening so quickly and I want to make sure that I don’t ever look back and think ‘My God, I worked a lot.’ I’m just not willing to forgo that time with my son anymore. I only get so many evenings with him that I want to make sure I’m there every moment I possibly can be.”
"We both still check our phones, check our emails, and are constantly connected. But at some point, you just have to trust the staff and let them do their jobs.” – Kristie Carter
She adds that, given the abundance of professional travel that comes with attending trade events, peer groups, and other work-related trips, her work/life balance goal for 2019 has been “If I have to go, my son’s coming with.”
Meanwhile, Ken and his wife Linda have an 11-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter, allowing them the personal freedom that comes with children who are old enough to start venturing out on their own. When he’s not settling into life beyond the city at their second home, which is affectionately called “the farm”—a country house with horses, plenty of property, and “a lot slower speed than it is here in a 24/7 business”—he’s seasonally working behind the scenes at one of his other businesses, a high-octane haunted house that offers three separate but equally intense indoor attractions.
“House of Trepidation requires a fair amount of attention, especially as we get closer to October,” he says. “We’re in the off-season now so there’s not much going on beyond design ideas happening with pen and paper. But when I’m not focused on Aadvanced, the farm, and the haunted house, I’m pretty much focused on home.”
Looking toward the future sees the brother-and-sister duo keeping their sites set on family, whether that means their flesh and blood, their Aadvanced family, or the community they’ll always remain connected to and invested in because, as Ken says, “charity is in our DNA, that’s just who we are.”
But even as Ken and Kristie make more time for life outside Aadvanced, some things will never change, like their whole-hearted dedication to the company, tireless support of the team who supports them, or determination to deliver the quality of service their clients deserve. Because, even though it was a decade and a half ago, they remember what it’s like to be left in the lurch by sub-par customer service—and will do everything they can to ensure they never put their own passengers through that frustration. And they know it takes a team to reach that level of impeccable service.
“We both still check our phones, check our emails, and are constantly connected,” Kristie says. “But at some point, you just have to trust the staff and let them do their jobs. No one’s going to do it exactly how Ken or I would, but that doesn’t mean our way was the best way. It’s all about making sure that the staff is making choices in the best interest of the business and our customers, and standing by whatever decisions they make.”
“What sets Aadvanced apart is our dedication,” Ken adds. “It’s the fact that you can reach me or Kristie 24/7/365. The fact that if we have a service issue, we won’t hide it: We’ll own it, we’ll fix it, we’ll make it correct. And if you applaud our team, we’ll share it directly with them because they’re a big part of our success.” [CD0619]