In NorCal, Gary and Jennifer Buffo guide their company and the industry with a message of perseverance and unity.
Gary Buffo doesn’t like to sit still. For all the grandeur and beauty that his home state of California begs people to observe—the beach, the mountains, the desert—Buffo feels a pull to keep moving. “It’s nice to sit on the beach with the wind in your hair, but I’d have to get out and ride my bike before I do that. I always want to be moving and doing something,” says the founder and president of Pure Luxury Transportation.
In fact, he spends almost four months out of the year traveling for industry purposes, but this particular evening finds Buffo at home with his newly rescued German shepherd whom he says is “the best dog” he’s ever had. It’s a setting he might possibly see more of as his (final) term as NLA president winds down (more on that later), but don’t be fooled: He’s not ready to slow down yet.
Moving is something Buffo did a lot of growing up, living in 18 different homes in 18 years, mostly in the East Bay, a working community east of San Francisco. Despite being bounced around the area, Buffo and his entrepreneurial spirit found their footing early on.
He started working when he was 14, first in an Italian restaurant and then a pizza shop. Buffo fell in love with the pizza business and, while applying for colleges, he researched four different franchises, one of which had a location close enough to Sonoma State, where he planned to attend. At age 17, with his parents’ help, Buffo bought the restaurant.
Sometime later, Buffo was offered a chance to help drive for a new transportation company on a handshake deal, he says, and, over the next six months, that company went from one vehicle to four. It seemed like an easy industry—better hours than the 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. grind of slinging pizza—so he sold the restaurant and tried to become a partner in the limo company. When a deal couldn’t be struck, Buffo practically got on the next flight to Anaheim and walked into the former Krystal Enterprises. It was there where he first met owner Ed Grech, beginning a relationship that’s continued for almost 30 years. Buffo bought a car from the lot and then drove home overnight, on no sleep, without a license or the insurance to operate the vehicle.
“I drove right back to that limo operator and said, ‘Now I’m going to be your competition,’” he reveals. “I had no company name, nothing, and I was shaking like crazy and nervous. I did something out of spite, but after I slept for a few hours, I woke up and wrote a mission statement.”
Once he got the proper operating authority, Buffo just needed one customer to know he’d be successful. Without even a company name, he booked a 40th birthday party for a group of girlfriends. He spent the day prepping to create an experience comparable to a multi-course meal for the passengers—changing the colors, food, and drinks each time they got back into the vehicle on their night out. At the end of the evening, Buffo told the client he wanted to call the company Luxury Limousines.
“She said, ‘No, no ... this is pure luxury.’ And that became the name. I wanted to be a brand,” he says. “Just like the Big Mac is the same no matter what country you’re in, I wanted to be the Big Mac, the brand people recognize.” Buffo still knows that first client to this day.
“I wanted to be a brand. Just like the Big Mac is the same no matter what country you’re in, I wanted to be the Big Mac, the brand people recognize." — Gary Buffo, founder & president of Pure Luxury TransportationBack in 1991, as Pure Luxury was getting off the ground, the Yellow Pages was the place to advertise, but it wasn’t cheap. Buffo took out the biggest ad in the section of limousine companies, of which there were 36 total at the time, and was excited when the book hit his front porch. Oddly enough, the phone soon rang and it was a competitor on the other end, asking to meet and talk shop. Buffo continued to make connections and friendships among his industry peers—one competitor was even in Buffo’s wedding. Within a year, Pure Luxury grew from one to four vehicles, then to eight, then to 12, and 16, all while the number of companies in the Yellow Pages shrunk.
“We were out there selling business everywhere,” he says. “By 2001, we were at 60-plus vehicles. We had been experiencing exponential growth year over year. We were working in three primary markets: banking, dot-com, and tourism. Ninety-nine percent of our business was in those three industries.”
However, having all those eggs in so few baskets spelled trouble. On September 10, 2001, Pure Luxury was preparing for its busiest week in company history with every person on staff anticipating long days.
“We didn’t even have everything covered—we were still calling companies for vehicles,” Buffo recalls. “Then around 6:00 a.m. on 9/11, I get a call from my dad asking if I was watching the news. I turned it on just in time to see the second plane hitting the tower. We had a large group in New York City that day. I went to the office and literally paced back and forth.”
Buffo recalls probably his best dispatcher ever, Mike Nohgli, fielding a barrage of calls that day, mostly all cancellations. “I didn’t know what to do. I paced for 13 hours. In one day, 85 percent of our business was gone,” he says. “I started thinking, all my friends are cops, maybe I should just become one.”
He had to admit that his business might not survive. “I didn’t realize at the time that the makeup of our business was a disaster. It made for a perfect storm—tourists were gone, the dot-com bubble burst, the banking fiasco. I could have lost 99 percent overnight,” he says. So, he signed up for the police academy and worked full-time for the Petaluma Police Department from 2002 to 2008, while his wife Jennifer took to the helm of Pure Luxury.
“We were out there selling business everywhere. By 2001, we were at 60-plus vehicles. We had been experiencing exponential growth year over year." — Gary Buffo“I couldn’t focus on the business at all. There are things you don’t think about when becoming a cop. It’s 60-80 hours a week, and if you’re not on duty, then you’re in court—traffic court, domestic court,” he says.
In 2005, Pure Luxury was in a financial hole, and essentially broke. Buffo looked at all the financial reports and even if they tapped out 26 vehicles, it still wouldn’t be enough to make a debt payment. But he had an unconventional strategy after realizing that the company would have to grow in order to compete—and survive. “I said we needed to buy four more vehicles and they laughed, but we got the financing from Ford-Lincoln, and in the next month we turned a profit and made a debt payment. From 2006 to the present, we’ve experienced double-digit growth every single year,” he says.
By then, Buffo was back on board full-time with Pure Luxury, controlling the financials while Jennifer concentrated on sales and marketing. During this time, they rewrote the business plan, staying away from industries that would be most impacted by a recession or depression, or in their particular instance in California, industries susceptible to climate disasters. “If all you do is wine tours and half of wine country burns down, you don’t have a business,” he says. “It’s harder to come back from something like that.”
Pure Luxury sure did make a comeback, though, growing to just under 170 vehicles with four locations in Northern California, including Sonoma Wine Country (the main headquarters), Napa Valley, Foster City, and Hayward. Spanning the diverse clientele needs across Sonoma and Napa counties and the San Francisco area requires having vehicles strategically placed to save on labor, fuel, and wear and tear, Buffo says. And of course, the vehicles themselves must be just as diverse, from luxury BMW sedans and Mercedes-Benz Sprinters to Grech shuttle buses and 56-passenger motorcoaches.
This region’s economy ranges from technology and venture capitalism—Silicon Valley is here, after all—to clean power and finance. California itself is the most-visited state in the U.S. and has the fifth largest economy in the world. Buffo affirms the weather as perfect nearly year round, but he says it comes at a cost. “We get hit hard on taxes, fuel is always a dollar more than the most expensive in any other state, and the cost of living is skyrocketing, which makes it harder to hire staff, partly due to the technology industry,” he says.
But for a state that isn’t lacking in tourism and business, it is challenged by issues of homelessness and immigration. “These are two major issues for California,” Buffo says. “I’m involved in other local associations, and we’re attempting to help the state evaluate the homelessness problem, but immigration has to be figured out. Immigration is absolutely vital to the economic outcome of California.”
This couldn’t be more important than in wine country, the world-renowned region of Northern California’s Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, and Solano counties. In 1975, a mere 25 wineries existed in this region. Today, more than 400 of them accept millions of visitors annually. “The wine industry would not exist without immigrants who come and farm the fields,” Buffo says.
It’s more than a political issue to him, it’s personal. Wine tours are a substantial amount of Pure Luxury’s business. Buffo says Pure Luxury transported 3.5 million people in wine country, out of the 100 million who visit annually. “While our clients make up a small percentage of tourists in the area, they spend more money in wine country than the other 95 percent,” he says.
“I’m a professional. We don’t cater to people who want to get drunk, so now we interview our clients first and if they don’t fit our profile, we’ll recommend them to another company. This has earned us a lot of respect in wine country." — Gary BuffoThe company’s wine excursions aren’t your run-of-the-mill tour—they are strategic and experiential. Buffo doesn’t do the hop-on, hop-off type of transportation. “We focus on creating an experience that will resonate with our clientele, who are completely different than the average person who visits wine country. It’s 100 percent about making sure the person never forgets their experience, and we have exclusive tours that are not available to the general public and packages that are not even public knowledge,” he says.
His wine tour mentality was influenced by the first one he ever did. Buffo recounts the story of a bachelor party that started their trip around 10 a.m. “One of the guys handed me a camera and asked me to [come back] in a few minutes and take a picture. I walked in, and the guys were standing at the counter without pants on. They set it up to be funny, but that moment changed the direction of what I wanted my business to be. That wasn’t me; I’m a professional. We don’t cater to people who want to get drunk, so now we interview our clients first and if they don’t fit our profile, we’ll recommend them to another company,” he says. “This has earned us a lot of respect in wine country. Wineries see our vehicles, they know our brand, and they know our chauffeurs are trained and vetted.”
Chauffeurs are a crucial element to maintaining Pure Luxury’s brand identity. Buffo says his company’s is probably one of the lengthiest training programs in the industry. After 9/11, he reinvested in the chauffeur program, reaffirming that their success would equate to the company’s success.
“Our chauffeurs don’t pay for anything,” he says. “We reimburse them for their uniforms, including dry cleaning. They have 401k and medical insurance—the best money can buy. It’s costly to our company. I could make more money but I’m not the guy getting up at 3 a.m. for a pickup.”
He controls liability by hiring those who are the most adaptable to the company’s methods, including being a docent. “Clients might not like to talk that much, but if someone asks about the Golden Gate Bridge or a certain grape, the chauffeur better know the answer,” he says. “We also train on certain parameters of dealing with high-end properties. Some of them want buses in one area and sedans in another. Everyone needs to know the difference because one mistake could mean a damaged relationship.”
He encourages communication. “If you bumped a wall, you have to say so. I won’t make you pay for it, but if it happens a second or third time, you won’t be working here because those tiny bumps are bound to add up to a big collision,” Buffo says.
The average tenure is eight years, and Pure Luxury’s longest serving chauffeur has been there for 20. “This job isn’t for everybody, but others do it and love it. It’s their career. They don’t care what time of day it is, they just want to drive,” Buffo says.
The company has not lost anyone to TNCs, but did make a marketing push to hire people away from Uber and Lyft. “We had 22 applicants in the first week, all with the same story about how they aren’t making money and their car needs maintenance, but the TNC won’t pay for it. However, part of our process here is drug testing: We sent all 22 applicants’ tests out and 21 out of 22 failed.”
Needless to say, Pure Luxury won’t be targeting that population anymore.
From the top down, everyone at the company plays a role in making it successful. Jennifer, who began in the accounting department and is now COO, met Buffo in 1992 and has been at the forefront of the business ever since. Buffo calls her “one of the most intelligent marketing people on the planet,” adding that she knows what to go after and where to find it. “She makes things happen.”
Tricia Rivera, accounting manager, started as a chauffeur 23 years ago. “She’s a rock star. She does more work on a daily basis than three or four people,” Buffo says. “She gets stuff done, and she’s not only an employee, but a dear friend. She’s like a sister to me and awesome to be around.”
Director of Operations John Byers brought a corporate mentality from his previous position at Hertz, and has helped redefine the structure of Pure Luxury. Eddie Salinas, an industry veteran, has been with Buffo for 11 years now, managing the fleet department.
Another valued Pure Luxury veteran is Affiliate Manager Gina Rodriquez-Gross, who has worked in nearly every department during her 12-year tenure with the company. “She is one of the most loyal staff members we’ve ever had,” says Buffo. “She knows all aspects of the business.” Buffo could go on and on about his team. “There are so many people who do so much on a daily basis. I don’t want to miss someone. The biggest thing we can do as a company is make sure our staff from the ground up engages in our core values, and we’re fortunate that they all do,” he says.
Calif. Having a solid foundation of people in the company has allowed Buffo to be active in industry associations, which does pull him away from the business frequently. He sits on a dozen boards, including Visit California, Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, and Visit Napa Valley, and his wife sits on a half-dozen, such as Sonoma County Tourism Board, Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and Sonoma County Vintners and Growers, but the National Limousine Association has been Buffo’s biggest responsibility for seven years as its president. Buffo joined the NLA in 1996, and immediately wished he would have done it sooner.
“I always said I couldn’t afford it. But if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford not to do it,” he says. “A lot of people think it’s not valuable if they only have five cars, but guess what? Those small operators are the ones who are going to take care of my customers as if they were Pure Luxury. And now that five-car operator has a global network he can sell to his clients.”
“Our chauffeurs don’t pay for anything. We reimburse them for their uniforms, including dry cleaning. They have 401k and medical insurance—the best money can buy. It’s costly to our company. I could make more money but I’m not the guy getting up at 3 a.m. for a pickup. — Gary BuffoHe was first affected by the experience at the annual Day on the Hill event. “That was the biggest return on investment for me, sitting with my senator and representatives one on one. I didn’t know the NLA could arrange that,” Buffo says. That was his motivation to become a member.
Becoming president was his chance to give back to the organization that gave him so much, and Buffo says he sees a changing tide both in the association itself, thanks to a new managing partnership with Chauffeur Driven that he says is a “better way to unify the industry,” and the response from the Hill on industry issues.
“This past Day on the Hill was the best we ever had by far,” he says. “Congress and Senate are getting fed up with what’s going on and a handful of them are seeing that it’s not a level playing field [between us and the TNCs].” There are avenues to pursue, such as having companies that participate in the “gig” economy classify their drivers as employees, which would mean they would have to cover everything that chauffeured transportation companies cover. “Many of these companies are public now and they have to be held accountable,” Buffo says. “That may not be the win we’re looking for, but there’s a win somewhere.”
While he is proud of the years he has invested in NLA leadership, Buffo says it’s time to put his attention back on Pure Luxury. “We’ve been on this great trajectory for so long, I don’t want the train to slow down,” he says. “Next year we’re bringing on a dozen or more new clients with extremely large contracts and we need to have the infrastructure in place. I have to be there helping out and monitoring this expansion.”
For this next stage of growth, Buffo knows he’ll tap the relationships he’s built through 28 years in the industry, both on the manufacturing and operator side. From the time he purchased his first vehicle with Krystal, Buffo has known Ed Grech, now founder and CEO of Grech Motors. But when Grech initially left the industry, Buffo says he was upset. “It was tough for me. I went to another bus manufacturer and we started hating the bus business; we felt the buses weren’t representing us,” he says. When Grech came back in, he called Buffo and asked for a meeting.
“I sat with him for more than three hours and he listened to me complain ... he really took a beating from me. But he told me straight up he was going to create the best bus manufacturing company on the planet and nothing would happen again. He gave me his personal cellphone number and said if there was ever anything I needed for the NLA, he would be there for me,” says Buffo.
“I’ve become his largest client and I respect how much he has done for the industry. He understands our business because he makes sure every one of his customers is successful,” Buffo continues. “It took Ed a long time to earn my business back, but he has been a man of his word. He backs up his product and has been the largest financial supporter of the NLA. How could I not do business with him?”
His friendships invigorate him and keep him passionate about the business. “I love going on trips with groups and talking things out, learning and teaching,” he says. “One of my best friends is Robert Alexander. I’ve learned more from him in eight years than in my 28 years in this business. Having a guy like that who has been through what you’ve been through and to reach out to any time is priceless.” Dawson Rutter is another friend that Buffo says he can call 24/7 and knows will answer.
“Once I’m focusing back on my company, these are the relationships I want to build. Helping people makes the industry stronger,” he says.
When Buffo finds himself with the rare opportunity to relax, he has chosen hobbies that are fitting for someone who admittedly has difficulty sitting still. Back in 2014, he started occasionally biking to unwind, but eventually he found a real passion for it. Jennifer says it’s common for him to hop on his bike to explore the many trails and roads in Wine Country when he’s not working. But the roads aren’t the only place he likes exploring. In 2015, Buffo started taking flying lessons, eventually getting a pilot’s license. After buying a single-engine Cirrus plane in 2017, he began flying himself to industry meetings and events in the California region.
He’s looking forward to what the next five to 10 years will bring. His children, Brianna, 23, and Garrett, 20, were brought up in the “chaos” and do pitch in part-time in the business, but the family’s deal is that they can’t come work for Pure Luxury for one year after college. “They have to go out and try something different. Hopefully they’ll be smarter than us and pick a lucrative career that doesn’t require these hours, but maybe one of them will end up wanting to be a part of this. They understand the nature of the business, and it’s treated them well with vacations, but there was always a struggle of 20-hour days, coming home and checking emails,” Buffo says.
Brianna graduated from CU Boulder with a degree in Strategic Communications, and is currently working for a PR firm in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Garrett is planning to graduate from Chico State University in 2021 with a degree in Business Finance.
As the next generation of operators starts to come up, you won’t find Buffo sitting around sipping wine—he’s more of an IPA guy anyway. He hopes to spread a message of unity by encouraging NLA membership. “The industry has been held back by the divisions within. Unification is what will make us stronger,” he says. “I will continue to attend education sessions, meet new people and grow. I will be there to lend an ear to the new person who needs help. Together, that’s how we’ll make sure the industry survives and prospers into the future.” [CD0819]