Four years after a successful merger, Brett Barenholtz and Kevin Cronin are surpassing goals and staying focused on the future.
In life, it’s not always easy to admit that you can’t do it all, and perhaps even more so for those who run a business. After building it up with your own blood, sweat, and tears, the company’s growth can be hard to keep up with, yet you don’t want to let anyone down. It’s a turning point becoming more common in the industry.
In 2015, two Boston operators found themselves in that predicament. “I had already recognized that a sea change was coming. If we didn’t become a one-stop shop for clientele, we wouldn’t survive another 10 years,” says Kevin Cronin, founder of Above All Transportation.
“I was sending Kevin all of my big equipment requests because we only had sedans and SUVs, but it was becoming clear that there would be more opportunity for growth in the bus industry,” says Brett Barenholtz, founder of Boston Car Service. “We saw two halves and it made more sense to be one whole provider.”
And so the two companies merged, becoming what Cronin calls a “superstore” for the chauffeured ground transportation industry. Their fleet immediately became more diverse, featuring more than 75 vehicles ranging from sedans, SUVs, limo buses, Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, vans, shuttle buses, and motorcoaches, not to mention high-end BMWs from Boston Car’s fleet and a classic, wedding favorite trolley from Above All.
"I had already recognized that a sea change was coming. If we didn’t become a one-stop shop for clientele, we wouldn’t survive another 10 years."The merger also worked out on an operational level, allowing each owner to concentrate on their strengths of running a business. “Instead of wearing 20 hats as an owner, now we were only wearing 10 because of the merger,” says Barenholtz. “There are certain things Kevin does exceptionally well and other things I’m better at. Together, we make a good team.”
– Kevin Cronin, Founder of Above All Transportation
As CEO, Barenholtz focuses on sales, marketing, and expanding the company’s footprint nationwide. Cronin, president, oversees operations.
The merger’s benefits were realized almost immediately. Within the first year they outgrew their office space at Above All’s Canton, Mass., location, though finding a new spot wasn’t easy in Boston’s expensive real estate market. “It took about another year to find a larger and more professional office space, but we needed it to keep growing,” says Barenholtz.
“When we got together, we had a five-year, seven-year, and 10-year plan,” he continues. “In less than four years, we’ve surpassed our seven-year goals. That has made us more ambitious to move the goalposts farther down. We’re in this for the long run. We’re not trying to build up and get out. We’re figuring out ways to increase what we’re doing and we’re on an aggressive path.”
Above All/Boston Car is largely going after group work and over-the-road work with motorcoaches. RFPs are now a regular part of Barenholtz’s responsibilities. “This segment is growing, but it’s somewhat difficult because you have to learn about markets all over the country and you’re competing against people who know those markets. In some areas, one price is cheap and in others you just can’t touch what people are coming in at. Other times, we pick up things we didn’t think we had a chance at,” he says.
The company is exploring new verticals for business and admits there is a learning curve to some of it. “We thought we knew the bus and shuttle business, but when you get into motorcoaches, it’s like you’re a freshman again,” says Barenholtz. “We have farmed out coach work over the years, but now we are learning the market and we like what we’re seeing. There’s a whole bunch of opportunity out there.”
Among the things they are considering are non-emergency medical and paratransit. “With the country and population getting older, we’re looking into these. If there is an avenue that will be a profitable way to grow, we’re looking at it,” he says.
Equipment makes all the difference and the merger has given them better purchasing power. “In this industry, everything you buy ends up disposable a few years later—except for motorcoaches—so you end up cycling through things,” Barenholtz says. “You have to put out the right equipment for passengers.”
While Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and Van Terras are a core component of their fleet, Barenholtz says they are sold on Grech for corporate shuttles, and they are happy with the improvements made to Ford Transits, which they are starting to buy more of now.
“We try to make sure we have our own vehicles and our own chauffeurs handling big events and things of that nature, but sometimes we do have to call on our local partners,” says Barenholtz. “We’re in a competitive market, but we get along with our neighbors and enjoy a mutual respect. There’s no reason for us to own 200 vehicles for the three or four times a year that we need them.”
Competition is only getting hotter thanks to Boston’s booming economy, says Barenholtz. Both he and Cronin have lived in the area all their lives and have witnessed the changes along the way. They highlight the redevelopment in the city’s Seaport District (which also happens to be the location of the CD/NLA Show this October) that has brought life to a formerly dead section of town. Now, sleek restaurants, bars, hotels, art galleries, and even an outdoor concert venue offer entertainment along the pier—all of which attract high-end clients and tourists alike.
The city has a mix of industries, including bio tech, financial services, and pharmaceuticals. Its status in the world of higher education is hard to match, with nearly 300,000 students filtering into Boston every fall, no matter the economy. Then there’s tourism for every interest, whether it’s Colonial-era history, or cinephiles checking out familiar scenery from films like Good Will Hunting or Mystic River. And one simply can’t talk about Boston without mentioning sports. The New England Patriots’ unprecedented playoff and championship appearances bring an influx of sports fans every year, says Barenholtz, and the Boston Red Sox are a quintessential piece of America’s pastime that attracts fans whether the team is winning or losing.
In all, upwards of 21 million tourists come through the Boston area annually. Above All/Boston Car shares good relationships with touring companies and DMCs. “They are starting to lean on us more and they like how we handle groups,” Barenholtz continues.
It would be a perfect market if it weren’t for the traffic and the winter weather. “Just like every other city, the traffic is horrendous,” says Barenholtz. “You used to be able to make a quick lap from Logan, but now it’s bumper to bumper. Sometimes I wonder how we’re all in business.”
He adds that winters are brutal: “Everything we buy is all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive so we can still get around when there are storms. In the aftermath of storms are the potholes, and we’ll go through tires every day because you just can’t avoid them. We have to work around it.”
There’s no shortage of operators servicing Boston and the surrounding area, but Above All/Boston Car seems to be rising to the top as they become more visible and word spreads about their service. “Everyone in the industry sees us moving forward,” says Cronin. “Chauffeurs are coming to us because they see our vehicles everywhere.”
Despite having a small-company mentality, Above All/Boston Car has grown exponentially over the past few years. They actually just made the cut for Inc. 5000, a list of the fastest-growing, privately held companies in the U.S. for the first time this year.
In fact, the caliber of employees changed after the merger. “We try to put people in the best position to succeed at what we need them to do. The process of hiring and training never ends,” says Barenholtz. “A majority of people have been on board for 10-plus years, and some people have been with us for 20 years.”
Two such employees—who are veritably recognizable faces in the industry—are Stephen Ward, who transitioned along with the merger, and now serves as the company’s COO, and Operations Manager Waithaka Waynae.
Internally after the merger, employees were shuffled around to positions that were a better fit to eliminate redundancies, while unfortunately some part-time positions had to be eliminated. In the end, it made for a stronger nucleus. And while the merger has helped alleviate some of the pressures each owner would have shouldered on their own, that doesn’t mean you won’t see them in the office every day. Barenholtz says clients can reach either of them 24/7, except for maybe between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. “I’m up at 5 a.m. and he’s in bed at 3 a.m.,” says Barenholtz of the hours he and Cronin keep.
“We still feel like a small company and we probably micro-manage more than we should, but we’re just that way,” he says. “There are certain things over the past four years that both of us have let go, but we want customers to know we’re available. Clients appreciate having access and it’s hard for us to turn that off.”
It also goes a long way with employees, adds Cronin. “In my opinion, people don’t like absentee owners. Our staff sees the owners on a daily basis and it encourages them to be team players when they see us.”
Barenholtz recognizes that other owners who don’t spend as much time in the office can be just as successful, but he likes taking the temperature of the office. “We appreciate people putting in the time and working hard for us, and they appreciate us being here in return,” he says.
Cronin and Barenholtz want to make a difference in the industry and beyond. Both are members of the NLA and New England Livery Association (NELA), with Barenholtz serving on the board of directors in both organizations. “We think if the industry is healthy, then it’s good for all of us, whether you have one car or are the biggest operator,” says Barenholtz. “We like to spend time together and network, and we have a lot of friends in the industry. I think it is unusual to most industries but we have great friends in cities all around the country in ours. We love the industry because there are a lot of smart people. We want to stick around.”
It wouldn’t surprise either of them to see more owners consider making the move they did. “I see consolidation becoming more common in the next five to 10 years,” says Barenholtz. “I think there are a lot of people in our industry trying to get out.”
“We’re seeing a lot of operators with 10 cars and fewer dying off. They’re having a hard time competing against Uber or Lyft, and can’t always assume the risk of other equipment,” says Cronin. “Smaller shops can also struggle to keep up with technology, especially for handling affiliate work or dealing with travel agents. You need to have software that can communicate with their system immediately. If you don’t have it, it’s a disadvantage.”
"We try to make sure we have our own vehicles and our own chauffeurs handling big events ... but sometimes we do have to call on our local partners. We’re in a competitive market but we get along with our neighbors and enjoy a mutual respect." – Brett Barenholtz, Founder of Boston Car ServiceDespite their opposite personalities and business strengths, they share a devotion to family, which includes being fathers to two daughters each. Barenholtz and his wife, Gena, have Alison, 25, who lives in New York, and Danielle, 21, who is in her senior year of college. Cronin and his wife Michelle have younger daughters, Cassandra, 15, and Danielle, 14. One can imagine Cronin and Barenholtz commiserating about their shared experience as fathers.
“I’ve been through the high school and college years with my girls, so in that sense, I can pass things down to Kevin about what to expect. He is the student in that respect,” says Barenholtz.
When he’s not spending time with his family or attending his daughters’ activities, you’ll find Cronin unwinding with his pinball hobby. He modestly admits to being a collector before Barenholtz chimes in about how “Kevin has the most ridiculous pinball collection you’ve ever seen.” Cronin says it’s a huge underground hobby where mostly everyone who’s into it is in their late 30s and up—anyone old enough to remember playing as a kid. He even attends pinball conferences and shows on a regular basis.
Barenholtz stays active by playing in a soccer league and says that tae kwon do has been a major part of his life for two decades, but he doesn’t pass up the chance to enjoy good wine and socializing with friends.
They make sure to give back to the community around them as well. They highlight the West End House Camp, for which Barenholtz is a trustee, as one cause close to their hearts thanks to the chance it offers inner-city kids to go to camp in the summer. Barenholtz is a board member for the Julie Fund for Women’s Cancers, which helps fund research, education, and support services for those with cancer. Not to mention the work Above All/Boston Car does for 826 Boston and the West End House Boys and Girls Club, between providing vehicles and participating in charity auctions. Barenholtz says it’s just simply what they do without desire to be recognized for it.
They both take a moment to thank their wives for understanding their need to work so intently on the business, something that can put stress on the family. But putting in the work is also what’s going to keep the company on target for their goals and objectives. “It is time consuming, but we’re focused,” Barenholtz says. “We want to be the go-to company when people decide they need help in Boston or New England. We’re here with all the options, every type of vehicle. I think people see we’re a top service and we deliver on those expectations.”
Photos courtesy of Andrew Schneps of Back Bay Photography.