BY SUSAN ROSE
You have to wonder what Maurice Chabé, founder of Chabé Limousines, would think about his company in the 2020s. His world in 1920s Paris was radically different than today: There were no cellphones or commercial transatlantic flights, and while World War I had already changed Europe, the Second World War was almost two decades away. When he founded Chabé in 1921, motorcars were barely more than a step up from horse-driven carriages, and they certainly didn’t resemble the computers-disguised-as-vehicles that we drive now. Did he dream that his daughter, granddaughter, and now great-grandson would lead the company into the 21st century, or build it into an international company serving clientele from all over the world?
Maurice passed away in the 1950s and didn’t have the pleasure of seeing how future generations in his lineage would expand the business he built, but there’s no doubt he would marvel at just how complicated and exciting chauffeured transportation has become, not to mention proud of how his family would lovingly cultivate the company throughout the years. While almost every aspect of running a successful operation now compared to the early 20th century is barely recognizable, Maurice’s focus on providing excellent service to the most demanding clients has never gone out of style—and remains the company’s guiding principle today.
Celebrating the centennial of any business is an exceptional milestone, but reaching it during a pandemic is an extraordinary achievement. Not wanting to waste any time during the slowdown, CEO (and Maurice’s great grandson) Guillaume Connan continued, albeit cautiously, with his longtime plans to open a London office in 2020 and increase the company’s international footprint through a network of partnerships that spans 100 countries.
“We had time to prepare things and think about how we want to be moving forward,” Connan says. “It is a difficult time, but it’s also a massive change. In this industry, you never have a moment to plan or think about what you want to do, but we had more than a year to say this is what we want for Chabé for the next hundred years. We had a year to prepare and recruit the people we wanted.”
The London team includes UK CEO David Bruce, Director of International Operations Nivin Salem, Operations Director Daniel Stener, and Performance and Analytics Director Matthew Hensby, who have been recruiting office staff and chauffeurs, building a fleet, and, most importantly, setting up an international network of partners as the London office will serve as the hub for all of its affiliate operations.
“It was quite a bold move, but I think it was the perfect timing [to launch the UK office],” says Salem. “Guillaume always had a vision of setting up in London and then it was the perfect time to do all this groundwork. It was a great opportunity to do it right, and we’ve been able to tailor it to what we want it to be.”
Salem is responsible for the company’s affiliate network, and she says she is specifically focused on connecting with operators internationally, working on partnerships, taking full advantage of the available technology, and supporting each other during these challenging times.
“London is a main point of contact for all operators, including US operators, for all their requirements globally 24/7, and I am their account manager,” says Salem. “It’s all about trust and confidence in who you are working with. We are in a unique position to be able to deliver the highest standard of service in four strategically important European countries where we own our own fleet (France, UK, Switzerland, and Monaco) as well as in 100 countries through our trusted network of partners at competitive rates. Our network partners are tried and tested and have delivered consistent service at scale.”
Recruitment and training has accelerated within the growing London team since January as COVID restrictions continue to be relaxed—although some measures, especially traveling to and from the US, are still causing issues.
While the US struggles to catch up with green technology—especially vehicles—Europe is swiftly adapting and pivoting to address the climate-change challenge. Chabé has already adopted electric and low-emissions vehicles in its fleet, including its London office. While it’s being driven by regulatory constraints and mandates, a low emission fleet is quickly becoming the standard requested by clients.
“London brings an international capability but also some real commercial synergies because the team is more experienced in serving corporate and financial customers and some other niches where the Paris location doesn’t excel. Our Paris headquarters has been leading in serving hotels, luxury groups, and large-scale events,” says Connan. The London office is also the center of excellence for roadshow work within the group.
The company’s timeline is of course dotted with significant achievements throughout its 100 years, but for at least half of its history, women have been at the helm. Elaine Lo Jacomo, Maurice’s daughter, assumed the role after the death of her father in the late 1950s, followed by her daughter (and Connan’s mother), Agnes Lo Jacomo, in 1993.
“Being new to Chabé, and being a woman, I always feel proud that there’s been women in leadership from so early on, which you don’t see as often in this industry,” says Salem. “It shows me and anyone joining the company that diversity and inclusion are important to the business.”
Customers are recognizing it too. The ideas of diversity and inclusion aren’t just buzz-worthy concepts floated by corporations; it has also become a common expectation from clients, as Connan says that passengers have been requesting, for example, more female chauffeurs as much as they want sustainable, safe transportation in environmentally clean vehicles.
The last decade, in particular, has been quite eventful for Chabé. Connan has assumed many of the responsibilities that his mother (now chairwoman) once handled during her tenure, moving the company in new directions that his great-grandfather likely could have never dreamed were possible. Since joining the family business in 2014 as general director, under Connan’s leadership, the group has experienced a steady double-digit growth up to the COVID crisis.
Chabé’s expertise in transportation is imbedded in serving Paris’ high-end luxury hotels, and the company is credited with being the first chauffeured transportation operation exclusively for these clients. When WWII began leveling cities throughout Europe, Maurice Chabé had the foresight to hide several of his vehicles in an unusually safe place—underground where they grew and harvested mushrooms—so his company was in high demand once the war ended and luxury limousines were scarce.
In 1929, Maurice Chabé was among the founding members of Les Cléfs d’Or, a world-renowned hotel concierge organization, which helped the company to nurture relationships with hotels. Although hotel work was still a major portion of Chabé’s business going into 2020—around 35 percent—the company has diversified to include corporate clients, roadshows, events, such as sporting events, and leisure.
“I don’t want to be the largest fleet, I just want us to be the best at serving the most-demanding customers.” – Guillaume Connan, CEO of Chabé“My grandmother kept the company relatively small, because she was happy working with a few hotels and having a comfortable niche. In the early ’90s, my mother took the lead. She came from IBM and developed the company quite intensively from a sales and marketing perspective. We made a few acquisitions, some good, some bad, but in 2011 we made an important acquisition for the group: dedicated chauffeurs. It’s something you don’t have in the US, nor in London, but it’s using the same chauffeur for the same passenger, typically the C-level executive of a large corporation, all year long. We now have almost 100 chauffeurs doing it, and it’s recurring revenue that has helped us navigate through the crisis,” says Connan.
While building a location in the UK is a groundbreaking step, Chabé has been establishing offices in other parts of Europe over the years, starting in 1997 in Cannes. It now has a dozen locations in Saint-Tropez, Switzerland, and Monaco, to name a few.
“Right now, we’re getting closer to the level we had in 2019 on a monthly basis, although corporate travel revenues remain below their past level. Currently, the corporate side in our revenue is probably below 15 percent, while the hotel and other leisure-associated work is probably above 50,” Connan says.
The goal—and the significance—of the new London office, however, is the ability of Chabé to increase its farmout work. Once about 5 percent of business several years ago, Connan thinks it will be about 25 percent by 2022 as the return in business travel continues, although he’s quick to caution that he doesn’t want to be over optimistic given the unpredictability of the past year.
“It’s massive, and it’s a complete change,” Connan says about aiming to be a true international group. “Obviously we won’t be everywhere, in terms of our own fleet, but we already have the largest geographical footprint of any European operator. We’ve always focused on high-end clients over volume. I don’t want to be the largest fleet, I just want us to be the best at serving the most-demanding customers.”
Prior to the pandemic, Connan secured funding from a private investment firm that established a management group and helped to infuse the company with capital to fund the strategic endeavors that he had planned—including London. Chabé Group is still family owned as Connan and his mother remain the majority stakeholders.
The management board, in addition to the London team, is also reshaping the company’s culture in surprising ways. Now, management meetings are held in English when intra-organizational communications were previously in French. Connan says that working with the group has also elevated the professionalism of the organization in terms of governance.
France’s strong social programs have allowed Chabé to return to full staffing within a relatively short period of time, especially when compared to their counterparts in the US. Furloughed workers, including chauffeurs, were paid nearly all of their salary and remained connected to the company, so when demand increased, Connan was able to retain and recall about 90 percent of his team, currently about 350 full-time employees. This has been especially beneficial as the recovery has been happening in fits and starts.
“Event clients have actually been really active, which I think has been quite substantial given the times we’re in,” says Salem, adding that they’ve handled recent large-scale events in France, London, Italy, and Greece. “It’s that challenge of being ready for that increase in demand, which everyone has right now.”
The future goal is to continue to be a seamless point of contact for their luxury clients across a spectrum of travel services, whether it’s private air or yachts or anything in between. But the team knows their limitations, and they’re not going to sacrifice quality or reputation by working with a partner that doesn’t have the same level of service that they do (or a part of the world that isn’t safe). Connan doesn’t use the word logistics—he says it is clear that they are in the chauffeured services business—but offering the additional connections for customers is something they hope to achieve whenever feasible.
“The days of working with someone because he was the nicest and the cheapest are gone,” says Connan, adding that unless the partner company shares the same values as Chabé, he’d rather not forge a relationship. “The way we choose our partners now encompasses more criteria. Because for one single transfer, for which you’re going to make $20 of gross margin, you can lose a customer that generated $100,000 back in your country. So you don’t want to take the chance.”
“We take our partners throughout a rigorous auditing process to make sure they are compliant and know what our expectations are. I always like to say that we are taking our partners on a journey. You have to have the human element quality controlling and service assuring every booking to ensure we’re delivering on the promise to our customers,” says Salem. From London, she has been working to integrate Chabé’s system across the network so that they can deliver status updates uniformly.
“Guillaume always had a vision of setting up in London and then it was the perfect time to do all this groundwork. It was a great opportunity to do it right.” – Nivin Salem, UK Director of International OperationsBut the partnerships are not one-sided, and Salem says that they hold their own to the same standards when representing their partner’s company. Connan adds that he welcomes ideas from their affiliate companies because he hopes that both entities can grow and prosper through their relationship. Despite having unwavering high expectations, he prefers to think of the company’s affiliate partners as part of the extended Chabé family.
One of the more recent enhancements has been the implementation of a digital library in lieu of magazines or newspapers in the back of vehicles, which were removed during COVID—but it wasn’t just about safety. Clients receive a text link that allows them to access a broad selection of news and information sources for 24 hours on their own smartphone. It’s a simple solution that Connan says has been appreciated by clients. And because it’s on the customer’s own phone, there are no tablets to clean or troubleshoot, so this perk is consistent regardless of where the client is traveling.
Further, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of duty of care, which Salem says can be enhanced by technology but not replaced by good old fashioned human contact. It goes beyond just ensuring passenger safety including adhering to COVID precautionary measures: properly handling and securing their clients’ and affiliates’ data is of equal importance to duty of care. Uber and other on-demand services have certainly raised the bar on technology, but nothing surpasses the attention to detail and professionalism that chauffeured transportation offers.
“What we can automate is great, but we shouldn’t try to automate the process of everything because at the end of the day, it will become nothing more than a platform. And that’s exactly what we don’t want,” adds Connan.
With the celebration of Chabé’s anniversary temporarily sidelined due to COVID, Connan is hoping to host an event in 2022 among their clients. Plans to get together with their partner network, which they were hoping would happen at the CD/NLA Show in Dallas, unfortunately had to be postponed as the various travel requirements are cumbersome to say the least. Internally, the Chabé team marked the moment with some festivities in late September.
COVID is certainly among the toughest challenges that many business owners have faced in their lifetimes, but it’s far from the only test that this century-old company has endured. Maurice Chabé was a visionary entrepreneur for his time, and like the three generations that followed, they each led the operation through unfathomable obstacles that resulted in a stronger organization. Connan’s vision is the boldest yet as he expands the business well beyond Paris. Maurice Chabé probably wouldn’t understand the global economy any more than we could imagine living through WWII or envision a time without modern conveniences, but it all began 100 years ago when he took a risk and founded a company in the city that is as much a part of Chabé’s history as the family that runs it. [CD1021]