BY SUSAN ROSE
Chauffeured transportation is an industry like no other. While companies essentially provide the same core service with clean cars and attentive chauffeurs, each business functions uniquely behind the scenes. There are the industry standards, at least if you want to stay on the good side of the regulators—up-to-date permits, proper maintenance, insurance, meeting state and federal laws—but each entrepreneur approaches ownership and operations a little differently.
The path from chauffeur to founder of Ecko Worldwide Transportation Group in the Bay Area was hardly a straight line for President Harry Dhillon. He didn’t necessarily have a passion for luxury transportation or even a drive for business, although both have grown significantly in the past dozen years. He’s had his fair share of missteps along the way like every budding business owner, but he’s also been an early adopter and even a trendsetter.
“People are catching up to outsourcing and having a global workforce, but I’ve been doing this since 2014. When you are ahead of the game, there is no competition.” – Harry Dhillon President, Ecko Worldwide TransportationThe Harry Dhillon of the early 2000s was a hard-working immigrant from India in liquor sales management, and he was building a decent living thanks in part to guidance from his uncle who was also in the industry. After an unfortunate loss of his investment in what would have led to a store of his own, Dhillon found himself looking elsewhere to support himself. One of his friends, whose father drove shuttles, suggested the transportation industry.
“There was a big AT&T event happening in Monterey, so I knew companies would need drivers,” he says, referring to the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-AM, part of the PGA Tour. “I went through the phone book and called taxi companies in the area. One company said that I sounded like a good guy, and he thought I should try limousines instead. That’s how I started working for Skylark Limousine.”
The leap to owning his own company was actually a happy accident. Facing limited and inconsistent runs and the frustration of making ends meet, Dhillon had been working for several companies before a happenstance conversation with a fellow chauffeur while waiting for their respective clients at the airport sparked the idea. As it turns out, the chauffeur was not only driving for the company, but he was also the owner.
The percolating notion became a reality in summer 2009 when Dhillon established Ecko in the San Francisco Bay Area ... although it was a bit of a bumpy start.
“I bought my first car for $8,000 in LA. When I got the car home to San Jose and took it in for some warranty work, I found out that the car I thought had 139,000 miles really had 230,000 miles,” he calls. “What I thought was a solid deal was actually a lie.”
Vehicle difficulties aside, Dhillon had little trouble building his client base through word of mouth. Although the effects of the ’08 recession finally reached Silicon Valley and San Francisco in 2009, it didn’t seem to derail his progress as his reliable reputation soon had him working with many of the major companies in Northern California.
“I was focused on farm-ins in the beginning and got a lot of runs from Gateway, Mosaic, and Music Express. I was known for local affiliate work because I was always out on the road. If you needed a run covered, Harry was there,” he says.
Early on, he also began attending Greater California Livery Association (GCLA) meetings, which not only helped him grow his business intelligence but also developed his confidence in networking with his peers.
“I felt proud to be a member of GCLA because I saw prominent operators were also there, including the larger companies that I admired and wanted to be like. It’s where I met vendors; it’s where I learned a lot about my own business. GCLA taught me how to build and maintain relationships. If you want to grow, you definitely need the assistance of your state and local associations. The association is only as good as your involvement, so that’s why I keep involving myself wherever I can,” he says.
True to his word, he continues to remain active with GCLA, including in leadership. He’s currently a director for the Northern California region, formerly served as a vice president, and he’s always among the first to step up when it comes to fundraising and support—even if it means tightening his own belt to make it happen. He says that when GCLA was experiencing a rough patch with membership and dues, he was part of the team that helped the association return to positive numbers.
Dhillon, also a regular at the National Limousine Association’s (NLA) events (he’s been attending shows since 2014), hoped to be a voice for California operators on the NLA Board, but he lost in a close election last year. Like the GCLA, his generosity extends to the national organization’s charitable arm, the Harold Berkman Memorial Fund.
The Gamble of Punching Above His Weight
After years of strong and healthy revenue, Dhillon found himself in a bit of a slump in 2015. Facing slowing sales and some personal issues, he contemplated walking away from the 10-vehicle company he had nurtured. After a heart-to-heart with a buddy and a snap back to reality, Dhillon recommitted to his award-winning company (he was honored as LCT’s Operator of the Year in 2015 and 2017, as well as one of the fastest-growing companies according to Inc.).
Dhillon started by hanging up his chauffeur hat (he continued to drive while growing the business) so he could direct all his attention to his operation. That year he also made his first acquisition, Excel Transportation, a corporate company that was larger than his own and based further north in the Bay Area. Two additional acquisitions followed in 18 months: Airone Worldwide Transportation, which specialized in high-end clients, and Limo Stop Worldwide Transportation, both of which had been in business for a dozen years and were well established when he purchased them. By the time he celebrated his 10th anniversary of operation in 2019, he had more than three dozen chauffeurs and 33 cars all throughout the Bay Area.
“I had the opportunity to jump knowing that the company was larger than my own,” he says, adding that the continued buying spree was daunting at first, despite being an advantageous move in the end. The result was a consortium of entities under the Ecko umbrella that seamlessly handled corporate, high-end clients, airport runs, wine tours and special events, private school transportation (including special needs students), affiliate work, and everything in between. Dhillon was also among the first operators of his size to adopt Santa Cruz software when it debuted in 2016, and he even joined founder Apurva Patel, CEO of GroundWidgets, for a peek behind the curtain while the software was still in development in India that same year. With a larger footprint after the acquisitions, a coverage radius spanning more than 150 miles, and the pressures of a larger payroll, Dhillon was keen to automate wherever he could to keep costs manageable and profits steady. As a bonus, he says his customers love how easy it is to use and how quickly they can book a reservation.
Santa Cruz, however, wasn’t his first step toward automation. Operating a company in California is expensive, especially when based in three of the top 10 most costly housing markets in the country (San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are first, third, and ninth, respectively, according to Kiplinger), so salaries must be on par with the area’s skyrocketing cost of living if he hopes to attract and keep talent.
“I was an original outsourcer,” he says. “I’d been using a service in India to cover my phones overnight because it didn’t make sense to pay an employee in California.”
The concept was so successful that Dhillon has since founded his own outsourcing company called Hashtag Business Solutions, which he will debut at the GCLA Expo in September.
The bulk of his “in-office” team is based in India—12 in total—with four employees working from his San Jose headquarters. His roster of nearly 40 chauffeurs is based throughout the Bay Area. “Ecko is essentially a client of Hashtag Business Solutions, and they handle all my design work, the website, as well as reservations and dispatch. During COVID, I had a lot of time to spend training the team and I realized that Ecko had gotten to a point where it could run without me being present. Companies are beginning to ask how they can do something similar, so I might just become a vendor as well as an operator,” he says about the launch of Hashtag.
The shutdowns and the resulting staff shortages have certainly accelerated the adoption of remote employees, but this is where Dhillon says he has an advantage.
“People are catching up to outsourcing and having a global workforce, but I’ve been doing this since 2014. When you are ahead of the game, there is no competition. When you hire a remote employee for the first time, it comes with a lot of challenges, but I have been resolving those challenges for the past 6-7 years.”
In San Jose, he works with his brother-in-law Balwinder “Billy” Sunner, who is the company’s secretary and fleet manager. His newest recruit is Treanna Maddox, who joined the company earlier this year as director of client relationships. Maddox spent 10 years as assistant general manager of the Limousine Scene in Bakersfield, Calif. In India, his right-hand man is Sanjay Yadav, who is the heart and soul of the oversees operation.
“Of course, I must thank my sister, mother, and wife, Sruti, who spoil me and do what needs to be done for Billy and me outside of the business. I don’t even have to do laundry, if you can believe that,” he jokes.
Because he can save in other areas of his business using technology and his staff in India, he has been able to pay his chauffeurs higher wages—which also means he isn’t experiencing the same labor shortage as other companies struggle to find drivers nationwide.
“I know that if I’m not living happily and making enough money, then I’d have to find something else that can afford me that lifestyle, and it’s the same for my chauffeurs. Paying $4 or $5 more per trip leads to a higher quality of service in my experience, so our customers are happy, the chauffeurs are happy, and the business wins.”
Surviving COVID and Looking Ahead
Dhillon calls COVID a “punch in the gut” and credits the various Congressional emergency funds with keeping Ecko from becoming a statistic of the pandemic, but his company reckoning actually began the year before in 2019. Facing excellent profits and plenty of growth, he had to come to terms with a major issue: cashflow.
“What I learned in 2020 is to understand that sometimes things are going to be out of your control, not to rely so heavily on one stream of business, and don’t think everything is going to last forever.” – Harry Dhillon“By 2019, cashflow was very tight, and because I was always reinvesting in the company, I wasn’t keeping money in reserves ... and then COVID,” he says. He admits that he didn’t necessarily know how to manage his cash, and he had to take a long, hard look at his operations.
“I was carrying a lot of weight, in the business and on my own body,” he admits. His first steps were to dial in on spending, get smarter with his KPIs, and trim wherever possible. With business down 90 percent, he shed most of his team, 10 vehicles, and 50 pounds—and gained confidence and a healthy business now that he’s running leaner.
“What I learned in 2020 is to understand that sometimes things are going to be out of your control, not to rely so heavily on one stream of business, and don’t think everything is going to last forever,” he says.
In the thick of the crisis, at a time when we knew so little about the original virus, had no vaccines, and didn’t know when it would break, Dhillon had the opportunity to speak to KTVU Fox 2, not only as the president of Ecko, but also as a quasi-ambassador for the industry in the Golden State. The 10-minute segment, where he detailed what he and other operators were experiencing and the measures they were taking to keep their valued clients safe, originally aired on the San Francisco affiliate but was also shared with other Fox stations throughout the state (V and can be viewed on Youtube). California was in lockdown longer and more frequently than other states, which meant a slower return for many businesses.
Most of 2021 was up and down for Ecko, but Dhillon says a major event in September helped sustain a cushion of cash until reservations came roaring back in March of this year, which hasn’t stopped.
“My biggest issues now are vehicles and parts. If I had three more Sprinters, I could probably have three more routes. It’s tough, but I don’t have a chauffeur problem,” he says.
California may be leading the country with low-emissions vehicles and those powered by batteries over internal combustion engines—not to mention some of the highest gas prices—but Dhillon says that his customers aren’t yet requesting a switch to electric vehicles.
“I’m not ready to go electric. My clients aren’t asking for green; they’re asking for Maybachs and other high-end vehicles. Until the luxury is there, I’m holding out. If a client comes on board and says they only want Teslas, then I’ll do it, but so far they haven’t been asking for it,” he says.
Automation and a solid team of chauffeurs also allows him to say yes to those all-too-common last-minute requests that most in the industry is dealing with of late.
“Last-minutes have gone up, but calls are always answered within two rings,” he says. “If you send me a reservation, you will get a response within two minutes, 365 days a year. Not everyone can do last-minutes right now, but we’re happy to get them.”
The goals that Dhillon set for his own personal growth back in 2019 are finally being realized. Personally, he’s reached a healthy weight and has turned into a bona fide gym rat, cycling fiend, and exercise nut—with the Facebook FOMO pics to prove it. He also is a dad to a son and daughter, Yuvi, 11 and Zoya, 9, who are spending the summer with him. Most importantly, he married his longtime love Sruti in late 2021 after a long-distance relationship between California and India, one that started when he was still a promising entrepreneur. Businesswise, he says he’s satisfied with the accomplishments he’s made with his finances and the growth of all his companies here and abroad.
“Don’t give up. You know your destination; you know your goal. You may not be on the fastest or the smoothest route, or it may be one that no one else is on or didn’t realize was possible, but it’s your route. If you want to improve it, it’s up to you.” [CD0722]