BY SUSAN ROSE
It’s 2007 and Vin Bali is dying to flex his entrepreneurial muscle. Ambitious, well educated, and 24 years old, the California transplant is already sick of his job in finance and, brimming with youthful confidence, he’s ready to strike out on his own to launch an executive recruiting firm.
Around the same time, Bali’s father, Kuldip—who was already a successful car salesman—is embarking on his own entrepreneurial venture. On a whim, he purchases a few vehicles and thinks he may have some work lined up ... until things go very wrong.
“A deadbeat affiliate wiped him out of about $100,000,” says Bali. “I was worried that he would lose more money, so I offered to help him out for a few months to get things squared away, fully intending on moving on with my own plans later.” After more than 15 years and 20 vehicles, Bali still has the reins.
The industry is filled with happy accidents: the part-time chauffeur working for extra cash who goes on to open their own company or the laid-off executive who’s looking for a second act and discovers chauffeured transportation. But neither Bali nor his father had experience in chauffeured transportation, or even running a business. More a seedling than an organized, budding operation, they had no clients or a business plan—but they did have a mountain of debt right out of the gate that needed to be handled. Empowered Charters, which the company became known as, might have ended before it truly started, if it weren’t for the quick thinking and elbow grease in those early years by Bali and his father.
“When I was working for corporate America, I hated how they made people feel. People were just numbers; there was no human behind the sale.” – Vin Bali, President of Empowered Charters“The first few years, I kept my head down and to the grindstone. I didn’t really know what an affiliate was,” says Bali, who adopted the title of president. And he was doing it mostly alone, as his father had understandably soured on the business after the bad deal, but it was only years later when he recognized he didn’t need to go solo.
“I went to my first limo show in 2011, but I didn’t immediately see the value in it. I didn’t know about affiliates or working with other companies except for the negative experience my father had,” he recalls.
There was also the drive to build his own book of clients, ones who were loyal to his company and drawn in by the level of service he was aiming to deliver.
It wasn’t until he attended another show in 2018 that he realized what he was missing.
“Now I look back and think, if I had just hung in there and saw the opportunity of the shows, I’d be so much further ahead today. That was my youthful inexperience. You meet great people who can become great affiliates. If I could go back and do anything over, it would be to build my affiliate relationships earlier in the company. I guess I like to do it the hard way.”
SEO—search engine optimization—was a hot concept starting in the 2000s, and Bali said it was his secret weapon to help attract customers beyond the traditional ads in local media. When he wasn’t driving or handling billing or cleaning cars, he was building the Empowered website with SEO in mind. He knew if he could interest a customer, he could likely win them over for repeat business.
“When I was working for corporate America, I hated how they made people feel. People were just numbers; there was no human behind the sale. My goal when leaving was to empower the people around me, because isn’t everyone who gets in your car a VIP? No business owner says, ‘Sorry, today I brought my B game.’ That’s how I came up with name Empowered.”
Although Empowered was and continues to be the official name of the business, Bali used the moniker Lightning Limos for a while, with the idea that “limos” would entice a certain clientele. Focusing more on executive transportation, he has since retired the name. Despite having earned his MBA, Bali says some of his best lessons came from trial and error of running a company—and trying not to make the same mistake twice.
“School can never teach you how to react to an angry customer. They’re not going to teach how to make the right decision because in that environment there are no real-world consequences. One decision you make in your company could offset ten other decisions,” he says.
“I know that it’s not going to go right every time ... but it’s what you do when things go wrong that matters. Customer service isn’t dead for us.” – Vin BaliLuckily for him, he had access to seasoned and successful professionals who were riding right there in the back of his vehicle, which was all too often while stuck in LA traffic (the company is based in Santa Clarita, northwest of LA). When willing to talk—he always respected the boundaries—they generously shared some of their own hard-knocks executive experiences with him, which he affectionately called “Traffic University.”
When he had downtime, he would pore over books and listen to audio books from leading business experts—Warren Buffett among his favorites—always with the goal of “how can I do better today, how can I be smarter tomorrow?” He would celebrate the wins, like when he was able to hire his first detailers so he and his father would no longer have to wash the cars during the wee hours of night.
“I like Warren Buffett because, despite being so successful, he is still humble,” says Bali. “One of my favorite stories is about a time when a guy picked Buffett up in New York. He was a Wall Street, Ivy League type—really smooth and polished. He was telling Buffett about how he’s doing this and doing that, but later on, he’s going to do this. He says, ‘I’m not happy, but this is what I’m achieving, and I’ll be happy when I get there.’ Buffett turns to him and says, ‘Shouldn’t you do what you love before you get to old age? You should enjoy it now. Love the process.’ That just resonated with me.”
But Bali corrects himself: he knows that every business has its challenges, and that it’s not always going to be a perfect, happy day. Like everyone, he’s had periods where he was close to walking away and selling it all, but then sales pick up or an opportunity arises that claws him back from his “three feet from gold” moment—a concept that many entrepreneurs face when they give in to temporary defeat and call it quits prematurely.
“Many will tell that they love this business and they hate this business. When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad—we just try to minimize the valleys,” he says. “I guess I was made for the limo world. Every day is fun, challenging, and not like the other. This is where I belong.”
“It’s not just about the dollar for us. It’s about making sure that our clients and our affiliates are taken care of. And that’s something you must feel, not just say, or else it doesn’t work.” – Vin BaliJust three years after Bali wrangled control of Empowered Charters, he had the idea of opening a party bus division, Party Bus LA, to expand the business. Many of his executive clients were already interested in booking that type of service outside of corporate transportation, so he had confidence that it would work. Now, all he needed was assistance with financing, which came from his other parent, mother Veena.
“My mom was the biggest reason for the success of the company,” Bali says about his late mother who passed away in 2018. “She was the reason why all my American dreams were coming true. She’s why we’re citizens. In 2010, she believed in me that the party bus side would work. When I was having an issue getting capital, she used her 401(k) to help me start the company and buy buses. Her legacy lives on as long as she’s in my heart. I am very thankful to her.”
If Bali’s father was the spark behind Empowered, it was his mother who was the flame, which she kept burning by encouraging her son to try that much harder. While his father was and is a key part of the company, he took a back seat around 2014 to care for his ailing wife.
Bali’s “American dreams” aren’t just cliché. His family emigrated from India when Bali was just 9 years old. His father had come to the States by way of Toronto for a relative’s wedding, and after spending a year in Southern California, visas were granted so the whole family—including Bali’s sister and mother—could join him in 1991.
Funds were initially limited, so they lived with other relatives to save money. To support the family, his father worked odd jobs, eventually finding his way to car sales, while his mother studied to be a registered nurse. The family shared her joy when she passed her boards and became an RN, a career she cherished until her own passing.
Even from a young age Bali knew that service was very important, and he would hustle and persist in everything he did, building relationships along the way.
“I guarantee we work the hardest for customer service and do everything we can to give them a great experience. I know that it’s not going to go right every time, no matter how much we try, but it’s what you do when things go wrong that matters. I try to focus on the lifetime value of the customer, so I think that’s what sets us apart. Customer service done the old-fashioned way,” he says, adding, “Customer service isn’t dead for us.”
Around the tenth anniversary of Empowered in 2017, Bali hired a chauffeur named Vince Neilson. Almost immediately, Bali noticed that he showed ambition and potential that matched his own. Before long, Neilson was handling sales and rising through the ranks to become Bali’s general manager—the company’s first. With someone else helping with the heavy lifting, it freed up Bali to tackle other long-awaited projects, like growing his affiliate network and joining his local association, the Greater California Livery Association.
Business returned with a vengeance starting in 2021, says Bali, marking his best years on record so far. His party buses were especially in demand as pent-up partiers were able to recapture a bit of normalcy. LA is a diverse market, so his clients run the gamut from executives to Hollywood to events like Coachella and the various awards shows.
Between the two companies, Bali now has 25 full- and part-time chauffeurs, detailers, a mechanic, and 20 vehicles that include minicoaches, limobuses, Sprinters, and SUVs. He also started using remote workers after fellow California operator, Harry Dhillon of Ecko Worldwide—who runs his own remote staffing service—suggested the idea. So far, Bali says his four remote employees are working out great. He says his next goal is to bring in additional salespeople, and of course, expand his network.
“I know I’ve said it before, but it’s not just about the dollar for us. It’s about making sure that our clients and our affiliates are taken care of. And that’s something you must feel, not just say, or else it doesn’t work. If you really do care about the customer and not the dollar, you’ll find a solution,” he says.
Several years ago, Bali made another significant move in his life when he proposed to his love, Esmeralda, whom he married in 2019. The following year, they welcomed their son, Gian, who is now two-and-a-half and arguably the cutest addition to the Empowered family.
Esmeralda left her corporate job over a year ago and is now the company COO, making it officially a family-run company, says Bali.
“My mom and my wife are the reasons why I am so successful. Esmerelda is so patient and organized, everything that I’m not. She elevated everything about the company,” he says.
Though Bali left behind the 18-hour days required during those early years of the company, and still gets behind the wheel on occasion, he’s happily replaced his suits with more casual attire. It is California, after all.
He’s in the office every day, and he still loves that no one day is alike; it’s always a surprise and never a dull moment. Spending time with the two most important people in his life of course tops the list, and they try to get away as a family for small trips whenever they can, but even a nightly walk will do. When he’s itching for adrenaline, he swaps four wheels for two—a motorcycle, that is. We joined him at Buttonwillow Raceway Park where he showed off his incredible skills and snapped up a few photos.
Once upon a time, Bali did question his decision to build Empowered—and later, Party Bus LA—as he watched his peers finding quicker success as they made partner at their law firm or climbed the corporate ladder. But now he feels differently.
“It took me a while to get here, but I have zero regrets about this business. It’s like the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady won the race. I am happy that I traded in my suits though.” [CD0523]