BY SUSAN ROSE
Herb Kelleher, one of the founders of Southwest Airlines once said, “You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.” Whether the principals intended it or not, the airline soon became as beloved for its unfussy booking and renowned customer service as it was for its competitive fares. His drive behind the company’s culture was legendary: being a bargain airline didn’t mean sacrificing the customer experience. When other airlines were focusing more on the bottom line than the travelers that they were packing into their metal flying tubes, Southwest was more concerned about treating its passengers like humans. Despite some dings and bruises to its reputation over the years, the company’s “LUV” culture endures.
When Bruce Heinrich founded his Kansas City-based transportation company, LEADER Worldwide, in 2000, he did so with the promise that he would deliver the best quality of service to his clients above all else. The seasoned chauffeur already had years of experience driving for CLS Transportation in Los Angeles (now part of EmpireCLS Worldwide) and was trained in hospitality by one of the great hoteliers, The Ritz-Carlton. Much like those companies, his priority was the guest experience. He loved that passengers trusted him to deliver them and their families safely to their destinations, or to problem-solve solutions when issues arose. However, before he could grow into the award-winning 20-vehicle operation that it is today, he had to learn how to run a business.
Globe-Trotting Gigs to Finding His Passion
While Kansas City is Heinrich’s hometown, his prior modeling and acting career took him all over the world before the CEO settled down in Missouri. It’s where he started two successful businesses (the other being PAX Training); met and married his wife, Tamiko (also LEADER’s president); and created a family that includes 4-year-old son Maximus.
To many, the glamour and sometimes fame of the entertainment industry would be a dream achievement, but Heinrich also saw the dark side of the limelight.
“I was working full time for about 12 years in Europe, Japan, and across the US, but just got burned out. I enjoyed the travel and making friends from all over the world, but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t gratifying. I didn’t feel like I was living my purpose. Ultimately, I rebelled against all things shallow, and ironically enough, moved to Los Angeles.” he says, laughing.
“... My whole mission was to be the best service provider not only in Kansas City, but the industry. I wanted to be The Ritz-Carlton of the chauffeured service industry serving the who’s who of Kansas City.” – Bruce Heinrich, CEO & Founder of LEADER WorldwideLooking for work, a friend suggested The Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey, where he had his first exposure to learning how to provide the world-class service they are known for.
“The first day of orientation at The Ritz Carlton spoke to my spirit on how to create experiences for people and make an impact on their lives. That’s what excited me: to be part of a winning organization,” he says.
The Ritz-Carlton ignited the spark, but it was his time as a chauffeur for CLS that lit the fire. His dealings with guests at the hotel were generally brief, but being a mobile concierge was next-level for Heinrich, and it meant he could do more for his clients, even beyond the time they were riding in his vehicle.
“You have somebody in the car for 30 minutes, an hour, maybe all day, maybe three days. You become more of an integral part of their life or can help them be successful in whatever they’re trying to accomplish. It’s cool to be a part of a special day in their lives. I loved it ... I still love driving clients,” he says. Even 23 years later, it is not unusual for Heinrich to get behind the wheel at LEADER.
LEADER Takes Off
A year before he founded LEADER, a high school friend from back home in Missouri with a trucking company wanted to purchase a limousine to entertain clients at Chiefs and Royals games. Heinrich, who was living in California at the time, helped facilitate the purchase of a Krystal stretch limousine, drove it to Kansas City, and trained a couple guys to become chauffeurs for him. His friend offered him the opportunity to use his vehicle to start a limousine service. In 2000, he moved back to Kansas City and launched LEADER with a borrowed car, a cellphone, and a dream.
“I had $31,000 in credit card debt, no savings, and didn’t know anything about running a company. It really was founded on a hope and a dream. I just figured everyone would want great service! I had to learn as I went along. I read books by respected business authors like Jim Collins, Michael Gerber, and Stephen Covey, and took an Entrepreneurial course at the Kauffman Foundation. I supported myself with some modeling jobs while I was getting LEADER going and ran it out of my apartment until 2004. I didn’t look at the business like I had to make money right away, as my whole mission was to be the best service provider not only in Kansas City, but the industry. I wanted to be The Ritz-Carlton of the chauffeured service industry serving the who’s who of Kansas City,” he says.
His first stop was the FBOs. “I dropped off business cards and just got to know the people at the front desk. My hospitality training and knowing how private aviation worked got my foot in the door. Somebody would introduce me to somebody else and they’d say, ‘OK, I’ll give your service a shot.’ And you know, they’re still clients after 23 years,” says Heinrich.
Heinrich’s big move came when he rented a store-front location in a posh open-air shopping center called the Country Club Plaza, which he calls the Rodeo Drive of Kansas City. Although he wasn’t retail, and his greatest marketing was through word of mouth, he needed a space that would also give him wider name recognition. With this move, he was able to pay himself full time and hire additional staff, including a general manager position, so he could focus on recruiting and training chauffeurs. Attracting service-minded professionals, however, was his newest challenge.
“I know that a chauffeur is the one who makes or breaks the whole experience, which determines the company somebody’s going to continue using. So, I put all my Ritz-Carlton and CLS stuff together and created my LEADER training. I had to get people trained and up to speed as quickly as possible so they could start generating revenue. The key was replicating myself as a chauffeur. To me, the more chauffeurs I had out there doing what I do and providing the level of service that I provided, the more freedom I had to work on and grow the business,” he says.
That training program was the impetus behind his other successful and award-winning company, PAX Training, which he runs with business partner James Blain (read more on page 22). To this day, Heinrich uses his real-world experience with LEADER to continually update and improve modules for PAX members. It’s also a way to ensure that affiliates who use PAX are delivering the same standard of care that clients expect.
Kansas City is Missouri’s largest city with about 2.5 million people in the metropolitan area. With its population and laid-back Midwest reputation, Heinrich says, “It’s either the largest small town or smallest big city. The people who live here are very practical, and very relational. You have to be able to deliver the goods. Here, people will trust you up front, but you better deliver because once you fail, you’re done.”
Heinrich almost learned that the hard way after a chauffeur missed a pickup of one of the city’s most prominent residents and his family. The client refused to take his calls for a year before they had a chance meeting at a local event. After a frank and conciliatory conversation, where he apologized and owned the mistake, Heinrich won him back as a regular client.
“I was sick to my stomach for a year. But after our conversation, it was like a light bulb went off. You can lose a client over a mistake, but it’s how you respond to that incident that can make a client for life. And so I’ve learned to be really proactive. Now we send out surveys after every trip, and if I get back one that’s four stars or less, I call to ask what happened because we promise five-star service. Usually it’s minor, but I thank them for complaining. I own the mistake and ask how I can make it right. We rarely have incidents, but when things happen, we always make it right,” he says.
More often than not, however, Heinrich is tasked with solving problems created by other service companies, like a recent situation where a flight was canceled, and the family needed to get to Florida the next day to meet their cruise. Quick thinking and two chauffeurs later, their clients were safely delivered to the Sunshine State. In another instance, they helped a family that was stranded by their Uber driver.
“It was the team working together, and everybody was just so excited that we made that happen. [LEADER President] Tamiko notified the chauffeur, who picked them up in minutes. It had nothing to do with chasing money, but the satisfaction that we worked as a team to help this family. It was only after the fact that we found out it was the family of one of the top football players for the Chiefs, which made it even more gratifying,” says Heinrich. “We are just doing our little part to help our team win championships.”
Heinrich is also as passionate about helping the community around him as he is his clients. One of his favorite sayings is from Proverbs: “Be generous, and you will be prosperous. Help others, and you will be helped.” Although they prefer to keep it on the down low, they put words into action and each year, he and his team donate tens of thousands of dollars and in-kind donations to several local charities, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Dream Factory, both of which are dedicated to helping put a smile on the face of ailing children and their worried families. For their dedication and generosity, Make-A-Wish awarded LEADER the Endless Spirit Award.
In November of 2012, Heinrich realized his dream when Signature FBO asked him to relocate LEADER to its current location at the Charles B. Wheeler Airport. Centrally located at Kansas City’s downtown private airport, Heinrich says that’s where his company shines, and it has helped them shore up the majority of private aviation travelers to Kansas City.
In 2017, Heinrich’s wife Tamiko joined the company after a 20-year career in sports television as a producer and editor, working for the likes of the Dallas Cowboys, CNN, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network, and Time Warner. Dealing with constant daily urgencies and long, irregular hours in the world of sports ably prepared the three-time Emmy-nominated producer for the 24/7 business of chauffeured transportation.
“Her title is president, and she’s earned every bit of it. After she took over HR and operations, the business has never run smoother. I’ve never been an operations guy, but I’ve had to do it all these years. As we discovered doing EOS [business program Entrepreneurial Operating System], I’m the visionary and she is the implementer, and we make a great team. I love working with her. She is a huge key to our success,” says Heinrich.
One of the profound ways that she helped the company grow was by shifting the mindset from a “job” to a “career” when hiring, especially chauffeurs. Oftentimes chauffeurs, CSRs, and even owners consider those to be entry-level positions or ‘just for now’ jobs, but Tamiko raised the stakes by making them viable options where an employee could build a life-long career.
“We got really intentional about hiring career-minded people, but for somebody to consider this as a career, we had to pay well, treat them well, and give them the tools to succeed and feel good about their work. We want them to be able to buy a car, a house, provide for their family, and not just scrape by,” Heinrich says.
LEADER immediately boosted starting salaries, offered full medical benefits, a matching 401(k), profit sharing, and life insurance. By investing in their team and accepting the risk of substantially raising rates to cover the additional expense, they were able to quickly reduce turnover, increase employee engagement, and elevate the consistency in their already high levels of service—without losing a client. It was a win for everybody.
The Heinrichs have also upped their marketing game by working with an outside agency for the first time. While word of mouth and personal referrals helped them grow for much of the company’s history, Heinrich said he was ready to get serious about promoting their company, especially after the uncertainty that many experienced during the pandemic.
They currently have 35 employees, including chauffeurs, many of whom have been with the company for years. Among the team are Client Solutions Representative Emily Beeler, who has been with LEADER since 2018 and Ronda McCarty, the company’s executive assistant, who has worked with top CEOs at major corporations throughout her career. Kennetra Pulliams, who was recently promoted to affiliate director, was initially recruited to Kansas City in 2006 by Tamiko as a television sports reporter. Jon Orenstein was brought on board during the midst of the pandemic as their national sales director, while fellow Ritz-Carlton alum and 28-year chauffeur Mark Janesko is their chauffeur manager.
“I hate to leave anyone out because our entire team is what makes us successful, and they are the absolute best at what they do,” Heinrich gushes.
Beyond sharing his love of customer service through PAX, Heinrich has also been a frequent speaker and trainer at industry events since 2006, including the CD/NLA shows and some upcoming regional association meetings. In his most recent seminar, he spoke about what he’s learned identifying and hiring like-minded people to join his team, but also the obligation he has not only to his customers, but especially to his employees.
“The big lesson that I had to learn is that we work for our employees. If we serve them well, then they’re going to serve our clients well, and our clients are going to stay with us and serve LEADER well,” he says. “It’s how Southwest Airlines was when they first started: they created a win-win-win for everyone—their employees, their clients, and their shareholders. Ultimately everyone has to feel like they are winning or the relationship will start to sour and eventually end. No one is more important than anyone else. We’re all equals, we’re all peers, we all need each other. The only difference is that as owners, we get to determine the rules of engagement, and if we do it right, then we are able to retain our best employees and clients, and everyone wins! And what’s better than that?” [CD0623]