BY ROB SMENTEKThough Boston-area powerhouses Above All Transportation and Boston Car Service merged in 2015 to form a diverse luxury ground transportation superstore, the Canton, Mass.-based company has never stopped looking forward and maintaining a sense of enthusiasm.
“There are a lot of exciting opportunities out there, and we’re exploring everything—acquisitions and sales, even different verticals. We’re really optimistic about what’s happening in the industry,” says CEO Brett Barenholtz.
Whether it’s bus work, employee shuttles, airport transfers, or even weekend weddings, Above All/Boston Car prides itself on delivering its service for a clientele that is looking for exceptional, high-end delivery. This is largely the result of a change in mindset post-COVID where they refocused on their core values instead of aiming to be everything to everyone.
“We’re just trying to be a lot more careful about who our clients are and how we work with people,” says Barenholtz. “We’re not selling a commodity anymore; we’re not going to be a part of a conversation where it’s a war on pricing. This is not just a taxi ride or an Uber; these are trained, drug-tested professional chauffeurs in new vehicles. You can always call those other services, and maybe you’ll get a good ride or maybe you won’t. With us, it’s superior and consistent service—and that’s what we’re selling. We’re not for everybody, and that’s OK, but we’re for people who want premium service and are willing to pay for it.”
Barenholtz and his partner, Above All/Boston Car President Kevin Cronin, are quick to credit the pandemic for making them work wiser.
“We look at our margins much closer than before. It’s all about having the right margins and not just the top-line. We’re very concerned with bottom-line revenue and making sure that works out better now. I feel that we got a lot smarter after COVID, compared to 2019,” says Barenholtz.
Though in the 2023 post-COVID landscape, the CEO says that there’s nothing typical anymore, except for an expectation of quality customer service.
“Where our customer base used to be very corporate, our typical client now is someone who wants to get high-level service at a reasonable price, who is sick of low-rent service. It’s someone who likes to buy a business-class airline ticket or is willing to upgrade their seat. We offer a lot of peace of mind in that customers are dealing with professionals—now more than ever,” he says.
Fortunately, by being able to meet high service levels, Above All/Boston Car attracts customers throughout New England.
“We’re seeing work in different marketplaces now. We do a lot of employee shuttle work as well as university transportation. There are certain universities that don’t want to use a basic bus service; they’re a high-end private college and they’re not necessarily looking for cheap—they’re looking for great and reliable,” says Barenholtz. “There are colleges and corporations that care how their staff and executives are treated, and they want to ride with the best equipment out there. That’s where we come in. There’s a huge market for this work.”
Despite the trend of businesses adopting different and flexible working schedules—including remote work—the company is seeing success with employee shuttles for corporations and universities. Not only do Above All/Boston Car’s shuttles offer a comfortable, classy ride, but they also alleviate a huge problem for many companies: parking. This is especially true of those businesses that downsized their facilities or moved to locations where parking is a premium.
“We’re seeing companies that don’t want to travel in the public sector anymore,” says Barenholtz. “Parking in most cities is a problem. Companies don’t have parking for their staff anymore. Even if employees come into the office three days a week, many businesses just don’t have the lot space. We’re thinking of extending our services to last mile: people take public transit to a certain point, then we have geofenced areas where they can use an Uber-like app to get a luxury ride the rest of the way.”
“We’re also doing a lot of wedding shuttle buses,” adds Cronin. “It’s a nice dual usage where we’re running corporate during the week and getting use from the buses on the weekend. People are willing to pay for high-end shuttle bus services—we aren’t a company bringing in non-air conditioned schoolbuses. When people are spending a lot of money for a wedding at a big hotel, they expect a certain level of service. We specialize in that.”
Surprisingly, other transportation verticals are an emerging business path for the pair. They are currently exploring micromobility, which includes the use of small battery-powered vehicles such as golf carts, scooters, and e-bikes.
“We belong to a group that’s looking at the future of how micromobility is part of commercial real estate and we’re trying to work with developers and city planners, along with tech companies and auto manufacturers, to drill down and see how we can collaborate together in this new back-to-work paradigm,” says Barenholtz. “Mass transit alone will not get people consistently back to work. We’ve made some partnerships in different spaces to give developers better amenities to the people renting space there. We just see this as something we’re going to roll out to other cities in the next 12-24 months with shuttle services and last-mile services.”
To be a trendsetter and keep up with the proverbial next big thing, Barenholtz and Cronin say that networking is key—and not only within the industry, but with the larger business community around them.
“It’s all about who you keep connecting with. A lot of what we do is day to day, and we have to continue to envision what our future is going to look like. Going back 20 years or so, SUVs were something that no one thought was a big deal because you either took a limo or a sedan. But then they became the prime vehicle in our space. Now, many operators are seeing a lot of revenue from buses. So, we’re just looking at everything and trying to learn. We’re a logistics company that figures out how to move people around with ground transportation. It could be electric, it could be golf carts ... but we’re looking at everything that could make us relevant in the future, whether it’s FBOs, reservations for private aviation, or shuttles to summer destinations,” says Barenholtz.
No doubt, networking is equally important when it comes to affiliate work.
“We do a lot of farm-out work, and we appreciate those partnerships that we have around the country and the world more than ever,” says Barenholtz. “But again, it’s not about pricing; it’s about doing the work right. When we put our clients in your vehicles, we need the work done consistently well, and we need to set up communications with your company so we have 24/7 access. The people who can do that are the ones we want to work with. They have the same values as us, and we are grateful for those partnerships. Going on Facebook and asking ‘Who do we have here?’ is not good enough. It’s a starting point. When you’re putting your clients in someone’s hands, you want to know them up and down and sideways. We’ve spent decades learning who we can trust.”
As president of the New England Livery Association (NELA) and a board member of the National Limousine Association (NLA), Barenholtz stresses the importance of belonging to your regional and national associations.
“I consider NELA to be one of the best local associations in the country. It has a very good history. It’s great to have relationships with the people who are involved in it and to meet other owners who have similar issues that you have. You learn things from people who have one car as much as you learn from people who have 100 cars. Knowing people in the industry who can help you locally is a great thing. You can share ideas. In a lot of cases, we also have vendor members who are also vital partners. If you want to connect yourself to 150 companies in New England, get involved and support the association.”
And with many operators having fewer vehicles than they did before COVID, Cronin and Barenholtz believe these organizations are essential in helping businesses find like-minded partners during those busy periods.
“You don’t need to be built to handle the work on your busiest day of the year, you just have to have the right partnerships of companies that appreciate your service levels and that are on the same page. Local partnerships are extremely important; even though we compete, we must work together. That’s why regional associations matter,” says Barenholtz.
Regarding the New England marketplace, Cronin says that there continue to be many opportunities abound, although they are facing the same staffing issues that ground transportation providers around the world are struggling with—namely, hiring chauffeurs.
“Much of our staffing issues are a result of our standards being so high. Keep in mind, we perform full background checks on our drivers, and even our non-CDL sedan drivers are drug tested,” he says.
However, maintaining back-office staff has not been as much of a challenge for Above All/Boston Car, largely in part to the tight-knit, “small business” culture the company has developed.
“We stayed top-heavy through COVID because we had a lot of talented people we wanted to keep,” says Cronin. “We prioritized who we wanted, knowing that someday it was going to turn around. That move is benefitting us tremendously now because the people we retained are talented.”
“We like our culture, and we have great people on staff. I’ve never enjoyed working with a group than I do now with our staff. From office staff, to mechanics, to car washers, to chauffeurs ... I’ve never appreciated anyone as much as I do now with our team,” adds Barenholtz.
While Above All/Boston Car is positioned squarely on the forefront of the luxury ground transportation industry in their market, Barenholtz and Cronin are being cautious regarding adopting electric vehicles (EVs).
“We are waiting for the infrastructure to improve before we get into EVs. We, along with NELA, are pushing for Level 3 chargers in the limo area at the airport. Currently, there are a couple of Level 2 chargers that you can plug in for five hours and pick up a bare minimum of miles on that charge,” states Barenholtz.
And while it may not yet be practical for the industry’s needs, they’re keeping an eye on how quickly technology is advancing. “We see this as a frontier that we’re looking to get into. We’ve tested Tesla, Mercedes, and Lucid vehicles; they’re good cars, and there’s a lot of potential there,” he says.
In late 2019, Above All/Boston Car found success in the acquisition of two companies: ETS International and Bristol Coach & Limousine. The desire to grow is still strong with the partners, according to Barenholtz.
“We’re always looking to magnify our business, so we’re always looking at mergers and acquisitions. We had two decent sized acquisitions in the fourth quarter of 2019, and they ended up working out great. Kevin and I are planning on being around for a long time. We’re not exiting, and we’re looking to grow.” [CD0823]