Driving Transactions
Sunday, April 21, 2024

BY ROB SMENTEK

Gateway Global Cover Art: Gateway Global COO Joel Amato with Finance Administrator Gina Bonelli at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Photography by Chris Weiss.

As an operator in the Bay Area since 1979, Gateway Global President Sam Amato has seen everything, from remarkable financial upswings and meteoric rise of Silicon Valley to devastating busts and recessions. But through it all, he’s maintained an incredible passion for the industry.

“I love what I’m doing—it’s exciting and there’s a lot of good people in the business,” he says. “I’ve built many friendships; that’s been an important thing to me. This industry is so fast paced that when you look at the clock, you just don’t have enough time in the day. It’s never been boring. It’s a different challenge every day.”

As the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun. But 45 years in any industry is a long time, let alone one that requires your head to be in the game 24/7/365, and he’s been slowly decreasing his time in the office since the pandemic. At long last, Sam has taken a step back and now considers himself “semi-retired.” Does this mean he’s finally taking some time to himself?

Sort of.

“I’m trying,” he laughs. “My goal is to go to a four-day workweek. I don’t think I’ll ever fully retire. This business will keep you young.”

But as he steps away from the daily grind, Sam knows that Gateway Global is in more-than-competent hands.

Gateway GlobalL to R: Senior Chauffeurs Dennis Escobar, Ligia Calonje, Mario Saccheri, Oscar Caceres, Rick Miller, and Carlos Castillo with Gateway Global’s luxury fleet “Fortunately, I have two great kids who are doing an exceptional job in the business,” he says. “They’ve helped grow it substantially. The only reason I’m not retired yet is because they won’t let me.”

While Sam’s reputation for being among the titans of the industry is irrefutable, these days you’re more likely to see the impact that his children—Joel and Gina—have made on the company (and beyond) as they continue to carve a legacy of their own. Never has chauffeured transportation been in such a period of rapid change, especially regarding technology, regulations, client appetites and demands, and even the metro area around them, but both are fully entrenched in shaping the future of the business to be prepared for whatever comes their way. As the second generation of the Gateway Global family, they have proven themselves to be important cogs in the machine, despite their father’s initial reluctance to have them be part of the company.

“Fortunately, I have two great kids who are doing an exceptional job in the business. They’ve helped grow it substantially. The only reason I’m not retired yet is because they won’t let me.” – Sam Amato, President of Gateway Global

“I actually never wanted them to get into the business,” admits Sam. “Although I find the industry very satisfying, it takes a lot of time out of your life. But Gina and Joel both grew up in the industry; Joel started working for me when he was just 10 years old by washing cars. At the time, it was $5 a day. He asked for a raise within a month—and he got it. Both of them really just learned by example. It came down to their own decision: I told them ‘If you want to work for me, it’s open to you.’”

Gateway GlobalL to R: Joel Amato, Quality Assurance Manager Manny Mateo, Operations Manager Amy Critchlow, Hotel Shuttle Manager Jose Erazo, Accounts Receivable Manager Cherry Flores, President Sam Amato, Assistant Manager of Groups and Events David Del Castello, Affiliate Manager Michael Inniss, Accounts Receivable Specialist Kim Schliebus, Senior Account Manager of Groups and Events Catalina Gomez, Chauffeur Manager James Lilley, and Gina Bonelli Working periodically at Gateway throughout his schooling, Joel got a taste of the day-to-day operations. However, it wasn’t until he officially joined the staff in 2008 that he really caught the bug for the industry.

“When I first finished school, I went to London and was working at a headhunting company. I wanted to try something new and travel after college, so when I came back from London in 2008, I started working at Gateway again. I had always worked on and off at Gateway, whether it was during school, summers, you name it, but after college and my experience abroad, I saw there were a lot of opportunities for growth and places where I could help. I worked my way up from accounting and affiliate relations to operations and sales,” says Joel.

Quickly rising in the ranks, Joel now serves as chief operations officer and has really seized the reins of the company. Similarly, Gina joined Gateway in 2014 after spending time in other industries. She came to Gateway with a background in events, finance, and fashion. This enabled her to quickly transition from her first role as finance administrator to managing HR, compliance, and finance just a decade later.

Gateway GlobalL to R: John and Gina Bonelli with their kids Luca and Ava, Sam and Karen Amato, and Joel Amato at Gateway Global’s new San Carlos headquarters “While Gina lets me step up and be the face of things, she’s working behind the scenes and is an invaluable part of the company,” adds Joel.

“What our new headquarters means to me is that we’re in this for the long haul. We’re not looking to get out of the business. We have a new home.” – Joel Amato, Chief Operations Officer

When Chauffeur Driven last checked in on the Gateway team, they were on the rebound from the ravages of 2020. Now, three years later, the company has more than 50 vehicles on the road with a staff of 60+ people, some of whom have been with the firm for 20 years. That said, Joel saw this time as a unique opportunity to change things from within. “We’ve made a big effort toward company culture,” says Joel. “Not necessarily focusing on putting bodies in seats but on delivering excellent customer service. We’ve moved away from the idea that you simply need great dispatchers—we need a great team on every level. We want to treat our team the way we treat our customers: Friendly, attentive, helpful. We’ve made a big push for everyone to have that attitude.”

The pandemic also forced the Amatos to rethink their business and how they do things in-house.

“There was a time when I don’t think any operator in a major market would have a call center, but we’ve since brought on a large remote team in Serbia. We started that in 2021, and we’ve built that up to seven remote team members ... and growing. That’s allowed us to focus on customer service and provide coverage during times that are typically difficult, like graveyard shift, which allows us to sleep easy at night.”

Gateway GlobalL to R: Chief Operations Officer Joel Amato, President Sam Amato, and Finance Administrator Gina Bonelli at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco A good night’s sleep is certainly beneficial to the Amatos as their days are often filled with the many challenges of running a luxury transportation company in 2024. Chief among them: staffing.

“The biggest challenge is finding good, quality people,” says Sam, especially to meet the level of service that their company provides. “We have to do a lot more training than we ever did. You can walk into restaurants or retail stores and see customer service is lacking these days. We do not want it lacking in our business.”

Joel sees the growing competition in their market as another tribulation, particularly in the face of inflation.

“Our competitors are growing and it’s impacting rates,” says Joel. “Price is a big thing with many clients lately. They’re more worried about costs and budgets because prices have gone up laterally. Transportation is a nice thing to have, but it’s not always a requirement for some customers. So, one thing we focus on is that we are a premium service and cater to a client base that is not necessarily price-conscious, but more service-oriented. This forces us to say no to some business. We don’t want to sacrifice our service because we’re taking on too much. While our volume and trip counts aren’t exactly at the same place as they were pre-pandemic, they’re at a place where we can manage the business and fully take care of our clients at the same time.”

Gateway GlobalL to R: Senior Chauffeurs Mario Saccheri, James Lilley, and Dennis Escobar in San Francisco’s Marina District However, one area where Gateway has seen tremendous growth is in the events market. Sam points out that as more employees go back to work, particularly in Silicon Valley, they’re seeing more group business return. Joel concurs.

“Events are a big part of what we do. We’ve been doing more than just providing vehicles; we’ve also been providing onsite management and overall management of the event. So, ultimately, we provide the transportation, plan the routes, perform onsite management, traffic control ... we look at all aspects,” says Joel.

According to the Amatos, Gateway excels at providing service to upscale events as they’re a company that focuses on personal touch.

“We’re doing really well with medium-size events that require a higher touch and better customer service. We’re not just moving people, we’re transporting C-level executives. What we’re seeing is that business is moving into Sprinter and minibuses,” says Joel.

“We also do a lot of Wine Country stuff, but it’s more corporate/event-driven Wine Country work,” says Sam. “The trends that we’ve seen is that business meetings that host 30-300 people have been moved from San Francisco to Napa Valley. They’ll fly them into San Francisco but then we transfer them to Napa or Sonoma. Most meetings have moved into those areas.”

Gateway GlobalL to R: Senior Chauffeurs Mario Saccheri, James Lilley, and Dennis Escobar in San Francisco’s Marina District Another big change for the Gateway team is the very place where they do business. After 38 years at their headquarters in Burlingame, Calif., Gateway is relocating 15 minutes down the road to a new company-owned facility in San Carlos. The Amatos are thrilled about the move, which they expect to happen in late March 2024.

“Our lease was up, and it was time. We’re moving the main body of the vehicles to a new building where we’ll have a state-of-the-art service, detailing, and washing facility. The building is much bigger, more modern—we’re going to do a lot more there,” says Sam.

Joel sees the move as sending a message to the industry as well as their staff.

“What our new headquarters means to me is that we’re in this for the long haul. We’re not looking to get out of the business. We have a new home. Again, we want to focus on culture and the team we have to make sure they’re well taken care of. This is one way we do that. We’re doing a lot of work in Silicon Valley, so it places us right between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. We’re central to everything. The main facility is much bigger than where we’ve been. We’ll have to relearn how to park, and everything, but it’s a big step and a real opportunity to make an investment in the company.”

Since managing the company and the construction project are two full-time jobs, Joel and Gina have tasked their father with wrangling the finer details of the new facility while they handle the daily operations of the business.

If, as Sam says, the business keeps him young, then his other passion must make him a proverbial teenager. When Sam isn’t in the office, odds are you’ll find him behind a drum kit, playing like his heroes Ginger Baker from Cream, Billy Cobham from Miles Davis, and Ringo Starr from the Beatles. More than just a hobby, Sam plays in a power trio, and is getting ready for a show in April.

“We’re in the studio every Saturday, and 95 percent of what we play is original music. We perform four times a year. We’re loud and have a big sound,” admits Sam.

With the second generation taking a bigger role within an always-growing company, perhaps Sam will carve out a bit more time to enjoy the fruits of his labor, knowing that his mentorship produced another round of passionate leaders like himself. He theorizes on what makes his kids successful in their role:

“I guess it’s just that they’re chips off the old block.”   [CD0218]