When he was 8 years old, Jon Epstein washed his first Royal Coachman vehicle. Founded by his father Robert in 1969, Royal Coachman was originally a travel agency business with two cars and three drivers. As he grew up alongside his older sister Amy, Epstein remembers pitching in on other family business duties, like sitting around the kitchen table separating the pink, white, and yellow invoice slips or detailing vehicles. With each passing year it was clear that the younger Epstein’s path would eventually lead to running the family business.
“I essentially learned everything about the business—driving, dispatching, mechanical work. Even my college thesis was about Royal Coachman,” says Epstein. “I knew my path.” And while Amy did not originally intend to join the business, she did; in 2004, Amy and Jon purchased the company from their father. Amy O’Rourke serves as CEO and Epstein as president.
“We had really started taking more control of the company in the mid-’90s, when my father and mother would spend more time in Florida,” Epstein says. “Any big decision was run by us, so when we bought it, there was not much of a change operationally.”
Royal Coachman Worldwide Limousine Service is far from its travel agency beginnings these days. Their fleet of approximately 125 vehicles includes luxury sedans, SUVs, Ford Transits, minibuses, and executive vans. There’s not one limousine in the fleet. “We got out of that business,” says Epstein. “We’re very sedan-centric for rides and transfers. That’s our business now.”
Headquartered in Denville, N.J., Royal Coachman is in the thick of the industry’s most competitive market. Its growth can be attributed to a high level of service and ability to maintain corporate accounts despite competition. “We still work with three of my father’s original accounts from 1969-70,” Epstein says. “Sandoz/Novartis was one of the first, as well as Warner Lambert/Pfizer. We were in the right place at the right time with those clients in an era when the chauffeured ground transportation industry was like the Wild West.” Yet while its location helps Royal Coachman succeed in servicing these lucrative clients, it also makes the company vulnerable when an event such as 9/11 or the 2008 recession happens.
“9/11 was devastating to anyone in our business all over the country, not only in the Northeast, but it did take our market a little longer to recover,” says Epstein. “We virtually saw our business going down to 50 rides a day, so we had to stay lean. I sold 35 cars the day after 9/11. We took major steps to prepare for a long process of rebound. We worked with vendors to get relief, asked our insurance companies to lower our premiums. Being upfront with them was helpful, as opposed to not paying them anything. We also asked employees to work with us and hang on. We reacted quickly so we didn’t have one month where we didn’t turn a profit and we didn’t let go of any employees.”
Things felt somewhat back to normal in 2002, and in 2004, O’Rourke and Epstein went through the business valuation process, doing it the “official way,” says Epstein, and purchased the company. Their first big decision was to relocate the headquarters to Denville from Orange, N.J. “We felt there was a better labor pool farther west and it was certainly a better commute for Amy and me and many of our employees, some of whom relocated to Pennsylvania.
Just as Royal Coachman was settling into its new, larger location in 2006, the financial meltdown of 2007 hit. Epstein says while some of his competitors and friends were hit significantly, his company was only down about 17 percent through the whole recession. “I think the fact that we have a diverse client base beyond just financial institutions, like the heavy pharmaceutical companies, helped us rebound. We also worked with vendors and our landlord reduced our rent, much like after 9/11,” he says. ”By 2010, we had gotten back that 17 percent plus more.”
These were significant challenges for the second generation of a family business to take on almost immediately, but Epstein says their ability to weather these storms is because he and O’Rourke know their individual strengths in the business. “I never felt like my dad was one of those controlling people,” says Epstein. “He did a good job separating our responsibilities. We are all so close, which can make it hard to work together, but we did it. Amy is better at sales, so she has dedicated her time to that, while my prime focus has been operations. We see eye-to-eye on just about everything and that helps a lot.”
A particular set of challenges presents itself purely because of the company’s location. According to Epstein, “Besides California, New Jersey has got to be the worst place to have a business. It’s economically challenging to operate in our state. They make it hard to be an employer.”
The New Jersey/New York metropolitan area is widely regarded as the epicenter of the chauffeured transportation industry. It’s the most populous part of the country, with millions of people packed into a small space, meaning more cars, more traffic, and more competition.
“This area is infamous for its traffic,” Epstein says. “You could be cruising along and if there’s an accident in the tunnel, boom, you’re stuck.”
Factoring in the competition—Royal Coachman is surrounded by other large operators—finding chauffeurs is another challenge. “We recruit chauffeurs in every way you can imagine: CareerBuilder and many other online sources, newspapers, job fairs, open houses, and we have an employee referral program as well. We do everything,” he says.
The issue stems not so much from difficulty finding chauffeurs, but rather in finding the right ones. “Our standards are high. We don’t take a large percentage of people who come through the door,” Epstein says. “Once we start background testing and drug testing, we start losing people. Or if they get past that they’ll tell us this doesn’t work for them. We also have guys who, six to eight months down the road, will tell us they found a job in their field. So we end up paying for all the training, testing, checks, fingerprinting, and it’s quite a challenge.”
Chauffeur Manager Mark Richardson and HR Manager Kerrie Obermeyer, who have been with Royal Coachman for 9 and 10 years, respectively, supervise the chauffeur team. For safety training, Rich Levens has been working with the company on a part-time basis for 15 years. He is an ex-captain of the West Orange Police Department and certified in the Smith System, AAA Motor Club, and National Safety Council. Epstein brainstorms with them to train and keep those who perform well, making sure Royal Coachman has a core group of chauffeurs to survive the 25 to 30 percent annual turnover.
Like any successful business, O’Rourke and Epstein have surrounded themselves with people they can count on to make decisions and lead the company in the right direction.
The key people in the company include CFO Larry Abraham, who has been with them for 10 years and is the third member of Royal Coachman’s executive committee. “When there’s a decision to be made, it’s us and him. We always have three votes,” Epstein says. Don Tropila, dispatch manager, is a 19-year employee and Marc Monsko, IT/Accounting Manager has been with Royal Coachman for 13 years. Zorian Ricks, a 12-year employee of the company, is VP of Client Relations, handling inside and outside sales, as well as customer care. He’s also a familiar face at industry events, like the Global Business Travel Association convention, where he represents Royal Coachman.
Epstein makes sure to catch up with each manager daily (both he and O’Rourke are in the office every day) and the whole management staff meets once a month to see what needs to be worked on or to brainstorm how to implement new policies.
“Amy and I are very open door. We want our managers and employees to be able to solve problems without waiting for our input,” he says. “We’re not owners who care about getting the credit. We preach professionalism and our goal is no drama. We talk to the CFO the same way as the car washer. As long as you provide a good experience for our clients, that’s what matters.”
We want our managers and employees to be able to solve problems without waiting for our input. We’re not owners who care about getting the credit.” – Jon Epstein, Royal Coachman
They also make sure to appreciate their staff. Regular functions include a summer barbecue, holiday party, contests with gift card rewards, and surprising them with lunch.
With a well-equipped team in the office, Epstein is able to focus more on some of his responsibilities inside and outside the company. For one, Epstein is the face of the company, not just at industry shows but also for affiliates. More than 90 percent of the company’s clients are corporate, which means high-level executives are traveling around the country and globe daily. Epstein has made sure to develop and foster those affiliate relationships through the years.
“Most of the networking is done through me, and Zorian also plays a part, but I’m friends with almost everyone we do business with,” he says. “I have some markets where I’m still using the first affiliate I met in that city. I’m loyal. I don’t play the game: You give me work, I’ll give you work. I’ll use you because you give good service, not because you’re promising to send me work.”
On an industry level, Epstein devotes a lot of time to local and national associations. He is First Vice President and Treasurer of Limousine Association of New Jersey (LANJ) and co-chair of its membership committee. He is also on the NLA membership committee as well as the Chauffeur Driven Advisory Board.
“We’ve been involved with LANJ and the NLA since they started. The association is a great tool, and LANJ is really strong, and it’s a good learning tool for everyone. We try to provide good substance at meetings, from legislative updates to cost savings advice for businesses,” Epstein says. “Lately, the hot topic is regulating TNCs and we’ve been dealing with politicians and going to fundraisers, which can be time consuming, but you’ve got to give back to the industry.”
Education gleaned from association involvement has played a huge role in Royal Coachman’s success. “You’ve got to get out there and network, join your local association and the NLA,” he says. “You’re not going to learn by sitting on your butt. My dad was my mentor growing up. You need someone who’s been around the block who you can talk to.”
Epstein has been a member of the Limousine Entrepreneurs Group (LEG), founded by Tom Mazza, since 2004. Comprising 12 companies from the U.S. and Canada, LEG meets a few times a year for intense, three-day sessions, hearing from guest speakers and sharing the ups and downs of running a business.
“These are some of the best operators I know,” says Epstein. “They’ve done a tremendous amount for me and I’ve made decisions based on the recommendations of the group. If you’re not in one as an operator, get into one.” He adds that these fellow operators have become some of his best friends. “Even when we go out to dinner we end up talking business, but it’s still so much fun.”
Even though Epstein may be the familiar face, that’s not to say O’Rourke isn’t recognizable around the industry herself. Some might even recall her being featured in an American Express OPEN TV and radio ad campaign. Royal Coachman is a certified Woman Owned Business, and has been named on Women’s Enterprise Magazine’s “Top 100 Women Owned Business” list and NJBIZ’s “New Jersey’s Top 50 Women in Business,” among others. She also does speaking engagements across the country.
This brother-and-sister ownership pair brings their collective knowledge and business acumen to Royal Coachman and work to make decisions to take the company to the next level. Years ago, in 2001, one decision they made together before they bought the company was the purchase of minibuses, and Epstein says increasing the fleet with larger vehicles is going to be something they work toward in the coming years.
“We are going to be adding more Transits and minibuses to increase our already robust shuttle and large passenger movement work,” he says. “It’s a good direction to go in light of what’s going on, and group transportation seems to be TNC-resistant.” Motorcoaches are on their radar, but Epstein sees those as a different animal, requiring special attention and preparation to keep in a fleet.
Considering that family is the foundation of Royal Coachman, it is interesting to note that neither Epstein’s nor O’Rourke’s children work in the business. “Amy and I wanted our kids to go out and do their own thing. Who knows if down the line they’ll get involved,” Epstein says. O’Rourke’s son Michael lives and works in Philadelphia and her daughter Jessica just graduated from college, also residing in Philadelphia. Epstein’s daughter Melissa, 24, works in New York City for an IT recruiting firm, and his son Stephen, 21, is entering his senior year at Syracuse University.
The family though is incredibly tight-knit. Epstein has been married to his wife Abby for 28 years (together for 34), and he says there are two annual vacations that no one in the family misses: skiing out West and camping every summer at Lake George. “We are really into the outdoors,” he says. “We hike, snowshoe, cross-country ski, water ski...all that fun stuff.”
Surprisingly—or not if you know him—Epstein is also a rugby player, a game he learned to appreciate in college. “I’ve been playing since 1982 and I still love it. Most people choose to stop playing, I didn’t. I’ve suffered numerous injuries and it’s beaten the [crap] out of me. It’s taken its toll so I play only two to three matches a season.”
But Epstein realizes he might not get his friends and business contacts out on the rugby field, so he also enjoys golfing. He looks forward to an annual trip to Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania, where his good friend Tom Miller, owner of Regency Transportation, is a member. “That’s a cool thing I get to take a part in every year,” Epstein says. “It’s a great time with a bunch of my industry friends.” Epstein has found that balance of work and family that most people long for, and through it all, he says operators can’t lose sight of the one thing that matters most to be successful in this industry: “Customer service to the client is everything.” [CD1016]
The American Express OPEN TV and radio ad campaign featuring Royal Coachman can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gbaOL4aNq4