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Wheels of Fortune

[ 0 ] Jul. 1, 2007 | SBO Editor

Amy Birnbaum has been involved in the limousine business since she was a young child, sitting at the dining room table of her North Caldwell, NJ home pulling apart the pinks, yellows and whites from the customer forms her father had brought home.

Now, more than 35 years later – and 23 years after she officially began working for her father’s company, Royal Coachman  – Amy Birnbaum is arguably the best-known chief executive in the chauffeured ground transportation industry.  Yet, her ability to generate sales increases of 40% annually, her decision to take the company global and her company’s pioneering use of advanced technology notwithstanding, her name is best known because of the widely seen and heard American Express Open commercials that profile her story (and the use of the Amex Open card that allows her to “chase a dream instead of an invoice.”)

“My parents live in Fort Lauderdale and they act like their daughter is suddenly a star.  Everyone at their club knows about the commercial,” said Birnbaum, whose Denville, NJ company generates $12 million in annual sales.

“My kids (16 and 12) think the commercial is really cool and I was a big hit at back-to-school night.  I’ve been interrupted waiting for take-out at a sports bar and gotten calls from old high school friends I haven’t heard from in years.

“But I don’t have a big ego and while the attention has been nice, it’s really about the business.”
That’s what convinced her over a year ago to listen when American Express’ advertising agency first came calling.

They were searching for an attractive small business owner who could personalize the small company benefits offered with the Open card.  Birnbaum sent them a headshot, agreed to a D&B report, and consented to being interviewed on tape.   She had few expectations until she was told in January that they had chosen her.

After scratching the initial decision to shoot the TV spot in Tokyo, American Express filmed in Connecticut and LA.   The commercials began airing in late August and will continue through early 2007.

Royal Coachman Worldwide, with the added appellation indicating its decision to go global in 2001 (“My limo service runs from Jersey to Beijing,” Birnbaum says in the commercial), has certainly benefited from the exposure.  Market share from existing accounts has increased (“Guess they feel if they have a choice, they might as well go with the one on TV,” she said) and worldwide sales have jumped 15% to 20%.  She’s been profiled in trade stories and invited to speak at various business functions (including one recently with two of the most visible stock market experts, Mad Money’s Jim Cramer and former Met Lenny Dykstra).

Modest Beginnings
Back in 1969, Bob Epstein, the owner of a local travel agency, figured opening a limo service would be a nice side business. Beginning with two cars and three drivers that took customers to and from the airport, he soon found it was a case of the proverbial tail wagging the dog. The limo company prospered and convinced him to sell the travel agency. Royal Coachman was enjoying steady growth when Epstein’s daughter Amy entered the business in 1983.

“It was always understood that my brother, Jon, would enter the business (which he did, and today is his older sister’s partner), but even though I worked summers detailing cars and driving the airport shuttle service, there were never any discussions about me,” said Birnbaum, whose career expectations took a sudden detour when her father asked her to start work the Monday after she received a psychology degree from Rider College.  “I soon found that I had some natural talents for this business.”

She had no trouble buying into her father’s philosophy about always putting the customer first.  Getting initially involved in sales and customer development, maintenance and negotiations, she grew into the role of a chief executive, eventually taking over when her father retired in 1999.  Under Birnbaum’s helm, the company has since grown to more than 150 employees and 150 vehicles (including buses, sedans, SUVs and stretch limos).

She implemented a “one stop shopping” affiliates program that today allows customers the opportunity to reserve chauffeured transportation in more than 450 cities around the world.  She had Royal Coachman Worldwide certified as a woman-owned business.  Completion of this rigorous process (where, according to Birnbaum, “you can’t have the owner say to his wife, ‘hey, honey, you be the boss’”) has given her the opportunity to bid for corporate business as a minority-owned company.

Then 9/11 changed everything.   “We were going gangbusters, breaking records every week and then everything came to a screeching halt,” said Birnbaum.  “We lost 80% of our business.  There were layoffs and salary reductions, and cars were sold off.  It took us 18 months to recoup our losses.”

Royal Coachman, however, never stopped being innovative in meeting the needs of its customers.  For example, Birnbaum has implemented online reservations, use of client profiles and integration with corporate travel agencies.  She turned the affiliate service into a highly competitive product against the major limousine companies, which had packaged it as a luxury item.

As a training tool as well as a customer service, she placed drive cams in her cars. These devices, which operate off G forces, assure smoother rides by indicating whether cars are hitting potholes or taking corners too fast, causing “customers to bounce around in the backseat.”

Presently, Royal Coachman Worldwide is beta testing an integrated GPS system, which allows its dispatchers to estimate customer pick up times by showing on a screen not only where the closest cars available are located, but whether or not they have POBs (passengers on board).

Being proactive remains a #1 company-wide priority.  For example, when construction slowed traffic at Newark Liberty Airport, the company had airport coordinators greet customers upon their arrival and give them updated reports on their cars’ status.

The company constantly monitors its on-time rate.  “This is important so if there is traffic, construction or storm-related problems, we can keep the customer aware so they know their options,” said Birnbaum.  “Our 99.2% rate is very high for the industry, but our major concern continues to be the other .8%.”

While Birnbaum has proven herself to be a successful and confident leader, she admittedly had concerns about how the American Express spots would portray her.

“They assured me that they wanted me to be myself,” she said.  “There was some dialogue written that just wasn’t me, but they listened and made changes.  I got to do my own hair and makeup.  I was very impressed by the finished product and I certainly can’t complain about the effect it’s had on our business.”

Amy Birnbaum has grown her chauffeured ground transportation service into a multi-million dollar venture. American Express-Open profiles her enterprise in its national advertising campaign. The thirty second campaign profiles Birnbaum and her Royal Coachman Worldwide business.

Category: Magazine, Small Business Opportunities, Small Business Opportunities July 2007