Jerry Vickery became a limo driver to fill his spare time. But since taking the reins last year of this longtime Rockford company, he’s accelerated the company’s commitment to excellence.
After he retired, Jerry Vickery had extra time on his hands. A friend urged him to take on some part-time work driving for Classic Limousine, 5024 Willow Creek Road, Machesney Park, Ill.
“He suggested it was a nice way to make some extra money during the winter to support my golfing fun in the summertime, and he was right,” recalls Vickery. “I tried it, and I really liked it.”
Vickery admired the way then-owner Randy Samples required drivers to be neatly dressed, polite and always dependable. He also liked the way Samples made sure the vehicles were spotless and the customers were satisfied.
“I really enjoyed being associated with the business. So, when Randy decided to sell, I worked things out to buy it,” Vickery explains.
Samples founded the business in 1995, and Vickery took the reins in February 2014, determined to keep standards high. But he also made a few changes. For one thing, he raised the visibility of Classic Limousine. He joined the Rockford Chamber of Commerce and purchased more advertising, which has paid off.
“We’ve had a rather amazing growth in business,” says Vickery. “We were doing 25 to 30 runs per week. Today we average 40 to 50 runs per week and are still growing. A whole lot of families are realizing that it’s cheaper and a lot more convenient to take a limo to O’Hare than it is to take the bus.”
Marketing has been effective because people who wouldn’t normally think of taking a limousine need only look at the value proposition to be convinced, says Vickery. For example, six adults going to O’Hare together pay $185, or about $31 each, for a stretch limo ride (one-way). Adult bus tickets are $21 each (one-way), and if you drive, tolls and parking fees add up.
“Unlike the bus, we work around your schedule,” says Vickery. “We pick you up from your home, at whatever time you tell us, load your luggage for you, provide a comfortable ride with complimentary soft drinks and water, and drop you off outside the airport door. On the way home, we’ll be right there waiting for you at the time you tell us, and we’ll load your luggage, drive you home and back our vehicle into your driveway to unload you and your luggage at the garage door.”
Limo service is available 24/7, with no upcharge for night hours. “If you have an early flight, we’ll pick you up at 3 a.m. – whatever time you need,” Vickery says.
Getting the word out is paying off.
“Thanks to Randy, the business already had an excellent reputation,” says Vickery. “It was the size he wanted it to be, a size that worked well for him. But I wanted to grow it.”
Now that Vickery is getting his wish, he’s working through the growing pains. “We’re at least two cars short,” he says. “I’m networking with some people in the limousine sales business right now.” The business already runs 10 vehicles, including a 14-passenger SUV limo, a 16-passenger bus limo, six- and eight-passenger limos and two-passenger sedans. He has 19 contracted and carefully screened drivers working for him; 17 are age 50 or older, and several have been with the company for many years. “They like the way they can request to work during certain hours,” says Vickery, who still takes driving shifts himself. “Some want to drive only on weekends or only early mornings, and so forth.” Only the limousine bus and SUV require a special driver’s license, which several of Vickery’s drivers possess.
Keeping track of the busy schedule are two office employees. Pam West has worked for the business 15 years, and Dan Bement, who began as a driver three years ago, moved into the office a few months ago. Among other tasks, the duo chart each trip on a wall-sized, color-coded whiteboard that all drivers can easily view. Vickery also employs a young man who keeps the vehicles clean and looking sharp.
“Our employees answer the phones 24 hours a day,” says Vickery. “You won’t be met by a machine when you call. Having said that, we do need advanced notice that you need us at the airport at a certain time. Occasionally a new customer will call from O’Hare and expect us to provide an immediate ride.”
While people may think of limousines mostly in connection with weddings and proms, more than 50 percent of Classic Limousine’s business involves driving people to and from various airports.
“A lot of our customers are executives who have a long day of travel and meetings ahead of them and appreciate having door-to-door service early in the morning and late at night, at whatever time they need it,” says Vickery. “Especially in foul weather, they’re glad not to be digging out their cars from snowy parking lots or waiting around for a bus.”
It’s all about time and convenience, says Vickery.
“Executives are also pretty sensitive about not flaunting their perks, these days,” he adds. “They don’t necessarily want employees to see a limousine sitting in the parking lot. A rented limousine ride strikes the right balance. It says, ‘Yes, I am an executive, but this is business.’”
Of course, not all of Classic Limousine’s customers are business executives. Some of them are, well … rock stars.
The company has long been advertised as “the official limousine service of Cheap Trick.” Vickery describes the band members as “down-to-earth, gracious people, and not at all full of themselves. It’s nice to be associated with people who can be wealthy and nice at the same time.”
Along with airport runs, Classic Limousine specializes in transportation for weddings, funerals, proms, bar-hopping parties and chartered events. Its normal service area is a 100-mile radius of Rockford.
Parents often hire Classic Limousine to safely transport high school-aged children to and from dances and other special events. “We explain to parents, up front, that underaged individuals will not be allowed to bring alcohol into the vehicle,” says Vickery. “We strictly enforce that. If a driver finds that an underaged individual has snuck alcohol aboard, the ride stops, no matter where we happen to be, and their parents are called. Period.”
For wedding packages, drivers are dressed in tuxedos and champagne is provided for the couple, along with a red carpet roll-out at the church, streamers, balloons and a “Just Married” sign. “We’ll chill any other beverages they want to provide for the wedding party,” he adds. “We’ll pick up the groom’s party and take them to the church, then pick up the bride and her party. Afterward, we take the wedding party to the reception. We offer to take the couple to a hotel, pick them up the following morning and take them to the airport for their honeymoon departure – however they want it done, we do it.”
Funerals are another occasion when limousine service is deeply appreciated. Family members find comfort in being together in a large vehicle that can accommodate them, and no one in the party needs to think about driving. Classic Limousine works with several funeral homes to offer whatever is needed.
Bar-hopping parties comprise another segment of Vickery’s business. “People like us to take them from one stop to another, maybe in Chicago, Madison or Milwaukee, and get them safely home,” says Vickery.
So what happens when a vehicle breaks down?
“We have an in-house mechanic and, if there are any major problems, we also have an excellent mechanic less than a mile away, who has a large enough hoist to handle these vehicles,” he says.
It’s all part of knowing the ins and outs of a limousine service business.
Born and reared in Rockford, Vickery lived in many cities throughout the Midwest after college. He moved back home to help out his parents when they were approaching old age. Upon retirement, he never imagined he’d be learning to run his own small business or traveling to conventions to learn about the best practices in the limousine industry.
“It’s all worked out really well, and I’m proud to build on the fine reputation this business already had,” says Vickery. “I think we provide a real service to people and we do it well.”