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Charlotte’s H.A. Thompson is on the ride of his life

H.A. Thompson, right, founded Rose Chauffeured Transportation 30 years ago with one car. Now, he and his son, company Vice President Andy Thompson, center, and General Manager Tom Holden direct an organization that uses town cars, sport utility vehicles, motorcoaches and minibuses to deliver customers to their destinations.
H.A. Thompson, right, founded Rose Chauffeured Transportation 30 years ago with one car. Now, he and his son, company Vice President Andy Thompson, center, and General Manager Tom Holden direct an organization that uses town cars, sport utility vehicles, motorcoaches and minibuses to deliver customers to their destinations. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

When H.A. Thompson first started chauffeuring newlyweds in a beige 1956 Rolls-Royce, AM radio was king, the Yellow Pages was his company’s best advertising tool and Charlotte’s business community was an infant – small but growing, he said.

Thirty years later, Rose Chauffeured Transportation, the family-owned company he founded with his two sons, drives more corporate clients than married couples, has a fleet of 58 sedans, motorcoaches and minibuses and employs 125 people – some of whom have shuttled some of the city’s most illustrious figures, from Hugh McColl Jr. to Michael Jordan.

“You pay a premium, but you get the quality,” Thompson, 81, said. “That’s the secret.”

In the three decades he and his team have piloted the company, which generated $10 million in revenue last year, Thompson has amassed a trove of takeaways that turned his idea for a career change into a profitable enterprise. For example:

▪ He changed his business model as demand for his services evolved: “I kept listening to these entrepreneurs – if you’re not growing, you’re dying. And it’s very true. You can’t plateau, or you’ll start down the other side of the mountain.”

▪ He budgeted carefully, kept a “healthy” checking account and spent money conservatively: “I never – except for the very first car – put any of my own money in the business. I underpaid my sons and myself and in December, if there was money in the checking account, we took a bonus. We did that for quite a few years.”

▪ And he was bold with his publicity. In 1989, he and his wife, Lucille, drove to televangelist Jim Bakker’s fraud trial sporting rubber masks of Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye. They took a limo that once belonged to Praise the Lord ministry. Thompson bought it for $8,500 when he found it up for sale on a limo lot. He attached a sign to the side of the car that read: “Jim & Tammy’s PTL limo 1985-87.”

“That was a little rude, but it was a great PR stunt,” Thompson recalled. “Everybody took our pictures.”

A Rolls-Royce and roller coaster

Thompson is no stranger to the spotlight. In 1968, he moved to Charlotte from New York to take a job as a deejay for WSOC. Three years later, he got a gig hosting a midday show on WBT Radio. By the mid 1980s, Thompson, then in his 50s, looked for an exit.

“I knew I had to get out of broadcasting,” he said. “It’s not something you get old in.”

He and his sons, Jeff and Andy, started driving newlyweds on the weekends hoping to make $500 each week. They gave their first ride on March 23, 1985, to Jerry and Debi Keck, who wed atop Carowinds’ Thunder Road roller coaster.

“We thought that was pretty hokey,” said Jerry Keck, now 76. “The park, they were looking for a gimmick.”

Like Thompson, the Kecks, who live in Atlanta, celebrated their 30th anniversary on Monday. They didn’t ride a roller coaster. They prefer to “just keep the memory going,” Jerry Keck said.

Never stay stagnant

The Thompson family’s chauffeuring service started as Rolls Limousine Limited. The name changed when Rolls-Royce accused the company of violating their trademark, Thompson said. The business was then christened Rose Limousine Limited for the red roses drivers handed to new brides. The name changed again when the company cut limos from its fleet to curb costs during the recession.

“We realized the stretch limos weren’t giving us the seven-days-a-week business,” Thompson said.

Today, Rose transports corporate execs, churches, retirement centers, schools and athletic teams, such as the Carolina Panthers. The company has been called one of the best in the South, and, last week, a trade publication named it the charter bus operator of the year.

“Since the beginning of time ... word-of-mouth is the answer to marketing your product in the service business,” Thompson said. “You have to build your culture ... your culture of being polite.”

That doesn’t come without bumps in the road.

▪ Drivers have been in accidents. To make travel safer, the company uses a GPS system that shows dispatchers how fast a driver is going. If a chauffeur is speeding, dispatchers call and tell them to slow down.

▪ As the company grew, Rose experienced high employee turnover. Consultants helped find employees whose skills matched the job, and the company used a personality test based on its best workers. The business still uses the assessment for every new hire.

▪ Demand drove growth.

“We didn’t go out and buy five cars and say, ‘Gee, let’s hope we can rent these things,’” Thompson said. “We made the profits, and we bought the next car when we created the demand for it.”

Chauffeur to the stars

You can’t help but ask Thompson about the celebrities Rose has chauffeured over the years. Their photos and signatures line the walls of the company’s Pineville headquarters. Their names are recognizable: Joan Rivers. Sean Hannity. John O’Hurley.

Her name, Thompson said, was Elizabeth Taylor, and she was hungry. She wanted chicken. He took her to a Bojangles’. And, he said, “no one inside recognized her.”

How Rose Chauffeured Transportation kept growing for 30 years

Keep growing: To grow his revenues from $179,000 when he started in 1985 to $10 million by 2014, H.A. Thompson took advantage of his company’s momentum and kept adding equipment and employees to the roster. “You have to set up the business so it perpetuates itself,” he said. “You’re going to have put up with Rose for a long time.”

Don’t be greedy: Thompson said entrepreneurs tend to grab the money as soon as they get it and spend it “on lifestyles.” If you spend the money on yourself, you’ll wind up complaining about not making a profit, he said.

Offer the best: An elaborate dispatch system that keeps track of drivers and warns them of anticipated road and flight delays helps Rose’s chauffeurs be “always on time,” Thompson said, so customers don’t have to wait. The vehicles are also washed, vacuumed and cleaned out every day.

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