Monday, October 03, 2005

In the Driver's Seat

As Vice President and CEO of Reston Limousine Service, Inc. in Sterling, Kristina Bouweiri sits at the helm of a $6 million business, overseeing a fleet of 93 luxury sedans, limousines, buses and vans (the fleet size is ranked 35th in North America by the industry’s trade publication), 200 employees, and a high-profile clientele including AOL, the Department of Justice, the IRS, Fannie Mae, and the Hyatt-Regency of Reston.

But as a kid growing up, she fully expected to follow her parents into the Foreign Service. She got a degree in International Affairs and promptly moved to Africa to teach women entrepreneurship skills.

Her journey – from training other women to start their own businesses to becoming a successful entrepreneur herself – is a story of a woman negotiating a male-dominated industry with a lot of hard work, astute business smarts and a few lucky breaks along the way.

She was first introduced to the limousine business by her husband (who had started it in 1990), when they were dating. As their relationship grew, she took up his offer to join him in running the business – for no pay (except she could draw her living expenses). It did not matter to her that she was not making any salary she says, because she was working for herself and “working on building the company.”

At that time, with five cars and $300,000 in annual revenue, the company mainly served corporate clients and pursued “high dollar jobs”. While that game plan had worked initially, by 1991, with the economy in recession, business was suffering.

When Kristina came on board, she pushed for a change in strategy and pursued the wedding market. She bought lists of brides and sent out postcards about wedding specials. That was a turning point. Soon they were handling 20 to 40 weddings a weekend. “You could say that one of the things that really built this business was weddings…. We were so busy that we were giving all the other limousine companies in town work,” she says.

Things took an unexpected – but not unwelcome – turn when two business opportunities, in the form of shuttle service contracts, practically landed on their laps. “We kind of fell into the shuttle business…totally by mistake,” she says, her expression joyfully animated as she recounts the story of the shuttle contracts.

They were tipped off about the problems the manager of an apartment building was having with her existing shuttle service operator. Following a meeting with the manager, Reston Limousine took over the shuttle service contract. The manager referred them to other apartment buildings in the area and Reston Limousine established itself in the shuttle service business.

Luck also played a major part in Reston Limousine breaking into government contracting for shuttle service. They were approached by a driver looking for a way to see his wife, who worked at the US Geological Survey (USGS), more often. He offered to get the company a copy of USGS’ request for proposal for shuttle service in exchange for a job driving that shuttle if Reston Limousine won the contract.

Suffice to say that the driver got his wish.

Reston Limousine soon got on the list of government contractors and now nearly 25 percent of its revenue comes from government contracts.

With the trend moving away from limousines to group transportation, shuttle service accounts for nearly 90 percent of the company’s annual revenue. “We don’t have any clients that say, ok, we want a limousine for three days. That just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Kristina has been successful in growing Reston Limousine, in some cases because she is a woman and in other cases, in spite of that.

She is accustomed to going into meetings inviting bids and finding that she is the only woman there. “People think I’m very odd. They don’t understand where I come from…” There have been many instances when she has not won a contract and “I could swear to you that the only reason we did not get it was because of the old-boy network,” she says. “Because it’s a male-dominated industry, a woman has to work a lot harder to get business.”

She is also quick to point out the advantages of being a woman in this business. “We’re natural event planners. Women tend to treat each reservation like it’s a special event. Women tend to be more organized…[pay] more attention to detail.”

Kristina also believes that “clients automatically trust women more than they trust men.” Twenty-five percent of her drivers are women, and she finds that they are well-liked and more popular among her clients. And she has no complaints either. “They maintain their vehicles really well,” she says.

When asked what advice she would have for women who are thinking about starting their own businesses, she says, without hesitation, “It’s a lot harder than you can ever imagine. So be prepared. And always think positive.”

She taught herself to remain positive in the face of adversity, she says, particularly after September 11, 2001, which she describes as her worst memory in all of her 13 years with the company. She faced $1 million in cancelled contracts and a four-fold increase in insurance premiums and deductibles. For months after 9/11, she had vehicles sitting idle with no work. “Thousands of lease payments had to be made, and yet we weren’t bringing in the revenue.”

She would also advise women “to promote other women’s businesses more than they do. Women are still spending ninety-six cents out of a dollar on men’s businesses. I think women would be more successful if other women really, truly would give them more business, and help them and mentor them.”

In spite of all the “headaches” of owning a business, the business is what gets her going in the morning. “It’s very, very exciting. Running a business is challenging, I think I like to be challenged. I enjoy all my clients and employees. I couldn’t be happier with my career.”


This is the second in my series on women entrepreneurs in Northern Virginia originally published in the Times Community Newspapers. The first appears here.


Anonymous said...

One of these days, I'm going to become a successful entrepreneur. I do hope you will then write about me, Sujatha! What say? :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

I will, I will. Good luck with everything!

gawker said...

I didn't know there were bride lists....that is kind of creepy for some reason.

Sujatha Bagal said...

yeah, as is lists of moms-to-be, new parents...wonder if they have lists of people who get divorced so they can sell to them too, maybe pre-nup drafting services for the next time around...

Anonymous said...

there is no place where the old boy network does not exist, is there?!

Anjali said...

Sujatha, thanks for the message about the bloggers meet - I may be out of town but I'd love to come if I'm here.
How does this work? Do I just land up or do I need to let someone know, register somewhere ...?

Sujatha Bagal said...

No probs. I do hope you can come. Just land up there, you can register later. You can register at Google Groups. Look for us under blogbang, or just search for Bangalore Bloggers.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Charu, probably in mid-wifery or something!

Anonymous said...

This is really good business. But I guess it develops in countries where a lot of rich people live. In poor country nobody can afford to rent limo.

Anonymous said...

I see that now this business improves and grows. Some years ago I knew just several companies, and now I see a lot of advertisements. It's a big competition.

Anonymous said...

Reston Limousine goes through personnel managers like printer paper.
Kristina Bouweiri didn't honor my employment agreement for a multi year term. The Contract was verbal as well as documented. "don't know anything about it" was her comment.