By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
Nothing turns heads like a shiny, elegant limousine. Maybe it’s the commanding presence, which makes it stand out among other vehicles. Or the prospect of catching a glimpse of some famous person through the tinted windows.
For Rory Kelly, the allure of limos – and a dream of owning one – took hold when he was just five years old. Rather than VIPs, the young Kelly had someone else in mind to chauffeur. “I wanted one,” he says, “to drive my grandmother around.”
As he grew up, Kelly put his dream behind him and moved on. He graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in marketing, then went to work in the steel piling industry as an inside sales representative. During a 26-year time span, he climbed the corporate ladder, holding a series of management positions and acquiring knowledge in budgeting, personnel and other aspects of running a large company.
Eventually, he became Vice President of Operations for Skyline Steel, a steel foundation supplier owned by ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel company. While Skyline’s corporate headquarters are in New Jersey, Kelly worked from his home in Northern Virginia.
The Turning Point
His job responsibilities grew after the Enron Corporation’s 2001 collapse, an event
that prompted the federal government to impose a host of new restrictions on all
publicly traded companies, including those in the steel industry. “I became the internal compliance person and, as a result, I wasn’t liked by my coworkers,” Kelly says.
Despite this uncomfortable situation, he stayed with the company and performed at a level that earned him bonuses – all of which he put into savings. Finally, he reached a
point where he’d had enough. “I wanted out of the steel business because it wasn’t fun anymore,” says Kelly.
In 2004, Mary Kelly – aware of her husband’s childhood dream – bought him a special birthday present: a limousine. While the new set of wheels provided a fun way to get around, it also was the catalyst for something bigger. After consulting with a tax attorney, the Kellys decided to use their new acquisition to start a business.
Rory Kelly worked at Skyline Steel for two more years. During that time, he researched the local limousine market, prepared a detailed written business plan, added to his financial cushion, lined up his first customers and took other steps to lay the foundation for his entrepreneurial endeavor – all while he continued to earn a steady income.
In 2006, when he was 48, he left his job and launched the limousine business. Kelly says he and Mary chose the name Prestige Limousine because “it reflected the kind of
business we wanted to be and the type of service we wanted to provide.”
Five years later, Fairfax, Virginia-based Prestige Limousine, LLC seems to be living up to its moniker. The company’s revenue rose 40% between 2007 and 2010, a performance that “has exceeded expectations,” says Kelly.
A Successful Business Approach
In accordance with his written plan, he markets Prestige Limousine as a backup service to a core group of ten other limo companies in the Washington, DC area. Overflow from these companies accounts for about 50 to 60 percent of his business. The rest comes from word-of-mouth advertising.
“I found a niche in the industry that allowed me to reduce advertising and marketing
costs while increasing revenues and profits,” says Kelly.
It’s an approach that depends upon “developing relationships of trust, availability and
dependability,” he adds. “My core companies know I’m not going to steal any of their clients.”
Kelly, who’s now 53, attributes his success to basic values, such as honesty and
integrity. He also adheres to a simple principle: “Always answer your phone and say yes, then do what you said you would do.” It’s a level of dedication that comes with a price.
“You’re always on call,” says Kelly. “I never give myself permission to quit thinking about the business.”
To avoid burnout, he and Mary recharge their batteries through periodic trips to the beach. He also makes time to play golf once a week with son Daniel, who works full time at Prestige Limousine.
Despite the long hours, Kelly thinks the positives outweigh the negatives when it comes to being a business owner and an older entrepreneur.
“In 1986, I was going to start a steel company but I didn’t have the guts to do it,” he says. “I was worried about things like insurance and I didn’t have the financial security I have now.”
Be Profitable and Have Fun Doing It
For aspiring entrepreneurs, Kelly has these recommendations:
• Prepare a written business plan, regardless of whether or not you’ll need outside financing.
• Think of everything. A business entails small and large details, as well as all aspects of your life (especially family).
• Look at sales on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis, to obtain the data needed to make big-picture decisions.
• Expect to lose money in the first year. Keep overhead to a minimum without sacrificing quality to the customer.
In the end, Kelly thinks successful entrepreneurship comes down to something he learned during his days with the steel industry. Former Skyline Steel President Dave Clutter taught him this motto: Be profitable and have fun doing it.
That says it all, doesn’t it?