Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Bringing excellence in tourist car business

Let this blog find you bringing excellence in all your endeavours.

Last year, we visited Chennai for a workshop. Our airport pickup was booked as usual. Unusual was the prompt & comprehensive SMS received when we switched on the mobile: "I am XYZ from Bala Tourist Service, My car no is 9999 and I am waiting at the exit with a placard." The driver also called us & spoke in impeccable English! The car was spic-and-span clean & shining. We wondered if it was a brand new vehicle straight from the showroom. (We found it wasn’t.)

We called the travel agency to reschedule our airport drop. The person receiving the call was crisp, prompt & had a kind of pride in his voice. He identified himself as ‘Driver Bala’. We soon realized we were speaking to the owner. We complimented his company for the pick-up experience.

Our airport drop car also looked brand new!! The service was truly impeccable. The driver actually ran to get a trolley as we reached the Chennai airport. This time I asked the driver whether he cleaned the car after reaching the hotel to pick us up. He told us that all drivers of the company have instructions to reach at least 15 minutes before pickup time & wipe the car clean again while waiting to pick the customer!!

We did further research on the taxi service and found the following story on their website (www.bala.co.in) and understood the spirit behind the excellence.

After doing a series of odd jobs from the age of nine, Balakrishnan landed up as a driver at the Chennai trading office of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, where he stayed for seven years. Saving money from his salary of about Rs 400 a month, he managed to buy a second-hand Fiat for Rs 6,000, which he let out as a taxi. When he was ready to quit his job, he sold the Fiat for about Rs 9,000. This, along with severance benefits of Rs 3,000 and his savings, was able to procure him a Rs 6,000 loan from Sundaram Finance. The interest was Rs 500 for a year.

Balakrishnan bought a new Fiat for Rs 19,000 and ran it as a meter taxi for just one year. He earned enough to repay the loan and keep some profit. But he was not prepared to stand around in the sun waiting for fares. He knew bigger things lay ahead: "I wanted to enter the tourist line," he says. He sold the Fiat and got himself a second-hand Ambassador for about Rs 15,000.

He ran the Ambassador as a private taxi. To get bookings he made the rounds of all the existing tourist cab services, so that they could get hold of him whenever they needed a car in an emergency. The strategy worked. Invariably, the cabs were overbooked and the overflow came to him. In about two years, Balakrishnan had sold the old car and bought a new Ambassador. It cost him Rs 20,000 and again, was financed in part by Sundaram Finance.

It was 1971, and he had hung out his shingle; Bala Tourist Service now employed a cook-bottle washer-office assistant at a salary of Rs 200 a month. A telephone borrowed from a friend and a house for about Rs 75 a month completed his SOHO. He would call home every few hours and his office boy would inform him of the next port of call. He was earning about Rs 6,000 a month from his tourist taxi. By now though, he was married, and soon two children came along, and he had to rent a bigger house for Rs 250 a month.

Expansion was practically inevitable. A second, then third, car was acquired and drivers hired. By 1979, he had six cars and drivers, three office staff, and an office at Rs 750 a month. There was no looking back. In 1997, the company bought its first Mercedes, which was immediately overbooked. Within three months it bought a second, and now it has seven Mercs in a fleet that also boasts of marques like Skoda, Chevrolet, Honda and Mitsubishi.

The significant point is that from the very beginning Balakrishnan charged a 10 per cent premium on the market rate only on the premise that he would offer "perfect service". Today, his premium on market rates is about 25 per cent. And his customers insist on returning. Obviously, the promise of service has been kept. The company only uses new cars, no souped up stuff or rebuilt tyres. "I know most of my regular customers by name," says a proud Balakrishnan.

His drivers are always on time, if not early, and trained to be courteous and helpful. Balakrishnan absolutely insists that they know the city and its suburbs thoroughly. Accordingly, they are also paid about 10 per cent over the market rate, along with incentives like a school fee allowance.

Balakrishnan believes in sharing his good fortune. He also offers easy finance to his drivers to help them buy the cars his company discards every two years. The drivers then keep the earnings from their cabs, giving Balakrishnan a commission. Obviously then, the drivers are doubly keen on attracting customers and retaining them.

With 75 cars, an office staff of 30, a sprawling office in the heart of town (Bala House), and a 12,000 sq. ft. house next door, does Balakrishnan plan to call it a day? "My son, an even better businessman, joined me in 1985, but I have no plans to retire. I enjoy work," he says. After dropping off his grandchildren at school, he is in office by 9.15 am. He is still among the first to answer a call to the Bala Tourist office—where he shares a long room with all his staff—and takes pleasure in identifying himself as Driver Balakrishnan. He might not have an MBA but this is one businessman who is certainly in the driver’s seat.


May this story inspire you to bring your best in whatever you take on!

Warm regards,