Being a successful entrepreneur means more than just getting a great idea off the ground. It means constantly reinventing the business to keep it relevant and sustainable.
That’s what Sean Duval, 54, founder and CEO of Milan-based Golden Limousine International, has learned in 30 years of keeping his transport business going.
What started as two stretch limos, bought by Duval with money he saved up as a manager at McDonald’s, has grown into one of Michigan’s largest private shuttle operations, with 41 vehicles, 118 employees and $8 million in annual revenue.
Since the company was founded in 1992, Duval has thought many times that it might fail. After 9/11 disrupted air traffic, Golden Limousine lost its core business of transporting to and from Detroit Metropolitan Airport. When Pfizer left Ann Arbor in 2008, the company lost its biggest pre-recession customer. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted travel and events and posed another threat to his business.
Golden Limousine has emerged as a slightly different company each time. Today, it doesn’t even have a stretch limo in its fleet. Corporate transportation, a mainstay of revenue, picked up thanks to a strong rebound in Detroit’s auto industry, and the company landed new business with the University of Michigan and public transportation service FlexRide in Detroit. ‘Ann Arbor.
Crain spoke with Duval about starting his business, supporting him through tough times, and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.
The following conversation is condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
- How has business been during and after the pandemic?
The past two years have really weighed on the events industry. We have a very diverse product line in terms of the services we provide, while the event side has gone down, our partnerships with the transit authority and with the University of Michigan have grown significantly. We laid off quite a few people in March (2020) for the slow spread event. From there, we just grew twice as much as before the pandemic and probably three times as many employees.
- What work do you do for the transport company?
We provide a service called FlexRide. FlexRide is to provide service to people who cannot get to the bus stop for one reason or another and also to people who are generally poorly served by large city transit buses. We are able to go directly to people and take them to a bus stop or terminal or to a place of work or your errand. We do this throughout Washtenaw County.
- And how about with the University of Michigan?
It is for the health system, especially for parking. This is for people who need to park offsite for one reason or another… We drove to work every day to make sure hospital workers could get to work.
- How did you get started as an entrepreneur?
I was manager of a McDonald’s store (in Milan). There was a group of customers that came in every day, and they bought their coffee and sat and talked all day. I just heard from one of them talking about his son and the challenges he was having with his business. I started talking to him about it and ended up buying the vehicles from his (son’s) company. By doing this, I wanted to try to start something new. After a few years, I left McDonald’s and went to work at the federal prison across the street. I worked there for five years while I was building my business and then I left.
- Were there downtimes in the company’s history when running the company was a struggle?
Several times. 9/11 was a really tough time, but we were able to switch gears and do a different kind of transportation than the usual round trips to and from the airport. Same thing with the financial crisis that was preceded in Ann Arbor by the departure of Pfizer. When Pfizer left, it left a huge hole in our community, but it was also my biggest customer, so it was an opportunity for us to rethink our service.
- What types of cars do you have in your fleet?
Most of our vehicles are shuttles and minibuses used for our flex programs, so we have a number of CDL vehicles. It is one of our challenges that we have CDL vehicles that require special licenses to drive, so it can be a bit difficult when you are looking for staff. We are in Detroit. We have from Ford to General Motors to Mercedes to Freightliner. We work for each of the (the big three automakers). We just know it’s hard to get a Cadillac and pull up in front of Ford World Headquarters or vice versa, pull up in a Lincoln in front of the towers (Renaissance Center).
- What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur?
Relationships are key. You have to develop a good group of people that you can turn to, starting with a really good mentor, and then understanding that the relationship is the most important aspect you can develop. Understand what people need and meet their needs. If you form these strong relationships, it’s really, really hard to fail if so many people are watching over you. They encourage your success.