The world’s most in-demand car service conquers the industry from the family kitchen with a blend of personality and professionalism
To read the online guest book celebrating Jay David Okon, who passed away in February 2018 at 69, is to view in sharp relief a portrait of a hard-working man deeply mourned by a cadre of family members, colleagues, and friends. In a still image his face gleams with contentment even as it fails to mask a flash of flint in his eyes. The remembrances and condolences create a collage that glistens like a freshly honed knife point. This man was relentless. Relentlessly loving. Relentlessly devoted. Relentlessly innovative.
There was scant work for Polish immigrants with a poor command of English when Okon began driving the streets of Manhattan in the ’70s. He was, his wife of over 40 years admits, a hustler (n., one who hustles; energetic; one willing to work hard for money).
He would often wait directly outside the Empire State Building for those in need of a lift, and treated his car as a carriage and his riders as honored guests. To be shuttled by Okon in his ’69 Cadillac Fleetwood limo with brocade upholstery was to experience the antithesis of the NYC cab experience: There was pristine comfort; solitude or, if preferred, companionable chat; thoughtful and unheard of accommodations.
Service on his four wheels included everything from a discreetly proffered pair of ladies’ stockings in the event of a tear on the way to a business meeting, antacids or aspirin for overly fed or high-strung passengers with shpilkes, and one of the first backseat bars to roll from hotels to nightclubs and back. At the time there wasn’t another chauffered car in the area with that luxury. It was the first Four Star Limousine, literally and figuratively.
“We borrowed $1,200 from my younger brother to buy that first car,” Phyllis Okon recalled. Intending to become a teacher, she initially rejected David’s idea that a limo service could be more lucrative than an education degree. “He said, ‘I think we could make a lot of money doing this.’ I said, ‘You're crazy. Who uses limos?’ It wasn't in our culture, and I didn't see any way to make a living.” Knowing that it would take a strong back office to build a legacy, she swapped her teaching certificate for a copy of the yellow pages phone directory and a little hourglass egg timer, and became his partner in business as in life.
“We couldn’t afford a big phone bill, so I’d turn over the timer for each cold call,” she said. “I called every name in that directory to book rides. Many of the accounts we have today came out of that phone book.”
Others came from Phyllis’ up-close-and-personal meetings with key decision-makers in an era when the power wielders were assumed to be wearing brogues and ties in the C-suite. In reality, the power to book ride services came from the company receptionists, secretaries, and personal assistants with whom she created companionable and highly profitable relationships.
As Four Star added cars and drivers and a reputation for peerless service, an associate with ties to Los Angeles came to them looking for a New York affiliate. A competitor had successfully gone bicoastal and, with that in mind, the Okons agreed, renamed Four Star as BLS New York, and set their sights on the left coast. When the California owners eventually retired, BLS motored along in their stead. Layering their ethos of personal care and attention to every account and every rider quickly established The BLS Company as one of the most in-demand car services on both sides of the continent.
Two sons, Michael and Eric, came along in the ’80s. Together with their parents they formed an enterprise like no other, built on relentless love, devotion, and innovation.
Now in its fifth decade, with worldwide coverage and offices in major transportation hubs including LA, Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta, DC, Hartford, Stamford, and New York City, The BLS Company keeps driving forward.
Built on OPM? Not Then. Not Now. Not Ever.
Shortly after stepping into the LA market, the company’s NY reputation opened the floodgates. “Three of the major studios came to us and made us an offer we couldn't refuse. They told us they would sign contracts or do anything we asked because they really liked us in New York and felt they needed services like ours in LA,” Phyllis said.
Luminaries in front of and behind the scenes of every industry imaginable found BLS to be the perfect conveyance, thanks to a carefully cultivated balance of professionalism, personal understanding, and willingness to go the distance for every request.
“The kind of travel that we do can't be done by the press of a button,” Eric said. “There's chemistry between the chauffeur and the passenger, security, duty of care, and a lot of nuances to consider. That makes ours a purely relationship-based business. We become friends with our clients because our family life and our business life is so intertwined we might as well make the most of it, and make it our lives.”
Added eldest son Michael, “When we get someone into the back of our car, we feel as if we're driving them personally. We are personally responsible to get our guests from Point A to Point B. Not many companies can say they do that. And we do it without investors and without the backing of major companies.”
To have done so without OPM — other peoples’ money — is remarkable, not least for the resistance of outside influences and the elimination of any compromise that would drain the irreplaceable “Okonness” out of the business.
“We’ve been approached by several of the big guys and hedge funds, and the first thing we ask is, ‘What do you intend to do?’ Nine times out of ten they say they're going to fire staff and combine under a different group using their own assets. It goes all the way back to my husband. He would say, ‘No, thank you.’ We feel we have an obligation to the people who've invested their lives with us and we have to make sure they're protected,” Phyllis said.
BLS owns not just the road fleet, but the maintenance and gas-up operations as well. The deliberate move cleverly shelters the firm from economic downturns and the vagaries of the weather, and further extends their philosophy of obligation to their accounts, riders, and employees.
BLS: The Next Generation
“You can be in this business as a family, but it’s a slow run,” admitted Eric. “It's the tortoise versus the hare, but we’ve built a legacy that will ultimately be passed on to our children, and that's the most important thing.”
Phyllis interjected, “Most companies like ours have no succession plan. We had a succession plan in place. I gave the kids choices.” Both brothers went to college and graduated with multiple degrees. “They were offered to be anything they wanted to be, but if they wanted to come to the business they had to have a backup field.” In addition to their studies, Eric and Michael were under their parents’ tutelage, changing tires, pointing spark plugs, learning car maintenance, and building formidable management and customer experience skills.
The new generation of Okons — a pair of boys and a pair of girls ranging from ages 5 to 11 — are experiencing the same approach. “We include them in the business at the table,” their grandmother continued. “They're actively involved in what's going on, and they see it and come to the office. They're comfortable here, but it's not a joyride. They actually have jobs when they come here.”
“My son is 11 years old, and we named him VP of food and beverage at BLS because he comes after school and stocks the vending machines,” Michael added. “He has a booklet and inventory and takes it very seriously. That's how Eric and I were groomed. We grew up in this business. We didn't just walk in and say, ‘We’re the owners and we get to do whatever we want.’ Eric and I started in the mechanic shop. We cleaned the bathrooms, washed cars, and worked our way into our positions.”
“The kids changed the way we do business,” Phyllis said. “They’ve instituted so many changes, little things. Our employees are so much happier. I can’t believe how much they’ve increased our calls. They take smart routes I never would have thought of. That's the wonderful connectivity of old and young coming together. These young guys came in and brought their ingenuity and diversity and ideas, and that's the difference a lot of other companies don't have: They're not bringing young people in. My kids have seen it all. Recessions, 9/11, bad weather. And they bring a fresh perspective.”
What Starts at the Table Ascends to the Stratosphere
The BLS operational mantra is simple to recite and challenging to execute: Every ride counts. “I don’t care if you’ve been in one of our cars fifty times a month or once every three years,” Phyllis stressed. “You can’t see a smile on the other end of the phone. We have to make every experience from point of origin to destination as happy as possible for everyone.”
“I’m big on personality. I learned from my mom and from Marilyn Hornik, our senior VP of global accounts, how to sell without selling,” Michael noted. In his 20s, as he sat in a Vegas casino waiting with his mother to pitch BLS as a primary vendor to the owner, Michael learned an indelible lesson. “My mom sat down next to him and asked about his wife, his kids, was what was going on with his home, and I thought, ‘He's known her for 50 years.’ Afterward, I asked her how long they’d known each other and she said, ‘I've never met him before in my life.’” They landed the account. “Our goal is to learn what our clients like and what they want. Our company's personality separates us from all others.”
To converse with Phyllis, Michael, and Eric is to feel like part of the clan. Talk is congenial, funny, and affecting. Overlapping opinions tumble into cohesion. The easy chatter belies the operational reality of the company they have nurtured with a blend of custom state-of-the-art dispatch, reservation, and accounting technology and marketplace savvy to rival the headline grabbing organizations they serve.
Dedicated departments handle the unique complexities of global clientele in sports, entertainment, music, and corporate life with discretion and seamless efficiency. Their Number Connect calling service links passengers directly with chauffeurs, easing a common traveling pain point — the inability to find a driver precisely where and when one is needed.
Partnerships with travel agencies combine innovative technology with a mandate of kindness and trust in collaboration, something that agents have always craved but have seldom received from similar providers. “All travel agents get is yelled at,” Eric chuckled. “We don’t believe that’s the way to work.”
BLS takes a personal approach with their global affiliate network, insisting that they share more than the expected competencies such as insurance, highly trained personnel, and financial viability. “They have to share our value system. That's first and foremost,” Michael said. “Ultimately it comes
down to the relationship between us and them. We are solution-oriented, so if there is an issue with an affiliate we dive down deep with them, find out what happened, and create a solution. We don’t have a culture of fear.”
For the Okons, family is defined not only by blood, but by kinship and service; to seat all its members might require a table as long as I-95. “You can't throw people away,” its matriarch declared. “We live in a disposable culture and that's part of the problem. If you keep disposing, nobody is ever going to learn.”
The customer experience that Jay David Okon knew and was key to his business success is now an expectation that all livery companies strive to meet. As competitors they try to keep up, BLS is finding new ways to exceed those demands with every new account, every door opened, and with every kind greeting and farewell. Whatever road you and your customers take, you’d be well-advised to let BLS take the wheel.
The world leader in ground transportation. BLS creates chauffeured transportation service programs with set policies and negotiated rates.
With years of reliable service and millions of completed rides, BLS is the preferred ground travel vendor for businesses and professionals. BLS provides chauffeur driven car service in every city around the globe through company-owned locations and preferred affiliate partners At BLS, traveler wellbeing is
our No. 1 priority. All chauffeurs are rigorously trained and vehicles are maintained by master mechanics.
BLS is powered by a custom state-of-the-art dispatch, reservation and accounting system, which allows for a seamless ground travel experience. BLS customer service is industry leading with dedicated account managers and logistics experts that will manage your account every step of the way. With capacity from 1 to 55 passengers, BLS maintains one of the largest and most diverse fleets in the industry. BLS employs a staff of certified mechanics, body men and porters to maintain the worldwide fleet.