In an interview by Crain’s Detroit, Golden Limousine President and Founder Sean Duval shared that endurance, continual evolution and relationships are what have enabled Golden Limousine’s success for over 30 years.
Golden Limousine founder Sean Duval rides the ups and downs of shuttle business
By KURT NAGL
Being a successful entrepreneur means more than just getting a good 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 over 30 years of keeping his transportation company running.
What started as a couple of stretch limousines, purchased by Duval with money he saved as a manager at McDonald’s, has grown into one of the largest private shuttle operations in Michigan, with 41 vehicles, 118 employees and $8 million in yearly revenue.
Since the company started in 1992, there have been numerous times Duval thought it might fail. After 9/11 brought air traffic to a halt, Golden Limousine lost its core business of transportation to and from Detroit Metro Airport. When Pfizer left Ann Arbor in 2008, the company lost its largest client heading into the recession. The COVID-19 pandemic halted travel and events and posed another threat to his business.
Golden Limousine emerged each time as a slightly different company. Today, it no longer even has a stretch limousine in its fleet. Corporate transportation, a central piece of revenue, has picked back up thanks to a strong rebound by the Detroit automotive industry, and the company has picked up new business with the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor’s FlexRide public transportation service.
Crain’s talked with Duval about starting his business, guiding it 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 coming out of the pandemic?
The last two years have really taken a toll on the events business. We have a very diverse product mix in terms of the services that we provide, so while the events side has declined, our partnerships with the transit authority and with the University of Michigan have drastically increased. We laid off quite a few people in March (2020) for the slow the spread event. From there, we’ve just grown twice as high as we were pre-pandemic and probably three times the number of employees.
What work do you do for the transit authority?
We provide a service called FlexRide. FlexRide is to provide service to people who can’t get to the bus stop for one reason or another and also to people who are typically underserved by the larger city transit buses. We’re able to go directly to peoples’ houses and take them to a bus stop location or terminal or to a place of employment or to your errand. We do that throughout Washtenaw County.
And how about with University of Michigan?
It’s for the health system, particularly for parking. It’s for people who need to park off site for one reason or another … We went to work every day to make sure the hospital workers were able to get to work.
How did you get your start as an entrepreneur?
I was a McDonald’s store manager (in Milan). Had a group of customers that came in every day, and they would buy their coffee and sit around and talk all day. I just overheard one of them talking about his son and the challenges he was having with his business. I started taking to him about it and ended up buying the vehicles from his (son’s) company. In doing that, I wanted to try and start something new. After a few years, I left McDonald’s and went to work at the federal prison across the street. Worked there for five years while I was building my company and then left.
Any down times in the company’s history when running the business was a struggle?
Multiple times. 9/11, that was really a tough time, but we were able to shift gears and do a different type of transportation than the typical back and forth to the airport. Same thing with the financial crisis that was preceded in Ann Arbor by Pfizer leaving. When Pfizer left, it left a huge hole in our community, but it was also my major client, so it was an opportunity for us to rethink our service.
What kinds of cars do you have in your fleet?
Most of our vehicles are shuttle vans and minibuses used for our flex programs, so we have quite a few CDL vehicles. That’s one of our challenges that we have CDL vehicles that require special licenses to drive, so it can be kind of challenging when you’re looking for staff. We’re in Detroit. We have from Ford to General Motors to Mercedes to Freightliner. We work for each of (the Big Three automakers). We just know that it’s challenging to have a Cadillac and pull up in front of Ford world headquarters or vice versa, pulling up in a Lincoln in front of the (Renaissance Center) towers.
What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur?
Relationships are key. You need to develop a good group of people that you can go to, starting with a really good mentor, and then just understand that the relationship is the most important aspect you can develop. Understanding what people need and fulfilling their needs. If you form those strong relationships, it’s really, really difficult to fail if so many people are looking out for you. They’re rooting for your success.