Driverseat Creating Path To Success For Company’s Growing Franchisee Base
By Harrell Kerkhoff Busline Magazine Editor
Innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way. Those are the words of Tom Freston, co-founder of MTV — words that have proven true time and time again. Case-in-point is Driverseat, a transportation franchise headquartered in Kitchener, ON, that has worked to combine what company officials feel is a better way to transport people with a better way to lead a franchise. The result is private, customizable transportation solutions specializing in events/tours, weddings, corporate charters, sports attractions, airport shuttles, and much more.
The company has grown to nearly 40 franchise locations servicing hundreds of communities across North America. According to the company’s website, “We are focused as much on the people, our franchisees, as we are on the profit. The franchisees, in turn, are focused on their people, the chauffeurs, and the client experience. As a result, we make transportation affordable, accessible, and convenient.”
“We’re currently operating in three provinces and four states. Providing a precise number of our locations right now is like hitting a moving target, as there are several multi-unit franchise owners who open their terminals over the course of time,” Driverseat President Luke Bazely said, during a recent interview. “Right now, we have 34 locations open, with 12 more under development. Our long-term goal is to have 150 to 200 terminals in Canada and roughly 1,500 to 2,000 in the United States. We want to be ‘The Brand’ in the mid-size passenger vehicle market, focusing not only on the tourism and leisure space but other transportation markets as well.
“At the end of the day, my passion is to help entrepreneurially-minded people build a great business through their franchises, allowing them to create wealth for themselves. Franchisee profitability and success are the two most important aspects at Driverseat. I feel our company is not only unique in the transportation space, but also unique in the franchising space.”
The company began in 2012 as what Bazely describes as a “chauffeur-for-hire service.”
“We would hire chauffeurs to drive clients in their own vehicles. It was a very simple business model that required the hiring of great chauffeurs and putting together a marketing program in various communities. We still offer that service today in certain communities, but the majority of our business model is focused on providing charter transportation through our branded fleet. We started awarding franchises in Canada in 2013 and have been growing ever since, with an official launch in the United States in 2020,” Bazely said. “Our leisure services fit into four verticals — Charters, Airport Ground Transportation, Wedding Shuttles and Care+, which focuses on the vulnerable sector in the community. We are also seeing significant growth in the Business to Business (B2B) and Business to Government (B2G) sectors. Some of our locations are generating significant revenue with committed contracts and recurring revenue.”
How Does This Business Model Work?
Becoming a franchise partner under the Driverseat program requires the completion of various steps, with Bazely and his staff providing guidance along the way. It includes:
- Franchisee Training: This involves four to six weeks of online training as well as a week of in-person training with Driverseat’s head office team.
“We take great care as well in providing ongoing development. That includes weekly calls/webinars with all of our franchisees to focus on strategy, revenue, and additional coaching. We also host a large annual conference involving all franchisees which is one of our favorite events of the year. It is designed to provide additional training and development, but more importantly, it is an opportunity to continue cultivating the culture of the business,” Bazely said.
- Equipment: Franchise partners can choose from various approved models and equipment sizes, based on what they feel will best suit their individual transportation markets. The approved vehicles range from mini-vans to 24-passenger buses.
“A franchisee will often start with one to three mini-vans and perhaps a larger transit van and then grow their fleet to align with their revenue growth goals,” Bazely said. “Franchise owners within our business model operate with quite a bit of autonomy. That includes choosing, with our coaching, the number of vehicles they will need and how they are going to price their services. Autonomy is important, as these partners know their local markets best and what their competitive landscapes look like.”
One requirement is that all vehicles under the Driverseat system must be consistent, according to Bazely.
“We have a few approved models which keeps the branding consistent across North America. Also, each vehicle is fully wrapped with vinyl, featuring plenty of white space as well as our vibrant blue and orange corporate colors,” Bazely said. “The entire fleet at Driverseat is very attractive and easy to spot. In fact, within the first 18 months of opening a location, we have found that the majority of interest for our services comes from people who have seen our vehicles on the road.”
He added simpler is often better when it comes to vehicle amenities within the Driverseat network.
“We do allow our partners to choose specific amenities within reason, but my advice has always been to ‘keep it simple,’” Bazely said. “What our clients love is that Driverseat only operates late model vehicles. They are typically replaced every four years or roughly 280,000 miles. It’s important to offer clean and modern equipment, without the wear and tear that can be found in a lot of older shuttle-type vehicles.”
A preventive maintenance program, managed through onboard electronics, is used by each Driverseat franchisee.
“All vehicles must be maintained on a regular basis, and follow a very stringent preventative maintenance schedule. As a franchise, it wouldn’t be feasible for each location to have its own maintenance shop, so it’s important that they develop a strong partnership with a local dealership/mechanic operation that is close to their specific location,” Bazely said. “It’s also important Driverseat vehicles receive priority treatment, allowing each vehicle to be ready for service within a reasonable period.
“The two main objectives for our franchise owners when they start is to have chauffeurs and vehicles in place. We help with that process, and one of my jobs, as the company visionary, is to develop strategies and partnerships to make sure there’s always vehicles available. That requires a lot of work with our vehicle suppliers given the current supply chain constraints. The Driverseat fleet is approaching 100 vehicles, and we have significant growth planned for 2024.”
One of the suppliers important to Driverseat is Micro Bird Inc., which produces a variety of transportation equipment including commercial buses.
“We primarily use 22- to 24-passenger commercial buses as it relates to Micro Bird. I have toured the Micro Bird factory where the commercial vehicles are assembled. They are produced with the same care and safety features as the company’s school buses. I’ve been very impressed with the build quality of our Micro Bird units. That is what sold me the most,” Bazely said. “We also use Micro Bird’s smaller buses. Many of our franchise owners transport senior citizen groups. Those vehicles are very easy to enter and exit, and I see them becoming much more of a staple in our fleet.
“I enjoy a good working relationship with not only Micro Bird officials, but also our local dealer related to those vehicles.”
- Chauffeurs: No transportation provider can get off the ground without qualified people to drive. With the help of Bazely and his staff at Driverseat, finding good chauffeurs is the responsibility of each franchise owner.
“They are responsible for building their own teams,” Bazely said. “A major part of that is hiring good chauffeurs. Those are the people delivering services to clients. Training is key. Part of that training involves following our company’s operations manual that detail’s the expectations, policies, and procedures of Driverseat — all in an effort to provide a memorable client experience.”
He added the requirements of chauffeurs are many. They must be professional drivers who are also friendly and cordial. It’s important they drive defensively, avoid road rage, maintain focus and attention, and practice good customer service skills that include a smooth ride.
“We’re first looking for attitude, character, and personality, and then we’re testing for their driving skills. We can teach good driving skills, but it’s very difficult to teach attitude and character,” Bazely said. “We also are equipping each vehicle with telematics to help our franchise owners better monitor driving behaviors.”
He noted the national driver shortage is real. Therefore, it’s important each franchise owner builds a strong company brand and culture, one that can greatly help in attracting the best candidates for all positions — including chauffeurs.
“There are still professionally-trained drivers looking for great places to work. It’s a matter of attracting them,” Bazely said. “That can include retired police officers and school bus drivers. It’s important to offer opportunities for people to succeed, and allow them to feel like they belong and are part of the big picture and company vision. It’s also essential to align the job with a person’s career goals. That helps provide growth opportunities for both the person and the franchisee.
“I think transportation is still a wonderful career choice. A major goal at Driverseat is to employ and create opportunities for thousands of wonderful people across Canada and the United States — a place where they feel appreciated and see growth is ahead. That involves all the different positions associated with our franchises.”
Looking Ahead With Anticipation
Just like every transportation provider around the globe, the COVID pandemic presented major challenges for Driverseat and its franchisees. The good news is, according to Bazely, through innovation and determination many franchise owners were not only able to stay even during that period — but thrive.
“The pandemic’s impact was definitely felt by our company and our franchise owners. Some struggled, such as one of our top performing locations that was heavily involved with transporting university students. When the universities shut down due to the pandemic, so did a lot of the services for student transportation,” Bazely said. “There were some of our locations, however, that did quite well. One example involved a franchise that started transporting essential workers to a meat-packing plant. I have many stories of our franchise owners adapting their transportation services to better focus on specific needs within their communities.
“It was cool to see how many of our franchise partners were able to innovate. One franchise developed a program called ‘Shop and Drop,’ which was a grocery shopping and delivery program. It developed into a community-oriented program that brought a lot of positive exposure.”
Franchise owners are encouraged and coached on developing their personal brand. They should be well known over time through community involvement — building trust, and ultimately, business, according to Bazely. Initial marketing efforts for a new franchise primarily focuses on digital marketing, such as social media, but eventually more business is generated by way of community involvement — and the fact that the public keeps seeing a franchisee’s vehicles on area streets.
Since the end of the pandemic, Bazely reported Driverseat has experienced a steady trajectory of growth — both in terms of adding franchise partners as well as revenue generated throughout the system. That is not to say there were no valuable lessons to be learned from the pandemic experience. In fact, the opposite is quite true. The first lesson was the importance of staying connected with each franchisee during the hard times.
“We established a four-tiered strategy with our partners and met with them twice a week during the pandemic, involving very intense sessions,” Bazely said. “Our goal was to coach, mentor and push them during that unique time. As a company, we anticipated that the pandemic was going to be long and drawn out. It was therefore important to support our franchise partners throughout the process.
“Another lesson we learned from the pandemic is the importance of diversifying our revenue streams. That includes adding business that is not considered a leisure service. Weddings, trips to the airport and wine tours will come to an end during a pandemic, but a lot of other work involving transportation will continue. It’s important to analyze what revenue will be resilient to a pandemic as well as a recession.
“We always have pilot projects taking place, involving new services we want to test. For example, we just finished a test involving a black car executive service. We also have two locations that are currently piloting a wheelchair-accessible program, which could bring some exciting possibilities. We learn a lot of lessons from those programs whether they become part of the recipe or not.”
Bazely remains optimistic about not only the future of his company and its franchise partners, but the overall transportation industry.
“I’m seeing a lot of innovation taking place within the transportation sector. That includes electric and autonomous vehicles as well as AI,” he said. “We, at Driverseat, are excited to play a role in that innovation. We are also always looking for franchise partners to bring the brand to their community. They don’t have to be experts in transportation or business in general, just a desire to be part of our brand and want to follow a recipe for success. We will help with the rest.”