Born to ride-a limo

    Leora Rae / Special to TMT Tom Bates switched from a 30-year career in real estate to limousine driving. Despite 4 a.m. last-minute calls, Bates likes the freedom on the road with his new profession.

    Making multiple trips a day, searching for a client in a sea of faces are a few of the challenges a professional driver faces. But to those who like driving, the reward is the freedom of the road, and perhaps generous tips from happy clients at the end of a ride.

    By Leora Rae/Special to The Malibu Times

    Imagine that your day begins at 4 a.m.-not by choice-but startled by the phone, you roll out of bed. It is perhaps three hours before you should be at work. All attempts to fall back into a deep sleep are thwarted, as the dispatcher from the garage beckons once again.

    “Man, wake up, jump in, let’s make LAX by five-thirty,” the voice sets the man in motion.

    Better known as a chauffeur, this professional driver will begin his day by hitting the car wash before arriving at the appropriate terminal at the airport to pick up his first client.

    Tom Bates, 60, a real estate agent in Malibu for the past 30 years, became a limousine driver several months ago. He is currently employed by Gemstar Limousine Service of Malibu.

    Trying his hand at a new career, Bates likes driving a limo. Like most chauffeurs, he refers to his Lincoln Towncar as a lady.

    “I give her a ‘Buff and Fluff’,” Bates said. “It’s the way I begin each work day.”

    A clean vehicle and routine maintenance assures the limousines are in good running condition. His car has more than 250,000 miles on the road. Taking it easy is part of the trade.

    “I get paid to drive. When I’m on the road for the company, I’m more cautious and yield to traffic much more than in my own car,” Bates said. “Especially if I have children in my care. Last week I stayed with a nine-year-old who was from Panama, traveling alone. His flight was delayed for two hours, so I chaperoned the lad until his plane took off.”

    According to Gemstar owner Lisa Paperny, the reason her company is still in business is the group of people.

    “The difference is our office personnel and drivers that care,” Paperny explained.

    President of the only limousine company currently located in town, Paperny has seen many limousine services come and go in Malibu. Gemstar was one of four limousine services in Malibu when their first car hit the pavement 15 years ago.

    She recalls with a smile, “One older patron commented during my first few weeks of startup, ‘If you are still here in one month, you will be accepted.’ We have made it.”

    When day-after-day your job requires tackling the backed up freeways of Los Angeles, taking everything in stride is a survival tactic. Understanding your clients’ needs means return business.

    “Our drivers must have a customer service background,” said Barbara Crocker, manager for Gemstar. “I look for neat appearance, good communication skills, and attitude that’s positive.”

    A chauffeur must be professional and be able to use a Thomas Guide. Dispatch could possibly send a chauffeur to the airport two or three times during one shift. Drivers spend time waiting for flight arrivals in a parking lot that is designated for taxicabs, buses and limousines.

    “A person sits here-sometimes for hours-under the loud rumble of 747s,” Bates said. “It can be deafening. I get to read a lot of trashy novels though.”

    A real panic of a limo driver can happen when there are three or four 747s arriving at the same time. That could delay the unloading for up to 20 minutes per plane. Finding their client(s) in the sea of faces could be daunting.

    Killing time between patrons is also part of the job. During the day, a chauffeur may have a scheduled run at 6 a.m., and then not again until three hours later. Reading a novel or catching up on an audiotaped book may fill the hours, or he or she may grab a cup of coffee at a small cafe.

    Dinner at home? Not likely.

    Most likely a chauffeur will eat at a small diner, or fast food on the go, while waiting to pickup a client they dropped off for a night out.

    In reality there are times that a limousine driver will be on the roadways for more than 15 hours. And then he has to begin his shift for the next day, only a few hours after the previous evening run.

    “There’s no overtime pay. But long hours may mean bonus tips from a generous client,” Bates commented. “We make an hourly wage and 15 percent commission on each run. An average tip is $20 per drop.”

    This can be a great job.

    Veteran stretch-limousine driver Tony Dunn is known at the office as “driver to the stars.” With an easy-going attitude, he deals with the dynamics of each situation as they come up.

    Bates and Dunn get a chance to visit at the car wash, as they wait to begin their shift. They may see each other occasionally, as each driver brings his car home at night. During their shift they are not required to come in to the garage.

    Advancements in technology have made the chauffeur’s job easier. With global positioning systems, the dispatcher can locate a specific limousine. Cellular phones, especially those with text messaging, have made transmitting directions between the office and the car a breeze. Referring to his phone, a driver can find specific directions.

    “The dispatcher can relay information about the exact time a flight has landed,” Bates said. “It’s helpful to me when they provide me with a change in gate assignments at the airport.”

    An average day for a chauffeur in Los Angeles County may mean two or three trips to LAX. A tough job? Yes, but these professional drivers are ready to serve the public by arriving on time. And they are available to lend a hand with heavy luggage.

    Individual chauffeurs have their own way of dealing with stress that may come from being on the highway all day.

    Bates said, “I begin each day by saying a prayer to the god of travel, and then head out to the freeways. I don’t know her name, but I do feel better.”

    The one day a week that Bates has off, he looks forward to much-needed rest. Unfortunately he may be interrupted by a call from the garage. Last month, the dispatcher called on Bate’s only free day that he had been given in more than a week.

    Jarred by the ringing, he’s awakened at 1:30 a.m.; rolling from under the covers, the professional driver rises early to assist a co-worker who has a sick engine.

    The sudden urge to find a new career is stifled by the realization that making a living by driving around in air-conditioned comfort, in a Lincoln Towncar or stretch limousine, is not so bad.