What started as a dare resulted in a multimillion-dollar business for Gary Day that has served celebrities including Ray Rice, Jada Pinkett Smith, Prince, Courtney Love, Muhammad Ali, Janet Jackson and the Beach Boys.
After Day's sister was killed by a drunken driver, his mother made him promise to never drink and drive, so he and his friends sometimes hired limousines for nights on the town. The limo services varied widely in quality.
"Sometimes it was really good, and sometimes it was really bad," Day recalled.
A friend dared him to do better — "saying 'shut up and put your money where your mouth is,' basically," Day recalled.
In 1990, while working as a store manager at an Ames department store, Day bought a six-passenger limousine and launched American Limousines.
Working two jobs, and with no cellphone or computer, Day stuck by the phone to land business. He mapped routes with a marker and whiteout and used a phone book to find places to entertain clients.
As business grew, he hired a few friends, but he still drove, too. He met celebrities like singer Tom Jones, Bette Midler and actress Margot Kidder. He helped Loretta Swit take her sick cat to the vet. He drove soul icon Aretha Franklin to a drugstore so she could buy pantyhose. After taking Elton John to his concert, he stayed backstage for the show. Patti LaBelle once asked him to join her for dinner.
"I loved it," he said. "I loved meeting people."
"He was one of those people," Day said. "Everyone knew his voice, they didn't know his face … but everybody knew his voice."
After more than 25 years, Day does less driving now that he oversees the city's largest limo company, with more than 40 employees and over 40 vehicles. Last year, his company generated $3.6 million in revenue, he said.
Modern technology helps — each of his drivers is equipped with a GPS-enabled iPad. American Limousines now has its own mechanics, carwash and detail shop — yet there remain the challenges of running a company that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, he said.
Finding people willing to work varying shifts can be hard, he said, and the company's purchases are costly — its most recent being a new $525,000 56-passenger Van Hool bus.
"My hand shook as I signed the paper," said Day, adding that customers tend to want the latest and greatest form of transportation.
But beyond the quality of their rides, Day said his company works hard to give people the best experience between their pickup location and their destination — and beyond.
"I've learned that the basics are still how you make things happen. We are way too rushed as a world, and we don't pay attention to the details," he said. "You have to ask all the right questions. … Our goal is to make your special event special, and we're not going to miss a piece of it because you didn't tell us."
The Evening Sun
Title: Founder and CEO, American Limousines
Previous Job: Manager, Ames department store in Laurel
Education: Studied business at Marietta College in Ohio
Hobbies/interests: Traveling, hanging out at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spending time with friends, dining out, jewelry