When Qalab Kazmi came to the United States from Pakistan in 1985, he worked as a cabdriver to support his family and enjoyed the work.
Three years ago, he started his own car-service company, founding Five Star Luxury Cars Inc. in Parkville as the owner and sole driver.
The rapidly expanding company has moved to Towson and now has about 100 drivers operating in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.
Last month, it launched a mobile app that allows its users to hail a car through their smartphones, much like those of Uber and Lyft.
Developing the app cost a good chunk of change, but Kazmi hopes his business model will prove successful: While he now has an app, his drivers also are approved and licensed by the Maryland Public Service Commission — meaning he won't have to go through the legal battles that Uber and Lyft have had to fight in the state to keep serving local customers.
The company says its users can get Lincoln Town Car service for a minimum fare of $14 and an SUV for $23, and it's offering a 20 percent discount on the first ride for new users.
Getting to this point has been quite a ride, Kazmi said.
What made you want to start a car-for-hire business three years ago, just as Uber was beginning to shake up the industry?
Since I came to America, driving a cab was the most stable job I worked at. I absolutely enjoyed doing that, but I saw the horrible condition of cabs and high rates customers were charged, so I wanted to be able to provide that transportation for them with luxury and safety. My daughter thought about the name and procedure for getting it started, and I decided to take that up. Initially, we started out with just one Lincoln Town Car, which I used to drive myself, but now we have several SUVs and Lincoln Town Cars.
What kind of clientele do you serve and what are your biggest geographic markets in the region?
We serve a variety of people with our service, ranging from college students to travelers and people who use car service for everyday travel, as well. Many of our customers use our service for going out to dinner or parties and use the service when they plan on drinking, so it is a safer option for them. Our biggest location to serve is the Baltimore region. Even with all the competition in Baltimore, people want to get the best service for their money, and our company offers that.
How much did it cost to create your new app, and why was it an investment you deemed worth making?
I actually had the app built by someone I knew in Pakistan who works in that sort of business. Initially, the money I spent was from my monthly paycheck but obviously that was not enough, so I used my savings I had for my children in Pakistan, borrowed from people I know and took out loans. As we have worked on making the app we have spent from around $50,000 to $100,000. This includes the total amount we have spent, not just on the app but in general with promotion, advertisement and equipment. The main reason for the app was because we wanted to bring back business to Baltimore and also bring back real luxury service and not a hoax in the name of luxury.
You say your rates are cheaper than Uber's, but you also meet all state regulations under the Public Service Commission. Can you describe your business model?
Since our rates are approved by [the] PSC, they stay the same year round, and we do not charge differently from the rates we get approved, whereas other companies increase rates based on demand. Our model is simple: We want to offer luxury service at an affordable price. Many new companies like Uber and Lyft provide Lincoln Town Car or SUV service, but your safety, rates and luxury [are] not promised. But with our company, we promise that we will provide you with the best service.
Imagine it is 100 years from now. How are people getting around the Baltimore-Washington region?
I cannot imagine a type of vehicle, but as we move forward we are always striving to find eco-friendly and convenient [service] for people to use. I always imagine some sort of service which would avoid traffic, accidents and other issues with cars. Even cars, I would think they would be self-driven. But for me it is always very hard to think so far ahead in the future when you are uncertain about a few years from now. I am getting older now, and I want to be able to provide a safe future for my children who are either in college or high school.
Name: Qalab Abbas Kazmi
Title: Owner/president, Five Star Luxury Cars
Birthplace: Kamalia, a small town in Pakistan
Education: High school graduate in Pakistan
Family: Wife, five kids in U.S.; seven siblings in Pakistan
Hobbies: Watching the news, reading, spending time with family, watching movies