Photo by Jeffrey Beringer
THE SECRET OF
by Jeffrey Beringer
Benny Pambuku's clients, who include royalty, celebrities, and CEO's of Fortune 500 companies, don't mind if he brings a gun to work. In fact, since the founder of one of Chicago's top limousine companies got a second full time job fighting crime, business has skyrocketed. Embassy Limousine now has over 2800 accounts and is growing strong.
Long before Benny started sporting a Chicago Police Department badge, however, requests for him to drive clients personally were going through the roof. If the limousine business were a popularity contest, Benny Pambuku would be the undisputed homecoming king.
From the moment I met Benny for our interview in Chicago, I understood his appeal with his clients. Impeccably dressed, charming, and gracious, Benny is one of those rare people with just the right mix of confidence and modesty. He is the type of man who holds doors for strangers and fights for the honor of paying the bill. His warm European accent brings to
mind a fireplace in an old world lodge.
It added a magical and classy tone to our interview.
Benny's story of success is the classic 'American dream' story...with a gun. As a youth in Albania, Benny had dreamed of being a detective. But in communist Albania this was not a possibility. Benny studied survey engineering and worked as an engineer before finally fleeing the country in the early 1990's amid economic collapse and social unrest.
"Albania in those days was like North Korea today," he said with a sad smile. "It was a failed communist system and there was no future there. We snuck out."
After a brief stay in Austria, he immigrated to the USA with his wife and newborn daughter. Although he spoke three other languages fluently, he didn't speak a word of English. In those early weeks his wife, who did speak some English, used to lead him around the mall by the hand, translating every last word.
"She was the navigator," he said. "I remember feeling like an infant. Those first four or five months were rough. I didn't like it. Maybe it was the weather. But my eyes were open. This was a place where I could really do something with myself."
With his background in survey engineering, Benny was no stranger to using his mind to solve problems. He recognized that he needed to speak English and he quickly enrolled in classes at Truman College. When the pace of these classes proved too slow for him he purchased an electronic dictionary and some language learning CD's and took over his own language instruction. "Learning
English as a second language became my third job," he said.
His first job was in construction. Benny's uncle had rented him a small studio apartment when he first arrived. He had contacted a local Albanian church to network and quickly met a gentleman with a small construction company. Benny found his second job this way as well, at a nearby hotel. Shortly after, he moved to a job as a bus boy at the Embassy Suites.
It was at the Embassy Suites job where Benny first got the idea to get into the limousine business.
Guests of the hotel routinely hired limos. One day one of the limo drivers showed up at the hotel to pick up a guest, and Benny was appalled by his lack of professionalism.
"The driver was dirty, unkempt, smoking," said Benny with a gleam in his eye. "He didn't even put the client's luggage in the trunk. I knew I could do it better myself."
To get into the limo business in Chicago requires having your own limousine and then working as an independent contractor for established companies. Benny took out a $20,000 dollar loan to buy his first limousine...a Lincoln town car...and jumped into the limo industry feet first. He quickly learned the business from the inside out. "The whole time I was
always thinking about how to start my own company," he recalled.
Benny started his corporation on June 9th, 1997.
From the beginning he had been thinking about what to name his operation. "I chose 'Embassy' because I liked that hotel job," he recalls. "It was a question of surviving, staying awake, finding opportunities."
Although he had no background in web design, one of the first things Benny did was learn HTML and build his own website from scratch. That was long before the do-it-yourself website templates we see today. To this day he maintains his own website and has a strong online presence.
"At the beginning it was all based on referrals. I made contact with the hotel, and just mentioned that I had a car service. Then I made contact with the concierge at the Four Seasons. Soon I was receiving calls from all these multiple sources."
Benny believes that it is his emphasis on personalized service that sets his business apart from the others. He genuinely tries to cultivate a friendship with each client. "I feel an obligation to take care of my clients," he said. "I give all of my clients my personal number. It's about honesty, integrity and that relationship I create with
my clients. It's what keeps them coming back."
"This is a customer service industry," he said. "Details and little things are important. I always say to my drivers how important it is to mind the little things. Keeping the cell phone on silent. Keeping the car clean. Confirming the night before. I consider these to be big things. It's the way you run a business."
During the recent recession, while other limousine services were turning in their licenses, Embassy Limousine kept expanding. But in a calculated way. "It's important not to be so big that you lose that attention to detail. The time I spend training my drivers is very important."
Benny believes that hard work, a do it yourself attitude, a willingness to learn new things, and attention to detail are all key components to his success. But there is another component that is equally important, even when it makes things take an unexpected turn.
"To be successful, you have to have passion. You have to have a dream."
Benny's dream as a youth was to be a detective. And in 2000 he decided to make this dream a reality.
He recalls "I always had this dream to be a cop. So I got a subcontractor to maintain the limo business for the three months while I was in the police academy. I got hired by the police force on June 19th, 2000. I've been in the force for 11 years."
Rather than detract from his limo business, joining the police force became a selling point for clients. "I believe this in part explains our success during the recession," says Benny. "Aside from the relationships we have formed with clients, I think being a police officer makes them feel more secure."
If you are wondering how Benny finds the time to be both a full time cop and a business owner, you might want to ask his wife.
"When I am on the police job, my wife is running the limo business," he said.
Perhaps this explains how in addition to having two full time jobs, Benny also finds time to teach the most adventurous of his three children how to go cliff diving when they take family vacations back to his native Albania. He has two boys and a girl, currently ages 11, 15 and 19. "They are three beautiful kids," he says. "I love to take them
Father, crime fighter, business owner, dreamer. What's next for Benny Pambuku?
With that glimmer in his eye, he said "My background in civil engineering has helped me in this business as well. It's like building a tunnel. With proper planning and vision, you can start digging on two different sides of a huge mountain and meet exactly in the middle. It's time to focus on my next goal. Now that I am a policeman I can make this
a protective car service. We can hire protective drivers and focus on a more exclusive clientele."
Just how much more exclusive?
Suddenly his phone rings. Benny apologizes profusely for having to take the call.
"Benny Pambuku here. The famous client? Yes I will be meeting him this afternoon. You will have to excuse me. Right now I am with another famous person..."
Regardless of how exclusive, it is easy to see that Benny Pambuku knows how to make people feel like a star.
For more information about Benny Pambuku, visit his website: www.embassylimo.com