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Around the South Bay

How to Wheel and Appeal as a Limousine Chauffeur

March 21, 1985|PAUL FELDMAN | This column is by Times staff writer Paul Feldman. and

On one hand, a chauffeur's life can be an inviting experience. "You dress nicely, you drive a nice car and you get paid," says expert Sherrie Van Vliet.

But imagine the grief if you turn a corner too quickly and your passengers spill Perrier on their Guccis.

"Believe me," said Van Vliet. "That doesn't go over too well."

Van Vliet, who spent more than five years driving and renting out limousines, currently teaches the rights, wrongs and lefts of the chauffeuring business to prospective drivers. Since opening her Torrance-based Executive Chauffeuring School almost two years ago, Van Vliet claims to have trained 400 students ranging from housewives to college students to a retired police lieutenant.

In image-conscious Los Angeles (where ludicrously long limos seem to outnumber taxis) chauffeured transportation is the wave of the future, Van Vliet says.

"You see so many more limousines than even three or four years ago," she said. "You may chauffeur a punk rocker one night and the mayor the next."

Although she cannot guarantee jobs with limo services or with well-to-do private parties to those who enroll in the $250 course, Van Vliet maintains that she has "more people asking for chauffeurs than I have students." The demand, she claims, is fantastic "for chauffeurs that project the proper image."

She claims that her school is the only one of its kind in the nation. William Unger, of the state education department's private post-secondary education office, agrees that there are probably not any or many like it, because most chauffeur training is apparently learned on the job or on a one-to-one basis.

The 16 1/2-hour course consists of classroom lectures, slide shows, on-the-road lessons and training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It is is held at local colleges and at Van Vliet's office at the headquarters of a Torrance limousine service.

There, one recent weekday, Van Vliet, dressed in frilly chauffeur's duds, presented an all-day lesson to two middle-aged men aspiring to break into the business.

Marc Sarmiento, a native of the Philippines, said he learned about the course at an auto convention. Chauffeuring seems more fun than selling real estate, he said, so he enrolled.

Retiree Sherman Grimes figures that chauffeuring is a means of earning extra money while meeting intriguing people. Grimes, 60, moved to Harbor City from Michigan after recently retiring from a career selling fire insurance.

As the pair sat in a room with walls dominated by prints of curvy Lamborghinis and powerful Porsches, they took notes on the aesthetics and legalities of chauffeuring.

"There are a lot of legalities for the chauffeur," Van Vliet said in a businesslike manner. "For instance, you can't pour a drink for a client."

Another potential problem is drug use by clients.

"When I first started in this business," Van Vliet said, "I thought everybody had a cold. I didn't know (about cocaine)."

Her advice to her students: If clients ask to borrow your mirror or offer a hit of the drug, tell them to put their toys away.

Other key points she stressed:

- Never break the chauffeur-client relationship. As Van Vliet noted, "You're paid for your discretion. You might see Mr. Jones without Mrs. Jones . . . (and) you never befriend a client--you go home, she goes home."

- Dress professionally--black three-piece suits are de rigueur and hats and gloves optional (although they usually do result in higher tips). As for distaff drivers, they should always wear bras and never wear open-toed shoes.

- Keep up with current events. "You're sometimes kind of like a tour guide. You're supposed to know who is at the Forum . . . what kind of plays are around."

- Don't go into a client's home. Then, if anything is reported missing, you can't be blamed. Besides, "If you are having a tuna sandwich and someone rips off the TV in the limo, you're going to pay."

- Be prompt. "If you're late picking up Mr. Mayor, he's not going to use you again."

- After dropping your clients at their destination, wait patiently outside. "You don't leave. You are being paid at least $10.50 an hour to be there. They might not like the sushi and may want to go home."

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