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For this Southern California chauffeur service, bring your own car

A few Southern California firms have carved out a niche for chauffeurs. They also charge less than traditional limousine service.

July 09, 2013|By Adolfo Flores
  • Joseph Wojtkow, owner of Your Car Our Driver, helps his client Honeybee Hyatt into her 2013 Cadillac Escalade in Newport Beach. “The service is more personal than hiring a limo driver,” said Hyatt, who uses the service at least once a month and has her favorite drivers.
Joseph Wojtkow, owner of Your Car Our Driver, helps his client Honeybee… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Honeybee Hyatt slides into her 2013 Cadillac Escalade, giddy for a night on the town.

With its white leather seats, seven-spoke wheels and rear-view cameras, it's the ultimate in sport utility vehicles. But this time Hyatt doesn't want to drive it.

Her chauffeur for the night is Josef Wojtkow, the owner of Your Car Our Driver, one of a handful of Southern California companies that will drive you in your own car. They are an offshoot of traditional chauffeur services, giving clients with high-end vehicles all the perks of a driver but without the limo or town car.

In Southern California, where image is everything and car culture rules, wealthy folks such as Hyatt are revving up a cottage industry catering to people who don't want a full-time driver, but who need rides to the airport, say, or in this case, a concert. The region is home to companies including BeMyDD, Private Chauffeur and Private Driver L.A.

"A lot of people don't know the concept exists," said Wojtkow, whose company had $500,000 in revenue last year. "A lot of people of wealth may already have a private driver or maybe a personal assistant of sorts."

His clients include chief executives and Terry Dubrow of "The Real Housewives of Orange County," Wojtkow said.

He charges less than traditional chauffeur services, typically $40 an hour, including gratuity. A town car in Los Angeles costs around $55 an hour, plus gratuity.

"If you own a $100,000 Mercedes, you don't want to get into a town car," said Wojtkow, dressed in a suit and tie.

It's much more intimate being in your own car, Hyatt said, edging forward in her seat.

"Plus people are much more curious about you because you're not getting dropped off in a traditional car," she said.

She still gets the full experience of a chauffeur — Wojtkow and others carry her bags and fetch her shoes and have taken her to replace her lost passport hours before a flight.

"Can you play my iPod?" Hyatt asked Wojtkow. Two taps later she was crooning to Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" as the car zipped through her Newport Coast neighborhood. She was on her way to see the band live — front row center.

It's their wealthy clients that helped the few driver-only companies in Southern California survive the recession at a time when the limo and town car industry suffered, company owners said.

Revenue for conventional driver services dropped 13.2% in 2008 from the previous year and 5.1% in 2009 as, according to a report from research group IBISWorld, corporations cut back on perks and individuals had less disposable income.

As the economy improves, limousine and town car companies have been making a comeback. The limo, town car and taxi industry is expected to grow at an annual rate of 3.2% over the next five years, according to IBISWorld.

Companies such as Wojtkow's have the potential to grow, said Lauren Setar, lead transportation analyst for IBISWorld, but their affect on taxis, limos and town cars remains small.

William Rouse, president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Assn. in Los Angeles, didn't know the driver-only industry existed until he was asked about it.

"People who own their own vehicles intend to drive them," Rouse said. "People who own vehicles and hire someone else to drive are probably relatively few."

Hyatt has been using Your Car Our Driver ever since a friend referred her to the company in 2007.

"The service is more personal than hiring a limo driver," said Hyatt, who uses the service at least once a month and has her favorite drivers.

As the Escalade pulled up to her friend Julie Ditta's home, she joked that Wojtkow sends her all the new drivers to "break in." Initially Wojtkow was the company's only driver; today he employs 40.

Unlike the town car and limo industry, which is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, or taxis, which in Los Angeles are regulated by the city, no government agency regulates the driver-only businesses. Wojtkow just needed a business license.

All of Wojtkow's drivers are insured, he said, and in the event of an accident up to $75,000 in damage to the client's car is covered. The coverage is underwritten by Lloyds of London.

Wojtkow runs the operation from his Newport Beach apartment and communicates with drivers via cellphone to set up appointments.

He used to work for Los Angeles driver-only company Private Chauffeur before branching out on his own. The business, established in 1986, claims to be the oldest of its kind.

Gregory Fibble, the head of Private Chauffeur, said the economic downturn helped bolster his business.

"The recession made people aware of their budgets," Fibble said.

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