Connecting People & Destinations
Like the foundation of a building, the vision and values that a business is built on determines how large it can become and how long it will last. The entrepreneurial legacy that Paul Mears Sr. began in 1939 with just three taxi cabs, today has grown to a fleet of some 700 taxis serving the greater Orlando area along with hundreds of limos, shuttle vans and tour buses, along with a thriving destination management business. On the wall of one of their offices is his portrait, next to the patriarch’s favorite Socratic quote, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”
His son, Paul Mears Jr., who made their name synonymous with transportation services in Central Florida, said, “The most challenging thing about a company that is on its third generation of leadership is transferring the culture.” In fact few companies, of any size, spend as much time as Mears training their entire staff, from drivers to software developers and accountants to dispatchers, what that culture is all about.
But Paul Jr. explained he primarily learned about business the same way Joseph Kennedy tutored his sons in politics, around the dinner table. “Even when we were teenagers, we sat down every night to have supper together. My dad wasn’t interested in talking about anything other than business. He didn’t have hobbies or play sports, it was the only thing that captivated him. And he expected you to participate in the conversation. It was kind of like a seminar. We lived it and he made sure we understood it.
Paul Sr. was able to grow the business initially, thanks in large part to the United States Army Air Corp turning the municipal airport into Orlando Army Air Base in 1940 to train pilots and patrol the east coast during World War II. After the war, a new industry caught his attention: car rentals. His only competitor was a used car dealership that later aligned with John Hertz and began to increase market share. He got a letter from Warren Avis offering him an Avis Central Florida franchise for $100, and thought, “If I had an extra $100, I’m sure not going to waste it on that crazy idea,” and tossed it in the trash. Later that evening he reconsidered and went back to the office, found the letter in the trash can and sent them the $100.
By the late 1960s, he had Avis offices in many of the major markets across the south, operating over 2,000 cars, along with a thriving truck leasing business. He loved the rental car business and in 1967, sold it back to Avis for around $2.5 million, a move that protected him from Avis’ takeover strategy. In the meantime, the cab business had suffered from neglect. “When I graduated from college and came back in 1969, we had around 55 cabs. To put it in perspective, in 1949 we had 45 cabs,” Paul Jr. recalled.
“I thought I was going to be in the rental car business, so working in the cab company was a surprise. Disney came and taxi companies were popping up all around. Up until then, we were the only game in town,” he said. “I went to my Dad and told him ‘we have to move or we’ll be left behind.’ Dad was a product of the depression and wasn’t about to risk the profits he reaped from his main business to build something he didn’t really like in the first place.
“We had some pretty serious conversations. I have tremendous respect for him and this business is still built on his principles, but at that time he didn’t want to grow. He would take me out to the lot and ask, ‘How many cars do you have here?’ I’d say ‘six,’ and he would respond, ‘You have 10 percent of your fleet here, unused and you want to grow bigger?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but it doesn’t work that way; if we had 100 cars, we might have 10 here, but that would mean we had 90 cars out making money!’ It was an argument I didn’t win.”
Risk & Reward
Paul Jr. built the business almost clandestinely, adding a couple of cars a month while turning more and more profits. “I could see demand we weren’t serving and how we could grow. Also I saw an opportunity. A shuttle van company came up for sale that had a concession at the airport. I contacted the owner and he wanted $175,000 for the business and for someone to take over the payments on the vehicles. I went to my dad and he said I was crazy. ‘Just let them go broke’ was his response. I then asked, ‘If I can get the money, can I buy the company?’”
His father agreed, but their local banks turned him down asking the telling question, “What does your father think?” He then went to a friend who had a cab company in Arlington, Va. and pitched him the idea. Paul Jr. offered him a part of the company, which he wasn’t interested in, but agreed to loan him the money. “When I told my dad I had the money, he decided he would loan it to me instead. We paid it back in two years and parlayed that into the business today with over 100 shuttle vans and now 220 buses, 350 town cars and our meeting planning business,” he said.
Though Paul Jr. refers to the company as a “big, small business,” they have over 3,500 employees built on the same customer services values his father developed years ago. Now however, the customer is not the only person getting in the back of a cab, but also corporations and the major resorts in Orlando and around the country.
To his two sons, both of whom work in the business, James (Jimmy) B. Mears, executive VP of operations and Paul Mears III, president of Mears Transportation and Hello Destination Management, their connection with their father was far from the almost adversarial relationship Paul Jr. had with his father.
“Instead of just pulling Jimmy and me into his world, dad was totally devoted to being in our world,” Paul III shared. “He was involved in Little League baseball and Pop Warner football; he built his social life around our activities. There were principles discussed and life lessons learned from the company, but he actually discouraged us from being involved in the family business. He wanted us to discover for ourselves what our interests and passions were.”
Jimmy echoed the same sentiment adding, “I didn’t learn the business directly from my dad, but I learned the philosophy from him. Once, I went to him about a business problem, which seemed to defy a solution. He asked, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure.’ He responded, ‘If what you are doing now isn’t working, do something different, but you can’t do nothing.’ To this day we don’t have all the answers, but dad inspired us to be decisive and act.”
According to both sons and the father, the key to their business/relational success was a strategic hire Paul Jr. made over 25 years ago. Jimmy explains, “Dad hired Chuck (Charles E. Carns) as CFO, then moved him into the CEO position. Dad has always had me report to Chuck, same with Paul, and then Chuck reports to dad as Chairman. Frankly, though it was dad’s idea, this whole thing wouldn’t work without Chuck. He is a very unique individual.”
It is a sentiment Paul III echoed, “Chuck is the most capable and exceptional individual I have ever met. This thing works because Chuck is Chuck. He is always the most knowledgeable and prepared guy in the room. I will never be CEO of Mears, maybe Chairman one day, but no one can replace Chuck.”
A Unique Bond
The same unique respect they all share for their CEO is something they also have for each other. All three actually live on the same street and when Paul Jr. approached his son Jimmy about appointing Paul III as president, Jimmy recalled saying, “Dad why wouldn’t you? If I was in your seat, I would name him president also and if one of us has to work for the other, I should work for Paul, not Paul for me. It made sense. My brother and I are close, but I know who I am, I know what my strengths are and I know who I’m not.”
Jimmy worked his way up through the ranks of the company, mastering one area, then moving to another, confiding that his favorite was dispatch. “It was a puzzle you solved every day like an eight-hour game.” Operations came naturally to him.
Paul III spent four years at Georgia Tech, where he was a standout catcher, before moving into the ranks of coaching. “Coaching is not just about game management; it is bringing the most out of and influencing people, managing the business side of the sport and recruiting. I found recruiting, like sales, is more about listening than talking. That experience has been invaluable to me in my present role.”
What drew him back to Orlando was a combination of several factors. “Coaching just had so much uncertainty and my fiancée and I wanted to have a family. My wife went to UCF and loved Orlando, and my dad’s tune had changed. Instead of, ‘Do something else,’ he said, ‘Do whatever you want to do and I will help you, but if you want to come home, there is a lot of opportunity and we could use you.’”
Paul III made the call to return, dove into the business, learned it from the ground up and then took the destination management sector, which his father had launched, to become a premier part of the company first with “Hello Orlando” and now Texas, Arizona, Las Vegas, and Washington DC.
He concluded, “Fundamentally we like each other, we like to be together and we enjoy talking about business. We were raised in a great home, where we were taught to be confident, comfortable and to trust each other. So, we are inclined to trust others, like Chuck.”