The Drive Way

Paul Robar, president of Morf Transportation Inc., has expanded his transportation business from six vehicles to 48, including vans, limousines and sedans.

by Portland Helmich

If he didn't spend so much time running Burlington's largest full-service transportation company, perhaps Paul Robar could lend his loquaciousness to public tele-vision pledge drives, talk shows, or even news reporting. President of Morf Transportation Inc., Robar does not suffer from shyness. "He can talk with the best of them," chuckles his wife, Wanda, who works by his side in their Riverside Avenue office in Burlington.

Paul Robar, with his wife, Wanda, bought Benway's Taxi (now Morf Transportation Inc.) in Burlington in 1973 when he was 18 years old after a friend suggested that it would be a logical buy because he was already fixing and painting cars. "I'd been successful in the garage business and could always go back to that," he says, "but I felt it was probably my last chance to get into the cab business."

Robar's gift for gab surely accounts for some of his people skills, but his business has not grown from two vehicles and five employees in 1973 to 48 vehicles and approximately 75 employees today based on his interpersonal abilities alone. "We worked hard and we had a good name," says Robar of Benway's Taxi, the original name of the company he purchased with some help from family at just 18 years old.

Today, Morf Transportation not only does business as Benway's, but it also provides limousine and sedan service through Apollo Limousine, and van and minibus service through Morf Transit. "We're one-stop shopping," says the 46-year-old president, whose sister, brother, and sister- in-law are employed as dispatchers and whose mother does "cash-ups." (Since all drivers are commission-rated, an accounting practice, known as cash-ups, balances out how much each employee is paid per shift.)

The hard work to which Robar often refers seems to have come naturally. The first-born child of a bricklayer, Robar worked nights and weekends in the mailroom of The Burlington Free Press while attending Burlington High School. After graduating at 17, he started Paul's Wrecker Service, a body shop and towing service in Winooski. "I wanted to be a mechanic my whole life," he says, noting that he learned the trade not at school, but from his father. "He dabbled with cars," Robar points out, "and that's where I got the interest."

Just over a year into owning his first business, Robar was encouraged by a friend to buy Benway's, which was up for sale after more than 20 years in operation. The friend suggested that Benway's would be a logical buy for Robar because he was already fixing and painting cars. "He said, 'You can buy it for a song. You've already got your own mechanics and tow trucks. It'll be a good match for you,' " remembers Robar with a smile and a shake of the head. "And it was a good fit until we walked through the door." Having made a deposit, however, Robar trudged forward. "When you're green and you don't know, you get an education," he says.

Within a couple of weeks, Robar realized he couldn't develop the cab company and maintain Paul's Wrecker Service at the same time. "I had to choose," he says. "I'd been successful in the garage business and could always go back to that, but I felt it was probably my last chance to get into the cab business."

The challenges were steep, but Robar acknowledges that he did benefit from the Benway's name. "We got the oldest taxi number in Burlington: 862-1010," he notes. Another plus was the mechanical knowledge he and his staff brought to the business, which was extremely useful in attempting to increase the company's automotive fleet. "If you don't know about automotive repair, don't get into this business," he cautions. Over time, the number of Benway's taxis grew, and Robar's company eventually became licensed as a used-car dealer, buying vehicles at wholesale auctions.

During the mid-'80s Robar's hard work began to render him tired and "worn out," so he sold the business and built houses with his father for a couple of years. The man who bought the company could no longer continue to make the payments, so Robar bought it back. "I decided to come back because I thought I had bigger and better goals to achieve," he says.

One of those has been expanding his company's services. Robar began purchasing limousines under the name Vermont Charter and Limousine (the company still advertises under that name as well as Apollo Limousine) in 1988. "We couldn't make any money in the taxi business," he says. "The city of Burlington sets the rates, so the taxis didn't do much more than pay rent on the building."

Paul (left), Wanda, Tracy, Ron and Cathy Robar huddle outside their office on Riverside Avenue. Morf Transit employs 75 people, more than 50 of whom are drivers. Seventy-five percent of the workforce has worked there longer than 10 years. "They're out there with people who cut them off, yell at them, and flip them the bird," Wanda Robar says. "You try that for 10 hours and see if you're not tired by the end."

The drinking age was 18 when Robar began acquiring limousines. "Limos were a fad back then," he says. "They were out every night." When the drinking age changed to 21, limousine demand decreased; thus, limousine companies lowered fares to compete with their cab company counterparts. Robar, however, decided to buy new limousines, enabling him to charge more money instead of less and do business with a different echelon of society. "He was in a new league," Wanda says. "It wasn't the bar scene."

By the early '90s the seasoned entrepreneur was able to buy out his competitors, East Coast Limousine and Apollo Limousine. At the same time, he went out on a limb and purchased Morf Transit, a van transportation company with a fleet of three vans. A year later he added sedans.

Wanda, who does everything from
bookkeeping to payroll to preparing lunch for employees up to three days a week, was tentative about the Morf Transit purchase. "I wasn't sure it was the best move," she admits. "I thought we had a lot on our plate, but Paul was right. It really made us an all-around transportation company."

"The cab company keeps the ball rolling," Robar chimes in, "but the vans and sedans are the bread and butter."

Morf Transportation does more than transport individuals and groups in New England and into Canada; the company also handles deliveries. FedEx and UPS might be popular choices for overnight mail, but Robar's company facilitates same-day delivery by transporting items from individual homes to the airport and vice versa. The business, which maintains a second location on Prim Road in Colchester, even delivers movies to movie theaters.

Twenty percent of the company's sedan and limousine service is used for affiliate transportation, which occurs when companies like Boston Coach or Music Express pay Morf Transportation to drive individuals to destinations that would cost more were the companies to provide transportation themselves. While Robar doesn't advertise, his staff also does bodywork and repairs for scores of longtime customers.

Becoming a full-service transportation company has bolstered the company's growth, which was 23 percent last year. Still, loyal customers are what make Robar's family business what it is. "Eighty-five percent of our business is repeat customers," says the president, "and more than half of those use us every day. When regulars don't call, people like my sister get on the phone, hunt them down, and find out why. We want to know, 'Are you out of town? Are you sick?' If we offended you, we want to know."

Robar says most of his drivers, 70 percent of whom work on commission, have their hearts in the right place. "They'll go out of their way," he says, "to help the elderly or people who are sick."

Apparently, Robar's drivers are learning from his example, as the president regularly goes out of his way to help them. "Paul has the biggest heart more than anybody I've ever known," Wanda says. "He's helped so many employees purchase cars so they can get to work. He finances them and takes it out of their paychecks over time, but he never takes any interest."

"We marry the customers, and we marry the help," Robar interjects. "When someone has a personal problem, it be
comes our problem."

Holly Reed knows what Robar means. Director of the Tri-County Foster Grandparent Program, Reed relies on Benway's to transport seniors to the schools, juvenile rehabilitation facilities, and day care centers where they volunteer. "Half of them don't drive or live on the bus route," says Reed, adding that Robar and his crew have been helpful in situations one wouldn't have expected them to be.

"Benway's has called to alert us when they've noticed a change in one of our grandparents," says Reed, referring to dementia that surfaced in one of her volunteers. "There was also a time," she goes on to say, "when our budget was tight, and one of our grandparents needed transportation. She couldn't drive anymore because of health problems, but she wanted to finish her placement to a logical conclusion. We could only pay one-way, and Paul and Wanda donated the other way so that she could get there. They're very human to work with."

Human decency is all that Robar says he expects of employees, more than 50 of whom are drivers. "There are three things it takes to work here," he says. "You can't lie; you can't steal; and don't cheat. Short of those things, we can work out any problem."

Tracy Robar, the president's sister-in-law, adds what she believes is an important employee characteristic to the list. "This is a fast-paced business," she says. "Things can change from minute to minute. You've got to be on your toes, because Paul is."

Cathy Robar, Paul's sister, and Tracy Robar, their sister-in-law, are day managers in the family business. Paul's brother is a dispatcher, and his mother does cash-ups. His wife, Wanda, does everything from bookkeeping to payroll to preparing lunch for employees up to three days a week.

Robar and his wife say many view the taxi business as a "lazy man's job," a belief they would like to dispel. "These drivers are out there doing 10- to 12-hour shifts," Wanda says. "They're out there with people who cut them off, yell at them, and flip them the bird. You try that for 10 hours and see if you're not tired by the end. It's a much more difficult job than the average person realizes, and you can't have respect unless you've sat in the seat yourselves."

To show employees their appreciation, Robar and his wife try to play fair. "It isn't always the same guy who has to work weekends," Wanda says, "and we're faithful at Christmas. Everybody gets a wrapped present."

"We don't ask anybody to do anything we wouldn't do ourselves," Robar adds, "and that can mean anything from washing the cars to answering the phones to cleaning the toilets."

After more than a quarter-century in business, Robar possesses an unapologetic level of confidence in his company.
"If we have a contract for 10 more cars," he says, "can we acquire them, get them detailed, and have them ready to go? The answer is 'yes, yes, and yes.' On our turf, we're as good as it gets, and that's not bragging."

Morf Transportation's rates vary. Taxis average $30 an hour; vans, which can hold up to 14 passengers, and sedans average $45 per hour; and limousines usually run $65 an hour. Robar says the company ensures that its limousines and sedans are never more than 2 years old.

Business has been good the last several years, though Morf Transportation experienced a flurry of cancellations after September's terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Fifty thousand dollars in advance bookings "went down the tubes" within two days. "It did the same thing to us that it did to airlines and hotels and everybody else down through," Robar says. "We totally understand why, though, and we know they'll come back."

Beyond the widespread challenge of working in a travel-related field at a time when many are frightened to travel, Robar's daily challenges revolve around many of the same issues that other business owners are likely to face. Insurance is costly; space is limited; and finding staff is difficult. (Still, notes Robar, 75 percent of his employees have worked for him longer than 10 years).

Another challenge is running a family business in a business that doesn't sleep. "Somebody always has to be here 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says the amiable president.

"When you work together like we do," Wanda adds, "you can't all take a vacation together."

What seems to keep Robar, whose next goal is to acquire wheelchair accessible vans, at the helm of Morf Transportation is a task that business owners lacking his people skills probably dread. "I like dealing with drivers' and customers' complaints," he says with a grin. "I like the challenges. If there weren't any, I wouldn't still be here."

Originally published in November 2001 Business People-Vermont