Tony Paalz | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Putting the Plus In Parking
By Karen Rosen
Tony Paalz has always been driven to give customers more service and a better experience than they could find anywhere else.
The Park ‘N Fly president and CEO even calls his philosophy of life “PLUS,” which is fitting because he takes everything to that extra level.
“It’s just the acronym for how I hire, how I think about life,” says Paalz.
P stands for Passion. “That’s the most important thing to me,” he says. Paalz wants Park ‘N Fly, which he joined in 2009, to be such a fantastic work environment that people can’t stop talking about how great it is.
“This isn’t just a job for me and I don’t want it to be just a job for anyone else,” Paalz says. “Live and breathe it and love it like it’s your baby and great things happen.”
L stands for Loyalty. “Loyalty’s a two-way street.” he says. Paalz has hired many people who have worked for him before in various industries, including telecommunications, Internet and storage.
“When you find someone you work with well and they can adopt and figure out new industries,” he says, “you tend to find those people again and bring them along.”
While Paalz wants members of his team to advance in their careers -- even if it means leaving his employ -- he says, “How you handle that is important. I want what is best for my team even if means following their dream somewhere else.”
U stands for Unquestionable Integrity. “I live and die by my integrity and I surround myself with people like that,” Paalz says.
One of his favorite quotes comes from William Penn: “Right is right even if everyone is against it and wrong is wrong even if everyone is for it.”
S stands for Smart. “Smart is not where you went to school,” Paalz says. “It’s really, ‘Are you a quick study? Can you take what you’ve learned in other industries and apply it?’”
And that PLUS philosophy contributes to customer satisfaction. At Park ‘N Fly, Paalz says, “Our goal is to continue to delight our customers and blow them away with our outstanding service.”
AT&T Comes Calling
Paalz, a native of Long Island, N.Y., got his start at AT&T after studying liberal arts at The University of Michigan and earning an MBA at Pennsylvania State University.
Following divestiture, AT&T was not only reinventing itself, but also had to learn to deal with competition from new companies such as MCI and Sprint.
“How do you go from monopoly to actually having to fight for market share?” Paalz says. “We were trying to hold onto the customers we had, and at the same time grow the business. It was an exciting time.” To achieve that growth, Paalz was partly responsible for “a lot of phone calls at dinnertime” and “$100 checks” asking people to switch their long distance carrier. “We were acquiring over a million new customers a month in our heyday,” he says, “so it was pretty big business.”
The biggest issue facing AT&T in the late 80’s and early 90’s was figuring out how to hold on to the customers AT&T had. “One of my claims to fame was being a key member of the team that invented the True Rewards program,” Paalz says. The program was modeled after the airline frequent flyer programs.
Over his 9 years at AT&T Paalz had the opportunity to, as he puts it, “drink from the fire hose and learn as much as I could.” He learned pricing strategy, advertising and direct marketing as well as how to build business plans and call center operations. This experience added up to his “customer-centric” view of managing a business.
Paalz joined an Internet start-up in Michigan in 1999 as part of his dream to work in a small entrepreneurial environment. “It was at the tail end of the crazy Internet days of the ‘90s when everyone was still working 15-18 hours a day trying to quickly grow the business with our sights set on a big IPO event,” he says.
He ran operations and marketing for both the consumer and business side of the company called Voyager.net. They reached about $70 million in revenue and had a couple of big events -- first taking the company public and eventually selling it.
After the sale, Paalz was asked to join a sister company Volaris Online in Florida as the Chief Operating Officer. This opportunity came after the industry bubble burst, requiring a different set of tactics to move the company forward. “ In contrast to the high growth 90’s, we had to work to fix a company that grew too fast without a strong foundation and formal processes and had taken on too much debt,” he says.
“This was more of a situation where the company required some serious work to right the ship.” In the end, the company did become more attractive with its improved operations and respectable growth, and all of the company’s subscribers were sold to Earthlink.
Under Paalz’s direction, the growth at Volaris Online, or VOL.com, came from a clear strategy to fill a void in the marketplace. “We became everything that AOL was not,” he says. “Everything we did we had AOL in mind. They’ve got discs in the store, we’ll tell people to give us discs and we’ll give them a discount. People would be sending in hundreds of discs to us.” The company used all the missteps made by AOL -- including busy signals and poor customer service -- to induce customers to give VOL a try.
The strategy worked, and as the company grew it became a much more attractive entity for acquisition.
“My next stop was ironic,” Paalz says. In 2004, he was hired as the general manager of CompuServe, then owned by AOL.
“In a way, I went to the dark side, as I had built a company around doing what AOL could not. I was okay with that because I had my own little CompuServe business to manage, which was outside of the AOL empire,” said Paalz, who was also in charge of the Netscape low cost ISP.
Paalz’s success at CompuServe then resulted in an even greater irony when he was asked to join the AOL team in Dulles, Virginia. “Joining the AOL mother ship was truly surreal as I had spent the last 5-6 years doing everything possible to put sand in AOL’s gears and grow my other internet companies by taking AOL customers,” he says.
“I guess they got a little worried that I was getting too successful with the little CompuServe brand, so it was an ‘If you can’t beat them, join them kind of thing.’”
Paalz didn’t stay with AOL long, feeling the company was behind the times and lacked the entrepreneurial spirit they were once known for. “This was now 2006; and AOL was still holding onto dial-up internet service, thinking there was a bright future.” he says.
Moving to Another Industry
Paalz joined PODS (Portable on Demand Storage), a moving, storage and logistics company in 2006, to get back to a smaller more entrepreneurial company.
He started as head of the moving business and was quickly promoted to COO. Paalz was credited with increasing the moving revenue by more than 50 percent over a two-year period, making it the fastest growing moving company in the industry.
“Working at PODS was a great experience, as there was a great culture, with high energy employees with tremendous enthusiasm,” Paalz says. “Everyone was thrilled to be a part of a brand new product and service that was changing the game in the moving and storage industries, not to mention the fast growth which is always more fun to be a part of.”
In its nine years, PODS experienced incredible growth and went from a 50-storage container business to over 250,000 PODS containers all over the United States, Canada and Australia. The company eventually sold for over $400 million.
Pulled into a New Lot
In 2009, Paalz moved to his current role as the President and CEO of Park ‘N Fly.
Park ‘N Fly was founded in 1967 and became part of BCD Holdings in 1988. BCD and Park ‘N Fly are owned by the van Vlissigen family of the Netherlands. BCD Holdings N.V is a market leader in the travel industry. The Dutch, privately owned company was founded in 1975 by John Fentener van Vlissingen and in addition to Park ‘N Fly consists of BCD Travel (global corporate travel management), Travix (online travel: CheapTickets, BudgetAir and Vayama), TRX (travel transaction processing and data integration), Airtrade , and Parkmobile International (mobile parking and traffic applications). BCD Holdings employs approximately 13,500 people and operates in more than 90 countries with total sales, including franchising, of $20.3 billion
“It has been a privilege and honor to work for the van Vlissingen family over the past almost 4 years” Paalz says. “They have been among the most supportive owners I have encountered and have always been there to support our company in good times and difficult times. And as the person they selected to run their fine company they continue to support me and give me and the company opportunities that are second to none. It took me many years into my career to find the type of relationship that I have with our owners and the board and I consider myself extremely fortunate.”
Park ‘N Fly has 17 locations -- a mix of managed, owned and leased – and will park between 1.6 -2 million cars this year.
Paalz says there were 14 locations when he started and the goal is to add one or two locations year.
“One of the reasons I was hired was because I’d grown a number of businesses,” he says. “I was asked, ‘Can you add to the products and services, can you grow new locations?’ I said yes! And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.
“Our vision is to make our customers’ lives easier by providing more than just parking.”
Park ‘N Fly has formed partnerships with companies in industries such as pet boarding, car washing and baggage handling. It even has its own Jiffy Lube franchise, so instead of a car sitting idle while its owner is away, it can be getting an oil change.
In baggage handling, customers may soon be able to check their bags at the parking lot and have them go straight to their hotel room or cruise ship cabin.
In Miami, Park ‘N Fly’s newest location, they offer a fully enclosed indoor luxury valet parking experience. This will include a lounge for travelers with WiFi, flight boards, snacks and beverages so customer can relax instead of waiting in the airport or paying for an airline club. Of course, there will also be high-end car wash service and baggage handling, and maybe even dry cleaning service.
Additionally, the company is testing a number of new technologies to make the experience truly unique including an RFID technology similar to an E-ZPass for tolls so customers can enter and leave the lot without having to stop to see a cashier. “That’s where we’re moving in all of our locations, to take enabling technology that exists, and use it to make our service better and faster so customers can get in and out of our lots with the greatest of ease,” Paalz says.
Competing with the Airport
Paalz says his main competitor is the airport itself, with its onsite parking.
“Many times, proximity doesn’t always equal convenience,” he says. “We give them all these other services. Our philosophy is, ‘Try us once, you’ll never go back.’”
Park ‘N Fly has a Net Promoter Score of over 75 which is world class. “And this is not some small sample of customers, this is based on more than 100,000 survey responses,” Paalz says. Noting that Park ‘N Fly can always be better, his goal is a score of more than 80.
Paalz says that every day he reads the feedback that accompanies the scores. “I love to read the feedback -- both the positives, so we can feel good about the service we are delivering -- and the critical comments when in the rare case we fail to meet our customer’s expectation,” he says. “In those cases when we have an upset customer, we reach out to the customer within 24 hours.”
The customer will get a phone call or email and, if Paalz feels the complaint hasn’t been addressed properly, he’ll contact the manager to rectify it or call the customer himself.
“People say, ‘I can’t believe I wrote a comment on a card and gave you a score and you called me?’” he says. “Yes, we did -- every one of you.””
Park ‘N Fly has about 875 employees, mostly in the field, with about 40-45 at headquarters in Atlanta.
“My philosophy is lead from in front,” Paalz says, “but it’s all about empowerment and engaging the team. I drive decisions down through the organization because that creates ownership, passion and usually, for the most part, more accountability.”
Paalz always dreamed of owning his own business, “I’ve now touched so many different kinds of businesses, and all the pieces of the businesses, that I probably am well-positioned to start and manage my own company” Paalz says. “But to be honest, I’m having so much fun with what I’m doing and I’m in the sweet spot. I love Park ‘N Fly, I enjoy the culture we’ve created and the camaraderie and bottom line, I love what I’m doing and I wouldn’t change a thing right now.”
Secrets to Success
- Be passionate about what you do. If you don’t love it and it isn’t what you’re all about and you can’t make it be your passion, then you’re probably not in the right spot. It’s not how much you get paid; it’s if you really enjoy what you do. Sometimes it’s a hard discussion when you say to somebody, ‘This is just not for you.’ But in the end, they come back and thank you.
- Pay attention to the details. I’m the CEO of a small company; there are no details that get beyond me. While I do empower the team and I don’t manage every detail, I’m certainly aware of what’s happening as I know when you’re really trying to delight customers and blow them away, the details really matter.
- Build the right team. If you’re really careful and do it right, it lasts forever. When you get the right people, magic occurs.
Tony Paalz is President and CEO at Park ‘N Fly. Atlanta Trend expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Tony Paalz for sharing his thoughts with us.
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