The Valet Parking Wars
Jack Boles Services has dominated Dallas' valet-parking business for decades. Now Boles is being challenged by scrappier upstarts. An inside look at the free-for-all.
A disinterested observer attending the Dallas Police Department meeting at City Hall for about 30 local valet companies would have endured a mostly routine affair. Warnings were sounded about parking cars in unauthorized lots. Videos were screened about the bad things valet-parkers have done with cars in other cities, like performing “doughnuts” in a hotel garage.
John Paul Curington, program manager for the DPD’s parking enforcement unit, explained how he had set up a new 3-1-1 telephone number to handle valet complaints.
Only a couple of offhand comments hinted on this July morning at the competitive tensions in the room—tensions that lay just below the surface. Someone joked from the podium about “leaving all the lawyers at home.” And an executive from Jack Boles Services Inc. called out evenly, “We like to keep our friends close, but our enemies closer.”
Jack Boles Services indeed had enemies, at least of the business variety, in that City Hall meeting room. The oldest and arguably the most respected valet-parking company in Dallas—a car-oriented, status-conscious city long known for the ubiquity of its valet service—Boles recently has watched its dominance in this unique luxury niche begin to slip. Younger, scrappier, perhaps hungrier rivals have emerged, snatching prime contracts away from Boles and forcing the company to compete for business it once took for granted.
At the same time the stepped-up competition has rallied Boles’ longtime fans to its side, illustrating how seriously Dallas’ business and cultural elite takes values like friendship, loyalty, and service. Even if it “only” involves people who park your vehicle for you because you can’t—or don’t want to—park it yourself.
“I don’t know of any other city where valets are such a part of the community,” says one 50ish business owner, who asked not to be identified because he works with a number of valet companies. “I mean, James Hatcher [a Boles company principal] attends Alan White’s annual holiday party at PlainsCapital bank. Diego Suassuna [of Gold Crown Valet Parking] went to the opening gala for the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. Mr. Boles himself used to check you in at the debutante parties, and he once turned away a society reporter for The Dallas Morning News because he wasn’t wearing a tuxedo.
“My generation doesn’t think of these people as service people,” the businessman goes on. “That’s what makes it so hard, when you’ve got the new hotshot in town competing on a pure business level. That’s tough.”
The loudest shot fired to date in Dallas’ valet wars came earlier this summer, at the upscale Rosewood Crescent complex in Uptown. Although Boles had the contract to park cars at the hotel, spa, club, and Crescent office tower there—and had ever since the swank hotel opened in the mid-1980s—the Crescent management decided in June to switch vendors, booting out Boles in favor of Parking Company of America-Dallas.
Adrian Norbury, the hotel’s marketing director at the time, said the change was a “straight business decision,” explaining that PCA-Dallas had a technological advantage that would make it a better fit for the Crescent’s future needs. But the move—and the way people learned about it, indirectly, from third parties—unexpectedly raised the ire of Boles loyalists.
A number of club and spa members fired off a “letter of protest” to New World Hospitality, the Hong Kong company that bought the Crescent and its management firm, Dallas-based Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, last year. Others took to D Magazine’s FrontBurner blog to rail against the decision, charging that it showed disloyalty and was motivated only by cost-cutting concerns.
“I like the [Boles] valet service immensely,” one longtime Crescent customer wrote. “Now that relationship is being taken away from me. How can PCA, or the Crescent for that matter, expect to replace that? All that valuable customer relationship will evaporate. It’ll take years for PCA to rebuild what the Crescent is throwing away. If they can.”
Sniffed David Hamilton, Boles’ majority owner: “I can’t compete with cheap.”
$800,000 In Tips
For six decades, the fortunes of the Jack Boles company have been tied inextricably to Dallas’ old-line social and business leadership.
The late Jack Boles, who founded the company, began parking cars at downtown’s old Biltmore garage in the 1930s. After serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II, he returned to Dallas and, in 1946, started working as a valet at the tony Brook Hollow Golf Club. Boles branched out in the 1950s and ’60s, parking at private parties for the likes of the Bedford Wynne Sr. and Henry S. Miller Sr. families, and at the most prestigious local charity balls, like Cattle Baron’s and Crystal Charity.
Today Hamilton, who joined the company in 1975 after marrying Boles’ stepdaughter, Pam, peppers his business reminiscences with names like Clint Murchison, Al Hill Sr. (“he tipped very well”), Ross Perot, Trammell Crow, and Caroline Rose Hunt. The company’s most recognizable face, besides principal and Senior Vice President James Hatcher, is Gary Ferraro, another Boles principal and senior VP whose father parked cars alongside the company’s founder.
Such venerable connections have brought Boles success in a field that’s more lucrative than some might suspect. Insiders say the valet-parking contract for the annual Cattle Baron’s Ball, for example, can run upwards of $30,000. The Crystal Charity parking job can bring in $20,000, while valet services for a private party with 300 or 400 guests in Preston Hollow might set the host back $5,000.
Last year Jack Boles, which parked a whopping 700,000 cars, raked in more than $7 million, including parking-lot and garage-management fees. The company now has 165 part-time and 110 full-time employees, 45 of whom have been with Boles for more than 15 years. The company offers a 401(k) plan and pays for 75 percent of its full-timers’ health-insurance premiums. Its parkers start at $7.25 an hour but pool and split their tips; some years, tips reported to the feds by Boles have totaled more than $800,000.
Boles also has valet contracts at many of the town’s most prestigious commercial venues. Among them: shopping centers like Highland Park Village and NorthPark Center; Cowboys Stadium; the Belo Mansion; Children’s Medical Center; Rosewood Court; and hotels such as the Luxe Stoneleigh and the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek.
These days, though, Boles is worried about its valet contract at the Mansion, which has been called the top hotel in Dallas. That’s because New World, owner of the Rosewood management company and the Crescent hotel, also owns and runs the Mansion. While the Crescent accounted for just 10 percent of Boles’ gross valet revenue, Hamilton says, losing the Mansion contract in addition would “break our legs."
Radha Arora, president of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, said he was traveling and unavailable to comment about the valet contracts for this story.
The Crescent isn’t the first time Boles has brushed up against PCA-Dallas and lost. Several years ago, Hamilton says, PCA-Dallas nabbed the State Fair of Texas valet contract away from Boles. And, earlier this year, Boles lost the valet contract at the plush Hotel ZaZa to PCA-Dallas after having it for nearly 10 years. In both instances, Hamilton says, “They came in and underbid us, and we couldn’t meet the price.”
PCA-Dallas, for its part, says that’s not so. After repeated calls and emails to the company’s top executives went unanswered, we finally caught up with Brennan Burgess, the company’s director of operations, at the Dallas police valet meeting. Asked whether PCA-Dallas’s strategy is to get new contracts with “lowball” bids, Burgess scoffed at the idea.
The company doesn’t have any particular strategy for gaining new business, he said, and it would never cut its rates to win contracts. “That does take place in our business,” Burgess said, “but we’re not a company that can afford to go out and underbid. We have [ordinary business] costs to consider, too.”
Asked what sort of technological advantage PCA had touted in winning the Crescent contract, he described the company’s use of a paperless, cloud-based system that tracks vehicles and controls revenue via a mobile-phone app. Austin-based Flash Valet began offering the system in May.According to its website, PCA-Dallas offers valet services and manages more than 170 parking facilities and office-building garages in North Texas. With at least 90 employees and gross annual revenue exceeding $15 million, the site goes on, PCA-Dallas is led by its president, Fred Baker, and vice president, Erik Lee Ward. According to Curington of the DPD, which enforces Dallas valet laws, the company operates valet locations for the ZaZa hotel, as well as for commercial real estate company Gaedeke Holdings; nightclubs the Lizard Lounge and the Candleroom; and for restaurants Rensfield Corner, Sfuzzies, Hibiscus, and Campisi’s.
PCA-Dallas isn’t the only rival Boles has to worry about these days, however.
One of Boles’ most aggressive competitors is Gold Crown Valet Parking Inc., a Richardson-based company with 250 employees, 50 of them full-time. Under its owner and president, R.W. Raabe, and its gregarious, hard-working lead parker Diego Suassuna, Gold Crown has swooped in to capture a number of the city’s most sought-after social, charity, and business accounts. They include charity events for the Salvation Army, TACA, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Nasher Sculpture Center; special events for the Dallas Country Club; the opening party for the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge; and some Crystal Charity pre-ball parties.
Gold Crown also valet-parks for the Dallas Arboretum, Hickory Street Annex near Fair Park, the Plaza Condominiums, the Prestonwood Country Club, and eM thevenue, a special-events spot in the Dallas Design District.
“If a high-end charity event in Dallas has an event, it’s going to be them or us. And 30 years of knowing somebody is tough to compete with,” Raabe says, referring to Jack Boles. “On the other hand, they are not flexible on price, or on how things are done.
“I’m after Crystal Charity and Cattle Baron’s. I’d like to have both of them,” Raabe admits. “But, not everybody knows us yet.”
Sometimes that seems hard to believe. After Raabe worked his way through college parking cars for Jack Boles—“I loved it, and the tips were crazy,” he says—he founded Gold Crown Valet in 1994. But it didn’t take him long to realize that Boles had a lock on the “socialites’ ” business. So he hooked up with a prominent catering outfit, and later caught his first big break parking cars at private parties for Darwin Deason, the über-wealthy founder of Affiliated Computer Systems.
The Deason connection opened doors for Gold Crown, which quickly developed two unique calling cards. After its valets took the patrons’ keys and whisked their cars away to park, the valets would wash the windshields and later place a peppermint candy or two in the front seats. Although those practices would eventually be abandoned—too many customers started complaining about streaks left on their windows!—Raabe says Gold Crown continues to have a leg up on its competition.
In addition to a sophisticated, $150,000 software system that it recently installed for scheduling purposes, he says, “We’re the only company left in Dallas whose parkers actually wear white shirts and neckties from October 1 to April 1. They’re solid black ties that give a formal appearance. The shirts also have pockets, where they can put their pens. Other companies wear polo shirts, so the parkers have to put their pens in their back pockets, which winds up leaving ink stains in the car seats.
“I also don’t allow any facial hair, except for a trimmed mustache,” Raabe continues. “And, I came up with idea of having each parker wear a white hand towel on their belt.”
Isn’t that sort of gimmicky? he’s asked. “It’s a look of servitude,” Raabe replies. “It says you’re there to help someone.”
In part because of these touches, Gold Crown’s business has grown steadily over the years. After making $77,000 in its first full year and $177,000 the next, the company’s annual revenue reached $3 million at one point. Last year Gold Crown—whose parkers start at $8.50 an hour and can make $50,000 annually—saw $2.5 million in revenue. Besides the valet contract for Cattle Barons and Crystal Charity, Raabe adds, he’d like to “pick up two more country clubs”—Bent Tree and Brook Hollow.
The latter’s been with Jack Boles for decades.
Battling For Restaurants
Unlike PCA-Dallas, Gold Crown and Boles don’t typically compete in Dallas’s restaurant- and club-valet space. Those valet stands, which are so conspicuous, especially in the Uptown and downtown areas, are usually operated not by the establishments they serve but by independent valet companies. One of the most successful and respected of these is Lone Star Valet Services. Another is R.P. Valet Parking Inc., owned by R.P. Payervand.
Payervand says the Dallas company, which he founded in 1987, now has more than 100 employees. His restaurant clients include Abacus, Nick & Sam’s Steakhouse, Palomino, and The Capital Grille, Payervand says.
Besides PCA-Dallas, another aggressive player that companies like R.P. and Lone Star may soon notice is Irving-based FreedomPark Valet Services. Concentrating until recently on valet parking at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, 11-year-old FreedomPark has been moving lately into the restaurant and special-event markets.
Among its clients so far are Ruth’s Chris Steak House, off the Dallas Parkway, and two downtown Dallas event spaces, including The Venue at 400 North Ervay. FreedomPark has also parked for the Dallas Regional Chamber, the Colonial Country Club, the Junior League of Plano, and a couple of galleries in the Dallas Design District.
Going forward, “We want to focus on breaking into the local market,” says FreedomPark spokesman Ben Kundmueller, whose father, Ken, founded and still owns the company, and whose brother, John, serves as president. “We’re talking to several golf courses, shopping centers, and restaurants. We’re using our technology as a way to get in the door.”
Kundmueller is referring in part to a reservations and dispatch-software system that’s helped FreedomPark grab an estimated 40 to 45 percent of the airport’s valet-parking business. The brainchild of Ken Kundmueller, who previously owned Wingtip Couriers, the pioneering system allows travelers to make reservations online, and to receive emailed confirmations as well as receipts. FreedomPark meets departing D/FW passengers at the curb in front of their gates, then has their vehicles waiting for them when they return to the airport.
The company also tracks and displays the performance of its employees in real time on big screens at its Irving headquarters. In addition, FreedomPark is marketing a proprietary tool to other valet companies, as well as to its own potential valet clients, that it calls ValetNow. Upon arrival at an establishment, the system puts a key fob instead of a paper ticket in the valet customer’s hands. When he or she is about to leave, a button on the fob is clicked, signaling the valet podium so that the car will be pulled up and ready instantly, without a time-wasting delay.
With influential key clients like Laura Miller, the former Dallas mayor, and her husband, attorney Steve Wolens, FreedomPark now boasts 309 employees, including 110 full-timers, and 10 percent annual revenue growth. “We’re a customer-service company that just happens to do valet parking,” John Kundmueller says.
Asked about the competition that FreedomPark may face as it expands its horizons beyond D/FW, John, a Marine Corps veteran like Jack Boles, adds: “It’s easy for a guy to go get two of his buddies and put a valet stand up and valet a venue cheap. There are a lot of fly-by-night operations out there. That makes it tough for companies like us and Jack Boles that want to do it right, do it ethically, pay the taxes correctly. We’ve run into that, sure.”
For decades, Jack Boles has shunned “high technology” like real-time software and the ValetNow system in favor of a more personalized, traditional approach. Eager to show how busy the company was several days last December, for instance, David Hamilton opened what looked to be an old-fashioned accountant’s ledger, with the names of each client written in pen.
At events and venues where Boles operates, valet patrons typically receive a paper ticket when they arrive. But the “A-listers,” and some others, don’t get these tickets. Instead, they are recognized by Boles’ lead parkers—Ferraro and Hatcher, say, or Kathy Weideman—who keep a keen eye peeled for these favored ones as the event draws to a close. Then, their vehicles are quickly retrieved.
This often leads to nice tips and to good feelings by these customers—many of whom also hire valet parkers for events or private parties themselves—because they have been treated as special customers. As high-end regulars; as members of the chosen few.
Technology would upend this system, Hamilton insists. “You can’t give a parking ticket to Sharon McCutchin,” he says, naming a prominent Dallas socialite. “It is a social boo-boo.”
But, in a fast-changing, more competitive valet-parking environment—one where companies like PCA-Dallas and FreedomPark and Gold Crown are touting newer and smarter ways of doing things—one wonders how long Jack Boles can maintain its stance, or its dominance. Says the 50ish businessman who asked to remain anonymous: “This [younger] generation looks at budgeting, as well as service.”
Already, for example, there’s talk that the Crystal Charity Ball is poring over a bid from Gold Crown, as well as one from Jack Boles, to handle valet parking at its annual December gala, the No. 1 philanthropical fundraiser in Dallas County. It’s the first time the charity has seriously considered a valet company other than Boles.