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Cover Story

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.
By |
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

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.