This profile is the inaugural edition of Destination Ann Arbor’s Great Minds Think a Lot series, highlighting influential leaders in Washtenaw County who make a positive impact within our community.
Sean Duval is the kind of person that some would present as evidence that the American Dream is still possible.
While working as a manager at a local McDonald’s in the early 1990s, he learned that a jewelry store’s offshoot business – Golden Chain’s Limousine Service, based inside Weber’s Inn – was shutting down. He got a bank loan; bought two sedans (and rented a van) from Golden; and worked full-time at McDonald’s, then later the Federal Correctional Facility in Milan, while working part-time to build his version of the new business, which he renamed Golden Limousine.
In 1998, Duval started working full-time for the still-growing business, and Golden Limousine is now – with an owned fleet of 25+ units, a local network fleet of over 100 units, with ties to hundreds of companies with thousands of vehicles worldwide – celebrating 27 years in business.
Q. What initially brought you to Ann Arbor?
A. I am an Army brat, and my father's service brought us to Michigan in 1979. I lived downriver in Monroe County. I came to Ann Arbor for work in the late ‘80s and started my business in the early ‘90s. … My experiences with Ann Arbor were really limited to going to parties in the University of Michigan dorms with upperclassmen friends that had graduated from my high school. I never really considered staying in Ann Arbor, but it truly grabs hold of you and gives you so many reasons to want to stay.
Q. What were some of those reasons?
A. Ann Arbor is a cool town. There is always something to do and no lack of opportunity to be successful. I started my business in the lobby of what is now Weber’s Boutique Hotel, and they are still a partner with us to this day. That type of loyalty has persisted throughout my 30+ years in Ann Arbor.
Q. What appealed to you about jumping into a completely different business – from food to transportation services?
A. It was not a big jump, since both businesses are centered around great hospitality. I was trained to provide high level customer service in the McDonald’s system, and I really took to heart what I learned. … One of the main things that I learned and implemented at Golden was that it is my goal to find a way to say “yes.” It is what helped me win many accounts when competitors’ first answer was “no, we don’t do that.” Instead, we customized our service offerings to what each specific client was requesting, and that flexibility made us an essential part of some of our region’s biggest events. … Buying the cars from Golden Chains, and buying their phone number, was a great entry into the business, but it came with a lot of challenges. But starting with a clean slate, and knowing that I could apply customer service excellence to this industry, gave me confidence that I could be my own boss in a different industry and be successful.
Q. What made you keep the company’s name close to the original? Was that strategic?
A. Dropping the “Chains” was very strategic. Since we were not the same company, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to call ourselves by the other business[’s name]. Buying the cars and taking the phone number got us a good start, and we would do that same formula three more times with other businesses in order to establish ourselves in other markets and in different categories within the industry. By keeping the name similar to Golden Chains, and by having previous company’s phone number, we didn’t confuse Chain’s customers when we answered the phones. It was an easy transition, and we still to this day talk about getting rid of our “chains” and making it on our own.
Q. Were you nervous about taking out a loan and adding more work to what were probably already long days?
A. Anytime you take a risk by doing something new, … it comes with a level of apprehension and maybe anxiety. Within a year after I started the business, I left McDonald’s and went to work at the Federal Correctional Institution-Milan. That helped to smooth out my work day so that my off time could be focused on improving my company. Within five years, we grew Golden to the point that I could leave the federal government and work for myself full time. The steady income from my ‘day’ job helped to ease the tension of my limo gig until we were on our feet. Of course the days were long, but the investment was worth it.
Q. What were the big lessons you learned in those early years?
A. The biggest lesson I learned (and continue to learn) is that the people are what make a business successful. I learned that at McDonald’s; I learned that as a supervisor in the FCI; and it was abundantly clear at Golden. Understanding the mistakes I made in hiring, and learning how to make better and better hires, has definitely led to our success. There’s just no way the business would be as successful as it is without the dedication of many long-time staff, some of whom were with me from our earliest days.
Q. Golden Limo was hit hard when Pfizer left Ann Arbor in 2008. What other events or times have been tough, and how did you get through them?
A. Pfizer was by far our largest challenge. However, we started during a recession and have lived through two other big ones since. The Pfizer challenge happened at the start of the Great Recession, and that cut our revenues and overall business in half. Loyal customers and staff, vendor partners, and the resilience of the Ann Arbor and U-M economy really won the day during that time. The terror attacks on the World Trade Center sent our industry in to a tailspin that many of my friends in the industry didn’t survive. Our diverse fleet, loyal clients, and faithful staff helped us stay afloat. It was also the beginning of the end for our work with stretch limousines. We had a very large limo fleet that we started to pare down because of focus was becoming fixed on the corporate client and national service offerings.
Q. You’ve now been in business for more than 25 years. What did it mean to you to reach such a significant milestone?
A. We are starting our 27th year and it feels like we are just getting warmed up. Hitting the 25 year mark was special, and it gave me an opportunity to take a look back at what we had truly accomplished, including all of the lives we have touched over the years. So many special occasions, so many major events, so many employees, all the challenges from 1992 to today have made us feel like there is nothing we can’t accomplish. When we say “Yes” today, we know that we’ve got relevant experience that will back up our answer. Back then, we said “yes,” and then we had to scrape, scratch, and crawl to make it happen on our limited knowledge and budget. Our legacy is certainly our community service and how we effect people’s lives on a daily basis. Golden is its people and has been since day one. And that fact makes me believe our relationships, our people, will endure for the next 25 years or so.
Q. Who are your primary clients these days?
A. We focus on corporate and higher education, and within that effort, we also serve the leisure needs of our clients. That means the CEO or admins who have children that go to proms, homecoming, or get married will call us. When special family occasions occur, or a trip to Detroit for a night out or ball game occur, they are comfortable calling the company they use every day at their business. In this way, we don’t have to market broadly for leisure business and serve the needs of our corporate partners. I think this strategy has really served us well and also introduced us to a second generation of customers.
Q. Tell me about your role as Destination Ann Arbor’s Board of Directors chair. How did you become interested in serving the community in this way?
A. There are few non-profit board opportunities like the (Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, now called Destination Ann Arbor) to make an impact, not only on my industry, but the broader community as well. It engages all of my areas of interest, including my business, government, community promotion and development, workforce development, and arts and culture. It doesn’t hurt that among non-profits, it would be challenging to find one that is better managed than Destination Ann Arbor, under Mary (Kerr, President and CEO)’s leadership. The legacy of board leadership is a who’s who in Ann Arbor, and her staff members come from, and go on to, impressive career posts. To be a part of something so successful helps me be a better leader, and to be around other successful leaders inspires me to challenge who I am, in business and personally, and to be better.
Q. What is the best part of that work for you? What’s most challenging?
A. Engagement around challenging issues is definitely the best part of the work at Destination Ann Arbor. I know that the board and staff have a clear, identifiable impact on the community. Engaging with Destination Ann Arbor on any community topic, from workforce development to hunger and homelessness, will result in positive outcomes. Seeing major events like the New Year’s celebration, numerous street parties, Super Cities, and other campaigns make me proud that we are recognized for this level of excellence. The challenging parts are truly the best parts in that we are presented with demanding issues around capacity growth, infrastructure, workforce training and development, and destination development, and we are counted on to engage these matters at not just a high level, but at the ground level and provide solutions. Impacting people’s lives positively is what comes from this work and it is thoroughly satisfying.
Q. Who and what, in this community, inspires you? Why?
A. The spirit of entrepreneurship and leadership in this community inspires me. I see many good people stand up to lead non-profits that are changing people’s lives; leaders who run companies that give back and pay forward to the community that supports them; and elected officials who commit to the impossible challenge of being a political figure in today’s climate, and they demonstrate to me that this community is a model for the rest of the state and region. It is easy to re-invent yourself in a community that is ever welcoming the new, different, unusual, and quirky alongside the conventional, traditional and time-honored ways of our founders. When you see the young and new together with the long-established, you get a sense that we can move forward boldly, confident that the foundation of the community is solid.
Q. Why do you think tourism has become such a huge part of the economy here in the Ann Arbor area?
A. Ann Arbor epitomizes the Midwestern spirit. People that visit our community have a common review: “the people are so friendly.” To be in Ann Arbor is to be accepted. It is no great feat to create a welcoming culture. It is easy to become insular and parochial. Instead, there is a great spirit of welcoming friendship and community spirit that exudes from the streets of this county. Ann Arbor folks love to share their community with the greater world, and it is fun to see the reaction of people who enjoy that hospitality. I’ve seen it firsthand in writers who visit on our press tours; on the faces and the lips of the Canadians who visited us for the Leafs/Red Wings Winter Classic; and in the smiles of the Premiere League fans, excited to fill Michigan Stadium with their version of Red; and daily on the streets of Ypsi or Ann Arbor from visitors. Tourism works in Washtenaw County because the people here just flat out like people.
Q. What role do you see tourism playing in the county’s economic development?
A. Tourism is vital to the growth of the community. When you visit a place, and fall in love with it, you want to come back and explore and discover more about what you love about that place. In a lot of cases, that love can drive a decision to put down roots, either as a place to live, or as a place to start a business. In either case, families are soon to follow. In this way, by starting with a positive visit, the community can open itself up to new faces that bring new ideas, businesses, and families to a community which in turn help its businesses grow and thrive.
Hospitality and its jobs are at the forefront of tourism. From the person you meet in a retail store, front desk, gas station, or taxi service, the hospitality displayed can define a region. Our commitment to a strong hospitality community drives the repeat visits and the coveted positive reviews that help a community’s tourism industry thrive. Our commitment to workers in our industry is vital for our economic development. One of our goals is to have a workforce that can enjoy the same meals and venues that they provide service in. While lofty, it is certainly worthy of our effort, since the benefits of successful employees in our industry reach far beyond the doors of our businesses.
Q. Destination Ann Arbor’s brand essence is “Challenge Everything, Create Anything.” What does that mean to you?
A. When we embrace the idea that nothing is impossible, we find ourselves reaching beyond the moon to the stars. I see a research university that invests billions in resources to challenge what was impossible only a few years ago. I see an autonomous vehicle research culture that didn’t exist only a few years ago that has breathed new life into an industry that had almost abandoned our east side. Many said the industry was gone and never coming back, yet here it is, shiny and new! I see cancer cures, and people hearing for the first time, and heart disease breakthroughs. In Ann Arbor, the idea that anything is set in stone gets shattered daily as entrepreneurs, researchers and leaders challenge what is ‘common knowledge’ and re-define our reality on a daily basis.
Q. Where can we find you enjoying Ann Arbor on a night out? What’s your favorite spot to relax or grab a bite to eat?
A. You can catch me at Mikette, or Mani, or Conor O’Neil’s at night, Zola or Northside Grill in the morning. I love me some Sidetrack for regular dinners or lunch meetings, and Red Rock is a favorite that I don’t get to nearly enough. I am starting to find my way out to the Standard more and more, and for just a drink and a steak at the bar, you can’t beat the Chop House!
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