Years ago, a leap of faith to learn a business she had no prior experience in placed Northern Virginia resident Kristina Bouweiri in the driver’s seat in the limousine and shuttle bus transportation industry. The ride since hasn’t always been smooth, but today, the entrepreneur and savvy businesswoman is President and CEO of one of the nation’s largest shuttle bus and limousine companies. Not only is she active in the business community of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, but Kristina also extends advice and a helping hand to women entrepreneurs abroad, making sure that the scope of her influence is not only linear, but a full circle.
A graduate of George Washington University with a degree in International affairs, Kristina hoped to follow in her father’s footsteps years ago and work for the Foreign Service. She had spent her childhood moving from Japan to Portugal to South Africa, where she attended boarding school with relatives of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. After graduation, she landed a job with a nonprofit overseas education fund that focused on uplifting the status of women. In this position, Kristina concentrated on global work, with particular emphasis on charities.
Unknown to her at the time, Kristina had one of the key traits that makes for a determined business person: the desire for financial success. While she and her two siblings had grown up comfortably, with the opportunity to travel the world at little to no cost, Kristina wanted to experience the full spectrum of life in other countries. This desire remained buried within her throughout her college career, but it began to reemerge after spending two years at her nonprofit job overseas. “I found many of the events at that job too heartbreaking,” she recalls. “I also realized I had spent my whole life moving every three years, and while I had loved it, by my mid-twenties, I was ready to settle down and establish roots, so I moved back to the United States.”
In the meantime, her future husband, William Bouweiri, had recently moved from Lebanon to the United States, where he began work as a taxi driver. Two years later, William told his client, William Schreyer, then chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch, that he was capable of running a limousine company better than anyone he had worked for. “Just about everyone in the limousine service has a similar story where some great, fantastic client helped them along the way,” Kristina says. “Mr. Schreyer was ours. He told William that if he started his own limousine company, he would get him the Merrill Lynch account.” And with that generous helping hand, Reston Limousine was incorporated in 1990.
At the time, Kristina was in marketing, and by a stroke of luck, she decided to cold-call William out of the yellow pages in hopes to make a sale. He was first intrigued by her business proposal, but after meeting several times to discuss the advertisement, was more intrigued by her personality and wit, so he asked her to dinner. Several months into their courtship, William suggested she leave her job and work for him. Kristina accepted, and within a year, they were married. Around the same time, the company landed a contract with the Hyatt Reston Hotel. “William knew Reston was a technology hub and a great place to start a business,” Kristina says. “And he was right. From 1990 to 2000, we rode the wave created from the IT boom in Reston.” Their contract with Hyatt Reston was also essential to their initial success, generating steady referrals that helped to build the business.
While she quickly embraced her new career, Kristina admits feeling the drawbacks of coming into the company with limited business knowledge. “Because I didn’t have the background in this business, I’ve learned everything by doing it wrong the first time,” she laughs. She was forced to quickly learn through experience. Early on, the Bouweiris had the opportunity to bid on a government contract for the U.S. Geological Survey, which they won, and Kristina soon realized bidding on contracts was the ticket to greater success. “I knew nothing about how to bid on government contracts, so we really landed it by accident,” she laughs in retrospect. “I subscribed to Commerce Business Daily and started bidding on every government contract I could.”
The edge they began their company with, and what continues to distinguish Reston Limousine today, is attention to professionalism, detail, and quality, with the newest equipment loaded with the most recent technology available. Early on, Kristina and William dedicated themselves to answering phone calls 24/7, transferring calls to their home line after hours and always remaining personally reachable by clients. Their efforts raised the standards of the industry, allowing them to win every government contract they bid on over the next five years, including those with the Department of Health and Human Services, the IRS, and the Department of Justice.
While their unwavering commitment to high quality and impeccable standards set Reston Limousine apart for the initial years of business, the playing field was eventually leveled when their competitors began copying their key ingredients for success. While this in itself posed a problem, Kristina was more concerned at the time with the looming realization that, soon, their company would outgrow the limitations under which a business could bid on government contracts. Because bids were limited to small companies, Kristina refocused her efforts on diversification into other markets, such as universities, hospitals, and tourism, for other sources of revenue. Her plan was a success, and in its first ten years, Reston Limousine grew from five to seventy vehicles and from $200,000 in revenue to over $5 million.
The massive growth of the company came with major changes in their personal lives as well. In 1996, Kristina and William introduced twins into the family. Up until that point, Kristina had been unparalleled in her work ethic, staying connected to the company all hours of the day so that it was virtually her entire life. She had expected the arrival of her children to easily fit into her busy schedule, but that wasn’t the case. “I wasn’t going to take maternity leave, and I wasn’t cut out to be a stay-at-home mother, so I planned to take them to work with me,” she explains. “I had cribs and everything set up in the office, but after a few days, I wanted to pull my hair out. I couldn’t focus on my work and I couldn’t take care of them, so I had to hire a nanny.”
In addition, the Bouweiris hired someone to answer the phones around the clock, since they quickly realized that business calls transferred to their home phones were constantly being interrupted by crying babies. “We simply couldn’t work sixteen hour days anymore with two babies, and we were terrified that passing a portion of our work to someone else would make us broke. But as it actually turned out, the company doubled in size over the next twelve months,” Kristina remarks. “We had been trying to do everything ourselves before, but we weren’t experts, so we were only doing a mediocre job. When we hired actual experts, everything became so much more efficient. We learned to delegate in order to streamline our business strategy.”
Four years and two more children later, the Bouweiris experienced their second most significant business change. They had sold their house and were living in a hotel, awaiting construction of their new home in Leesburg. The couple decided that William would take a year away from Reston Limousine to oversee the construction. At first, the idea of running the company on her own was terrifying to Kristina, as she was already responsible for sales, dispatching, project management, and payroll, but after a short period of time, Kristina told William not to come back. “We owned the business together, we had four kids, and we had managers that now did everything he used to do, such as fleet management, HR, and accounting,” she explains. “I was writing the proposals, managing the service we provided, and loving it. I wasn’t built to be a stay-at-home mother, so in 2000, we decided William would be the stay-at-home parent while I ran the company for our family.”
In the years since Kristina assumed the titles of President and CEO of the company, William and Kristina are no longer together, nor is William involved in the business. Though he was always an essential part of the company, Kristina’s unleashed creativity has produced demonstrable results: today, Reston Limousine operates a fleet of 170 vehicles and has revenues approaching $18 million. An exceptionally adroit networker, she ultimately saved the company in the aftermath of 9/11. The first ten years had run smoothly, with no debt and not even a line of credit, but in the wake of the terrorist attacks, business came to a standstill with no profit for the following five years. The company accumulated $200,000 in debt, which led the IRS to suggest they declare bankruptcy—a notion that even now sends shudders of dread through Kristina.
“I told them over my dead body. I would never do it,” she recalls of the dark times. “But somehow I climbed out of the hole. I kept telling myself that we would make a comeback; that the boom times would come back.” However, more bad news was in store. Reston Limousine was dropped by its bank since their close proximity to D.C. created a potential target for additional terrorist attacks. After being rejected by nineteen more banks over the following six months, Kristina finally found a new bank that allowed her to reorder her financing. Growth continued, but more slowly this time. Kristina sought new opportunities. Reston Limousine invested in an upgraded fleet, adjusted its rates, and began targeting a different clientele.
More importantly, however, Kristina began a new and determined focus on building customer relationships and loyalty. “I decided to launch a Client Appreciation Lunch each month,” she explains. “I found twelve sponsors consisting of florists, caterers, bakers, and so on, and provided my customers with a great lunch, dessert, and door prizes. It has allowed me to meet fifteen hundred clients in just three years. I’ve broken bread with them, I’ve created a dialogue with them, I’ve given them my business card with my e-mail address and cell phone number and told them they can talk to me anytime they want.” The lunches have also allowed her to spread the word about what the other sponsors offer, leading to focus groups that generate new ideas and inside information as to what the client truly wants in a product. “Even though I’ve given out my cell phone number, no one has ever called me,” she continues. “They like having access to me, but they’ve never abused it. At the end of the day, people just want to do business with someone they know and like.”
While she credits most of the company’s growth to her networking skills, Kristina readily hands all credit to Vistage, an executive peer advisory group, for teaching her to be business savvy. Attending Vistage meetings opened her eyes to the hidden patterns and secrets of successful business management. “As my company has grown, I’ve had to hire smarter and smarter people,” she explains. “I joined Vistage to stay on top of my game and learn how to manage more efficiently and develop new skills.”
Of her current leadership style, Kristina chooses to empower her managers to make decisions rather than micromanage them. “I think I am a nice person to work for, but I’m firm, and my employees respect me because I’ve done every role in the company throughout its evolution,” she explains. She also understands the importance of her current role and is mindful each day of just how many people depend on her to make the right decision. “I was in the break room getting coffee the other day and a driver thanked me for running a company that was able to survive the economic downturn,” she details. “It meant so much to me. I’m responsible for keeping three hundred people employed with food on their tables for their families. I take a lot of pride in that.”
To recent college graduates entering the business world, Kristina emphasizes the importance of self-confidence. “I had no real confidence when I began at Reston Limousine, but time and experience helped with that,” she affirms. “I learned I had to get out of my comfort zone to grow both myself and the company. My advice is to believe you can do anything you want to do and just work harder than anyone else until you get there.”
Looking back on William’s initial invitation that she join the company, Kristina really had nothing to fear. She had a natural instinct for business that allowed her to transform Reston Limousine into the largest transportation service in the Washington metropolitan area, and among the largest in the nation. Now, Kristina can reflect on the journey and see that her career has come full-circle. Today, she often finds herself involved with international transportation arrangements, and is asked to speak at global businesswomen summits, discussing how she grew a successful small business in a male-dominated world. She is able to help businesswomen in third world countries, while also giving back locally. “My career started out with international development in the third world, and now I’m helping women entrepreneurs from all over the globe. I couldn’t ask for a better transition.”