Growing limo service co-owned by Hawthorn Woods resident goes green
George Jacobs (left) of Hinsdale and Sal Milazzo of Hawthorn Woods, co-owners of Windy City Limousine, stand outside a coach, one of the vehicles in the company's fleet. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 6, 2012 6:03AM
In May, Windy City Limousine of Franklin Park started converting its vehicles to run on propane or compressed natural gas.
Though conversion will cost $5,000 to $25,000 per vehicle, co-owner Sal Milazzo of Hawthorn Woods expects it will eventually save the company money on fuel along with greatly decreasing air pollutants.
“A lot of our customers are asking for green initiatives,” Milazzo said.
Windy City Limousine listens to its customer, the bulk of whom are large corporations. In late 2007, Milazzo and his partner, George Jacobs, saw the economy was getting worse. They created a shuttle program in the western suburbs between corporations, hotels and airports.
“It allowed them to pay less than our private rates,” Milazzo said. “Travelers could pay less than cab fare if they allowed another traveler with them. This year, it’s up 23 percent.”
Steps like these have helped the company become one of the fastest growing transportations businesses in the country. According to Inc. magazine, Windy City Limo grew by 217 percent from 2009 to 2011. In 2012, Jacobs expects to bring in $18 million.
Not bad for two guys who got into the limousine business inadvertently.
Milazzo’s involvement started right after his graduation from Northern Illinois University. His sister worked for a limousine company on weekends, and Milazzo asked if he could borrow it to take home his possessions from college.
‘Ran to a ditch’
“As I was driving back, smoke started coming out of the hood,” Milazzo said. “I pulled over and opened the hood to see fire. ‘Starsky and Hutch’ was popular then, and I thought (the limousine) would explode. I ran to a ditch and watched the car burn for the next two hours.”
His father made an offer. He would pay for a new limousine if Milazzo would help his sister get the business going. He agreed but within a couple of years, his sister got married and moved out of state and Milazzo was left running the business.
Meanwhile Jacobs was selling forklifts. One day he was in the office of a buyer at the former Goldblatt’s Department store.
“The buyer was screaming at somebody on the phone,” Jacobs said. “It turned out he was mad about a trade-in (price) for a limousine. He said George, you’re crazy; you buy it. I said, ‘What would I do with it?’ He said, ‘We’ll go into the livery business together.’”
Milazzo and Jacobs grew their respective companies with Jacobs mostly handling the South Side of Chicago and Milazzo mostly handling the North Side.
In 1998, Jacobs sold his business to a publicly traded company. He also encouraged it to buy Milazzo’s company. The two worked together for seven years, but Jacobs was ultimately disappointed in how his employer ran the company. He retired but that only lasted six months.
In 2006, Milazzo and Jacobs partnered to created Windy City Limousines. They’ve managed to grow ever since, even in 2009 when their competitors were shrinking or going out of business.
‘Full speed ahead’
“We don’t know how to be small or keep our heads down,” Jacobs said. “We just know how to go full speed ahead.”
Jacobs credits a combination of customer service, employee training, one-stop shopping for limousines or buses or sport utility vehicles along with being “shameless promoters.”
Jacobs, for example, sits behind home plate at White Sox games.
“The White Sox announcer brands me. There’s George Jacobs of Windy City Limo,” Jacobs said.
Their buses, which are parked at 9377 W. Grand Avenue when not in use, are “all rolling billboards” with the company printed in huge letters.
Though the name is Windy City Limousine, the company only owns a dozen. The industry trend is toward sedans, SUVs, motor coaches, vans for disabled people and party buses.
“SUVs are the new limousines,” Jacobs said. “Buses are the single most cost-effective way to travel.”
Besides such corporate accounts as Walgreens and Takeda Pharmaceuticals, the company has transported visiting dignitaries like the Chinese premier.
During the NATO summit in May, they transported presidents, prime ministers and staff from France, Germany and Belgium. They also transported people who came to Chicago to protest NATO policies.
“If we had enough buses, we could have sent 100 buses,” Jacobs said. “We picked people from Madison, Milwaukee and some place in Iowa.”
During sports seasons, Windy City Limousine transports the Bulls, Cubs, Chicago Rush (arena football), Chicago Fire (soccer) and the Ryder Cup. They moved Oprah Winfrey and numerous celebrities. An incomplete list includes Michael Jordan, Britney Spears, Elton John, Sarah Palin, Usher, Ludacris, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Dolly Parton and John Travolta.
There are challenges: fuel costs, various fees by the city of Chicago, ongoing training and hiring good chauffeurs. Finding quality chauffeurs can be difficult when the economy is doing well, said Jacobs, who added he only tried being a chauffeur for one day.
“In four trips, I got lost. I overcharged customers. I hit the limousine in front of me at the airport, and I left a customer behind at the airport,” he said with laughter. “I was hopeless.”