Backstory: Owner expands from white horses to doves and limos

vbridges@newsobserver.comDecember 2, 2013 

  • Advice from Ken Johnson

    • Research and know the business you want to start. .

    • Know the importance of good service and a good price.

    • Recognize opportunities to offer additional services.

— Since he was little, Ken Johnson has wanted a white horse.

At 51, Johnson now has three: Willie, Molly and Penny.

You might have seen him and his white Percherons – a fast-trotting draft horse – prancing around while giving romantic rides in downtown Durham, or pulling Santa Claus in the Stem, Hillsborough and other Christmas parades.

Johnson and a former partner founded Stem-based Bull City Carriage in 2001, giving rides to couples near Brightleaf Square and providing services at weddings. Johnson is now the sole owner of the business that offers an array of celebration services, including dove releases and limousine rides.

Johnson and Willie have even been inside a ballroom during a birthday party at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club.

This weekend, Johnson will be in two parades: the Mebane Christmas Parade Friday at 7 p.m. and the Hillsborough Holiday Parade Saturday at 10 a.m. They’ll also be at the Hillsborough Holiday Home Tour Sunday at noon.

Meanwhile, Johnson has kept his position at Shooters II, a Durham bar that caters to the Duke University crowd.

“I am the maintenance man during the day, and then I am a (mechanical) bull operator at night,” Johnson said.

Johnson has been riding horses since his uncle bought him and his brother two brown quarter horses when they were young boys. Johnson went on to participate in local riding competitions.

Johnson started thinking about opening a carriage-horse business after hiring one for his own wedding in 1999.

“I would be able to show my horse and make money,” Johnson said he realized.

In 2001, Johnson and Kim Cates, his former business partner who is also an owner of Shooters, invested in two Amish-trained Percherons and horse carriages.

Johnson took sole ownership after 10 months, he said. Bull City Carriage’s services start at about $500 and increase depending on the event and add ons.

Along with the horses, Johnson also has three carriages and trailers. Each event requires a driver and an attendant. He added the dove option in 2003 and the limousine in 2004.

Johnson said he has one full-time assistant and four others who help on jobs that average one a week.

Bull City Carriage built a web site in 2005, but much of his business comes from word-of-mouth or from someone who saw his horses at a parade, celebration or a high-end real estate open house.

“I work with a lot of wedding venues,” Johnson said. “My venues keep me busy.”

Johnson strives to stay ahead of the competition with details such as having the driver and the attendant wear formal English attire and a top hat with a vest that matches the carriage.

Over the years, Johnson said, the business has “snowballed,” as he has expanded his services by using the same trucks he pulls the more than 2,000-pound horses and carriages for transportation services.

“One thing kind of leads to another,” Johnson said. “I am not just in the horse and carriage business, I am in the limousine business. I am in the bird business. I am in the transport business. One business can lead to many.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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