Backstory

Backstory: Inebriated customers, their cars get Safe Ride Home

vbridges@newsobserver.comDecember 30, 2013 

John Herath, left, owns Safe Ride Home, a business that provides rides home to those who have had too much to drink, and drives the drunk person’s car home, too. Katy Cordell, the company’s director of operations, is at right.

VIRGINIA BRIDGES — vbridges@newsobserver.com

  • Advice from Jason Herath

    • Surround yourself with good people and take care of them.

    • Take care of your customer or someone else will.

    • Have a plan and work toward your goal every day.

— Safe Ride Home’s first rule is to take care of its customers, but that’s sometimes hard to do.

“When you go into it, you know what you are dealing with,” said Katy Cordell, the company’s director of operations. “You know you are dealing with, ‘I lost my friend. I lost my keys. I lost my girlfriend. And I think I hit someone.’ 

Sometimes customers will even buy Cordell a hot dog, and then eat it in front of her.

That’s OK, Cordell said. The transportation company provides two-person teams to drive inebriated customers home in their own car. Her goal is just to get customers home safe.

John Herath and Ted Johnson started the company in January 2008 after they didn’t want to end a night of dinner and drinks, but didn’t want to deal with the hassle of calling a cab and arranging to pick up a car the next day.

So Johnson, with a background in marketing, and Herath, director of human relations at Orion, which connects military service members to civilian jobs, wrote their business plan, added up potential expenses and set prices that now run $3 per mile, plus a $10 delivery fee.

“So we looked at what a cab costs, and added the vehicle delivery charge on top of it,” Herath said.

Most of the company’s revenue covers commissions for the company’s pool of about 55 drivers and chasers. On weekend nights, they pay drivers 20 percent of ride revenues. Chasers, who drive their own cars to follow the driver in the customers’ cars, receive 32 percent. The team keeps all tips. Drivers and chasers take home more on weekday trips to make up for slower nights, Cordell said.

Other services include van rentals and drivers, chauffeuring customers in their own cars, and related services for private events.

Business started slow in 2008, and averaged about eight to 10 rides a weekend, Herath said, but they picked up a sponsorship from an Anheuser-Busch distributor. The assistance helped pay for marketing materials and advertising.

The average number of weekend rides climbed to 25 in 2009, but dropped back to first-year numbers as the economy took a toll on discretionary income. The company also lost the sponsorship.

In early 2012, Herath bought out Johnson. In June of that year, he hired Cordell, then a social worker, and her husband Matt. The couple drove on weekends, and Cordell volunteered to do some marketing to increase her calls.

“It’s way more fun to be driving customers than to be sitting” waiting for the phone to ring, she said.

Cordell reached out to the beer distributor, resumed the sponsorship and picked up another from an outdoor sign company, which advertises for Safe Ride Home on empty billboards.

In July, Herath hired Cordell full time for a salaried position, which includes driving, coordinating rides and marketing. Since then, Cordell has worked to build relationships and set up Safe Ride tents at venues, such as Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre, which hosts the annual Beer, Bourbon & BBQ, Safe Ride’s second busiest event behind New Year’s Eve.

Herath said he has learned over the years, after other marketers have let him down, how crucial it is to find the right person for the job.

“You can do everything else right, but if that’s not right you are not going anywhere,” Herath said.

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

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