Connaisseur shows its expertise at marketplace '93

When approximately 1,800 motor coach operator and travel industry delegates from throughout the U.S. and Canada met in Montreal for Marketplace, December 5-10 1993, it was Lorenzo Calce who took charge of transportation.

It was the logical choice. As the Montreal franchise of Grey Line, Calce’s firm, Autocar Connaisseur Inc., is Quebec’s largest bus-charter company, with 105 buses and sales between $15 million and $20 million in 1992. Lorenzo Calce says he lives and breathes buses. “Buses are my life-all my heart goes into the business,” he says. And his business has done well. His Gray Line charter means sightseeing tours for 75,000 people a year.

His company also has the exclusive contract for public transportation to and from the Dorval and Mirabel airports and downtown Montreal. Not only does Calce live and breathe buses, he build s them, he built his first specialty bus in the 1970’s and he continues to create buses. His latest creation is “Le Tram de Montreal”, a design that he believes will vault him into the bus building business in a big way, manufacturing and marketing the trams.

To build the tram, Calce stripped down four full-sized motor coaches and rebuilt them to resemble old trams. Over the next few years, the company hopes to replace its 25 tour buses with the newly created trams.The tram was inspired by Montreal’s streetcar system of old, which operated from 1861 through 1959.

Calce and company visited the Canadian Railway museum in St. Constant to study photos of old horse-dram and electric cars before starting to work on their own design.“We went all over the world to research these,” Calce said. “Everyone else who makes trams uses truck chassis. We use buses, which are more comfortable. Our seats aren’t made of wood, they’re padded and covered with imported cloth.”

Work began last October and continued through the winter in the company’s shops. Connaisseur invested nearly $400,000 in the prototype, overhauling the engine, enlarging windows and reupholstering the interior to ensure that 20th century comfort wouldn’t take a back seat to turn-of-the-century charm.

“Our workmanship is excellent and we make the unit look 100 years, but it has all the modern conveniences: air conditioning, washrooms and reclining seats,” he pointed out.“Connaisseur’s tram gives the entire tourism industry a lift,” said Claude Zalloni, who is the vice-president of marketing for the Greater Montreal Tourism and Convention Bureau.

“It may not draw tourist to Montreal, but it certainly gives them something to tell their friend when they get home,” Zalloni said.Calce said other Gray Line operators are interested in buying his trams, and he hopes to start selling them around the world in two years. The firm hopes to hire another 30 employees once it starts selling the trams. Calce believes that his operation can refurbish a coach and create a tram for about $200,000.

Next year Lorenzo Calce will celebrate 40 years in Canada. He arrived in Montreal fro Italy in 1954, with less than $100 in his pockets. As a 19-year old, his first job was washing cabs, then he moved up to a job as a shoeshine boy. That’s when Charles Hershorn, who hired the young, enthusiastic Italian who spoke little English to shine limousines for Murray Hill Taxis Ltd, spotted him.

Calce only spent three months washing limos. Hershorn moved Calce up to the bodywork department, then to foreman, eventually making him manager of the entire shop at Murray Hill. In 1966, Hershorn named Calce vice-president of operations. In addition to operating a successful motor coach operation, Hershorn and Calce teamed up to design sightseeing buses. Two were convertibles, the Sunliner and the Golden Chariot. The biggest innovation of all was the Prestige in 1968. “The design is still being used all over the world,” Calce proudly says.

He points out that the Prestige was a simple idea. To give sightseers a better view, windshields were turned on their sides and used as passenger windows, letting passengers see through part of the ceiling. Then in 1976, in an effort to cash in on the Olympics, Calce and Hershorn designed the Olympia, complete with special round, Olympic ring-like windows and a gas torch above the windshield.

Calce left Murray Hill in 1982 to start Connaisseur with two buses, a handful of employees and his two sons. The firm now has some 140 employees and his sons play key roles in the company.Roberto, 30, is in charge of the Gray Line service, while John, 38, looks after operations.

Calce is proud that his sons learned the business from the bottom up.“They didn’t start as big shots,” Calce said. “They started in their teens, selling Murray Hill tours in Montreal hotels during summer vacations.They didn’t have to wash buses or shine shoes, but they are both good mechanics and good drivers. They are not above changing out of their suits for a driver’s uniform, if necessary,” he added.

To illustrate his point, Calce described a desperate phone call he received seven years ago from Montreal city hall. A bar association was having a convention in Montreal and the delegates were attending an official function at city hall. The charter bus company hired to pick them up and return them to the hotel didn’t show. Seven buses were needed fast.“Within a half-hour’s notice we gave them service,” Calce said. “Who went? My sons, my assistant, my dispatcher, my public relations man and one regular driver. We made the city look good, we made ourselves look good. That’s service, and they never forgot.”

This year, the city of Montreal returned the favor, contracting Connaisseur to shuttle visitors to and from the Biodome, the Botanical Garden and Metro stations.

Charters account for about 55 percent of Connaisseur’s revenue; buying and selling buses 25 percent; airport runs and sightseeing tours 15 percent; and servicing other company’s buses 5 percent. Revenue from charters has been growing steadily at 15 percent a year, according to Calce, while the market for used buses, stagnant for the past few years, is now picking up a bit. Calce said his company’s success stems from its attention to details and punctuality.

“We’re in the service business. You have to be very sensitive to the clients. They can make your or break you.” His relationship with his employees is also key. “If you work hard and be honest, the people around you, your team, will respect you,” he points out.

Calce said he never forgot his humble immigrant roots and to his day encourages all of his workers, many of them recent immigrants, to aspire to higher positions with the company. "Many of my best drivers started out as bus washers,” he says with a smile