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Driven ambition seals global deals

Michael O'Hare's chauffeuring business has made in-roads around the world, but he has no plans to hit the brakes just yet.

YOU know what it's like when you step off the plane, your right arm slightly fatigued from lifting coupes de champagne, and all you want to do is be whisked away from the tedium of the airport to that nice suite in the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong or the Ritz Carlton in Central Park, New York.

You know, too, how convenient it is to have a sleek black car waiting for you, with a smartly turned-out driver who knows your name and your preferences in drinks and newspapers.

You don't?

Well, luckily, there's a man who does. He's based in Govan, Glasgow and has built a multi-million pound Scottish company making sure people for whom time is money are never in the invidious position of wasting a moment.

Step forward Michael O'Hare, a son of Cambuslang whose global chauffeuring enterprise The Booking Room now reaches deep into the classier quarters of London, Hong Kong, Paris, New York and, later this year, Brazil.

If a team of Goldman Sachs' Masters of the Universe or a duo of Deutsche Bank's dashing dealers are in town, they are likely to be wearing out their Blackberrys in the back of a Booking Room Beamer.

Or, if the musical mayhem of the MTV awards needs a short notice fleet of 150 limos to get stars to the right place at the right time, the organisers have The Booking Room on speed dial.

It's a lucrative niche position in a crowded and competitive market which has pushed The Booking Room turnover to £14m in the year ended December 31 – a figure which is projected to double to £28m by the end of 2014.

It's not a niche for the faint-hearted. Of the MTV awards, for which he has provided transport for eight out of the past 10 years, Michael O'Hare says: "It's more like a sleep deprivation exercise for a week than a contract."

But it's quite clear that the 47-year-old former professional golfer is quite comfortable in his niche and is plotting to expand into new markets and embark on a major re-branding exercise in the coming year, as well as building the US business to match UK figures.

Appropriately for one of the smartest, hi-tech ground transportation businesses around, it has been quite a journey, with plenty of twists and turns to maintain interest along the route.

It began in the baronial splendour of the Sherbrooke Castle Hotel, which O'Hare's father owned in the leafy suburbs of Glasgow's south side. Michael was involved in the family business, but found time to become a golf pro at Gleddoch, trying for his European Tour card.

When he was 21, however, his father died suddenly of a heart attack and, he said: "I put my golf clubs away in a cupboard and didn't take them out again for four years. I just went to work".

He immersed himself in the running of the popular hotel, learning all the arcana of the hospitality trade, including supplying chauffeur-driven cars for weddings. To maximise their use, he hired them out to funeral directors during the week.

The car business started to grow arms and legs, catering for financial roadshows in Edinburgh in the 1990s, which at the time was the third best financial centre in the world for raising capital.

The tipping point came in 1999, when Deutsche Bank approached O'Hare to take over the management of its European Roadshow ground transportation.

He said: "That's when we came up with The Booking Room. We had to take a different approach and build a system which was designed to manage a supply chain, rather than the existing model of managing a fleet of cars.

"We were keen to remain a niche operation. I think you have to become good at what you do before expanding into anything else."

Being based in Scotland had a significant impact on the eventual decision to open an operation in New York, where many of O'Hare's core financial roadshow and events clients had branches and HQs.

His focus remained on quality control, an area in which many US competitors were lacking. He offered trained staff in specific marketplaces and bespoke software to manage different sectors.

The strategy was to slip in under the radar until The Booking Room was big enough to surface with an established market share. But the timing was dodgy, with O'Hare's big New York push coinciding with the start of the crash in 2008.

It was a hard learning curve, but by the second quarter of 2009, the company was back on an even keel in the US and the lessons learned paid dividends when the company opened in Hong Kong in 2011 and went into profit in the same year.

Clients now include Goldman Sachs, HSBC, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank, with whom O'Hare has built one of the biggest market shares in ground transportation for often hectic and multi-centred fund-raising exercises.

O'Hare said: "Since May 2010, the IPO market across the world has been flat. Probably 30% of our financial roadshow market would be related to that. But in a good IPO market, it would be closer to 55% to 60%. So like anyone else, I need the euro to be fixed and to see a bit of normality and stability return to the markets."

The UK and Europe accounts for 60% of The Booking Room's business with 30% in the US and the rest in the Far East.

The company deals with Hollywood stars attending film premieres – clients include MTV, Disney, 20th Century Fox, Universal and Sony Music. It does some business with private and co-ownership aviation and has long-standing contracts with airlines such as Emirates, which offers chauffeur transport for business class passengers.

O'Hare is enthusiastic about the potential of emerging markets such as Brazil – and perhaps, eventually countries such as Russia.

He said: "The business model allows us to open in any major city in the world. The trick is to keep an open mind and work round the local market requirements rather than trying to impose your methods on them."

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