Limo owner gets into the driver's seat

Parkville woman breaks through the male-dominated field of chauffeuring

October 29, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

When Joanna Fridinger accepted a job at Ascot Limousine, she had never driven one. Although she likened maneuvering a stretch limousine to driving a Mack truck, she quickly mastered it.

In addition to being a professional chauffeur, she was training other chauffeurs, washing cars, answering the phone and writing contracts.

She stuck with the job for about a year before finally thinking, "Why don't I do this for myself?" she said.

After that she traded in the family van, purchased a used Lincoln Town Car and opened for business as All Around the County Transportation Services Inc.

Eight years later, she owns a fleet of three cars: one black and one white stretch limousine and a Lincoln Town Car. And despite entering the predominantly male field, she's made a name for herself as a professional chauffeur.

"She's one of the guys," said Michael Ballard, the president of the Maryland Limousine Association. "She's able to handle her vehicle and control her vehicle. There's nothing but great accolades for Joanna."

But it wasn't always that way. At first, it was challenging, Fridinger said.

"Customers would meet me for the first time and be like, "Can you handle this thing?" said the 49-year-old Parkville resident. "They would have their doubts about me without ever having been in the car."

But as customers got to know her, they accepted her. At the same time, she was working to gain acceptance from male chauffeurs.

"Many of the men in the field did not accept me as a chauffeur," she said. "I had to work twice as hard to gain acceptance."

But those days are long gone, said Ballard.

"There are thousands of male chauffeurs and less than 100 female chauffeurs in the state," he said. "It's true that some men aren't always accepting of women in the industry, but I think it's a safety and security issue. Men don't like to see a lady out in West Baltimore at 2 a.m. And as chauffeurs that's what they have to do."

But eventually people began to recognize and accept her behind the wheel and in the industry.

"She is the vice president of the Maryland Limousine Association, and she's recognized as an industry professional," Ballard said. "People respect her because of the way she operates her vehicle, manages her company and the service she provides."

And after years of trying to fit in, she's drawing attention to the fact that she's a female in the business. For starters, she changed her business name to "The Limo Lady."

"Whenever I would pull up for a job, people would call out, `the Limo Lady is here,' " Fridinger said. "The name stuck with me. It was a lot easier to remember than the All Around the County Transportation Services Inc."

But gaining acceptance from customers and the male drivers was only part of her induction into the business. The other part was adjusting to being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

She described her typical day of work.

"I wake up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. to go on my first airport run," she said. "When I finish that, I come back home and do paperwork, write contracts and then wash the car inside and out."

And she keeps her phone by her side at all times. "If I don't answer a call, people will just go to the next limo service in the phone book, until they find someone," said Fridinger, who goes out on as many as 100 jobs per month.

Her fares range from $60 to $195 for airport runs; $60 to $900 for weddings, and other miscellaneous jobs; and her prom rates range from $700 to $900.

And some of the jobs stand out more than others, she said.

For example, she's met some "bridezillas" during wedding pickups, she said.

"You have to do whatever the person who hired you wants you to do, and sometimes it isn't easy," she said.

She recalled one wedding that was held during Easter weekend.

The groom attached a bunny tail to the back of his tuxedo, she said. So when the bride walked down the aisle, his back was facing the altar. But when he turned his back to the audience and they saw the tail, they laughed, she said.

"At first, the bride had no idea why people were laughing," said Fridinger. "So when she saw the tail she was furious. After the church cleared out, she took off her wedding band and ripped up the marriage certificate. She refused to let the groom ride in the limousine with her."

Fridinger also caters to students during prom season. As part of her service, she participates in the Baltimore County Department of Health, Bureau of Substance Abuse Prom Promise Program.

And in addition to the guidelines of that program, she created her own contract that must be signed by a parent and all students who are riding in the car.

According to the terms of the contract, the purchaser must provide an itinerary before the date of the prom, and any changes made to the itinerary must be made by a parent.

"I make sure that the parents approve of where the students are going," said Fridinger. "And that they know where they are at all times."

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