A Rocky Start
David Seelinger was born to a middle-class family in Erie, PA, though spent much of his childhood moving around—from Pennsylvania, to South Carolina, and eventually to Chicago. He dropped out of school halfway through the ninth grade and went right to work at a service station that repaired cars and served gasoline. “Within six months, I was running the place,” Seelinger says. Quite an accomplishment for a young teenager. By the age of 19, he was also successfully running his own towing business and working with the fire department and as an EMT on a volunteer basis. “I think I had an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age,” he explains. But despite his motivation and early achievements, Seelinger unfortunately also developed an addiction to drugs, alcohol, and food. “In 1985, I hit rock bottom. I weighed 350 pounds, had lost everything, and ended up in rehab,” he admits. “After I got out, I moved in with my family and started my recovery process. It has been a life long journey ever since.”
A Second Chance
A setback like this may have left anyone else in a state of hopelessness and despair, but Seelinger was instead even more determined to get back on track. He began working as a chauffeur for Executive Transport Service, a small three-car limousine company in Northern New Jersey. “I only lasted about four months as a chauffeur,” he confesses. “I had a very bad sense of direction. The customers loved me, but I just had trouble finding my way around!” Without the luxuries of Mapquest or GPS navigation systems, Seelinger was close to being let go. “I was desperate to turn my life around, and I said to the owner of the company, ‘I’ll do anything else you want me to do, I really just need a job’.” His boss, Alan Lehrer, had taken a liking to him and offered him a position inside the office as a dispatcher for the drivers. “I thought, that’s kind of odd…I don’t have a sense of direction, but I’ll do it.” Lehrer and Seelinger became close friends, and together they built the business, growing it from three cars to 150 cars in a very short period of time. By that point, Seelinger had become his business partner, company Vice President, as well as best friend and confidant.
In 1990, Seelinger faced more adversity. Lehrer was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving behind a devastated widow with four children, and a disparaged Seelinger. “I was very close to his family and spent a lot of time with them after his death. I made a commitment to myself that regardless of what happened I would always make sure that they were very well taken care of.”
Moving Onward and Upward
Throughout the ‘90s, the company continued to expand, forming a vast network of affiliate operators in cities across the country and in Europe. “We would take a reservation for the pickup in New Jersey, which we’d do with our own car, and then wherever the passenger arrived, we would pick them up through another operator, but with the same service level guaranteed.” It was a novel concept at the time and the company continued to thrive.
In 2000, Empire opened up an office in Atlanta and soon after set out for the west coast. “We opened up in LA on Sept. 9, 2001…we closed it on Sept. 11, 2001,” he notes delicately; another unfortunate obstacle to overcome. The events of 9/11 practically caused traveling to cease, forcing many transportation companies into bankruptcy. But Seelinger kept pushing forward. In fact, it was he who kept many of his affiliate companies afloat during this time. Though concerned about his own revenue, he was and always has been dedicated to helping his affiliates, knowing that they play a vital role in the success of his business. Seelinger’s savvy entrepreneurial spirit and unprecedented perseverance certainly helped the company bounce back, but the humble Seelinger instead credits his wife Michelle of 15 years. “She has helped me every step of the way—even when I would work 24/7 and would sometimes sleep in my office! She‘d sit with me at night and work on resolving issues in operations. I would have never have built this company without her.”
In 2004, Seelinger was approached by CLS, a larger transportation company that primarily worked in entertainment, five-diamond hotels, and private aviation. “You know how American Express has the Black Card?” he says, “You almost needed to have a Black Card to use CLS. They just had that air about them.” He recalls, “It was really a dream of a lifetime. Being in the business as long as I had been, I had wanted to expand into these other markets, and this company already was!” The merger combined Empire’s technological advances and infrastructure with CLS’ widespread network and first-class reputation. “It was the first time in the history of the limousine industry that an acquisition of this size had ever been done. We roughly went from $50 million in revenue to $100 million in revenue overnight! It was a massive undertaking.” But he adds, “It was also a way for me to pay back my friend for everything he had done for me after I got out of rehab.”