As the mania surrounding the Super Bowl dies down and the madness of the Oscars begins to take flight, EmpireCLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services CEO David Seelinger sits at his desk in New Jersey with his German Shepherd, Reika, by his side, reflecting on the past couple months. “Awards show season is just out of control,” he tells Haute Living, a smile crossing his face. He may be exhausted, but he’s not complaining. With headquarters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, and soon, Las Vegas, plus a fleet of more than 900 luxury vehicles, Seelinger knows that being busy is the highest form of flattery in such a competitive industry.
“When I look at the roster of people we pick up every day, even after all these years, it blows me away,” he admits. “I can’t believe who we engage with on a daily basis.” Though he won’t reveal the names of his A-list customers, EmpireCLS has become a staple in both the business and entertainment industry—and has even earned Seelinger a guest appearance on a reality television show. “We serviced Kim Kardashian’s wedding to Kris Humphries, and I was on the show,” he discloses.
Despite his legion of celebrity clientele, Seelinger says that the company has never had any breach of confidentiality from its drivers in its 30-year history. “Confidentiality is paramount,” he insists. “We’re transporting people that you’re seeing in the press or on TV every day and we have to make sure that the chauffeurs know how to be evasive when they have those clients with them. We do extensive background checks on our chauffeurs every quarter.”
“I’ve had my ups and downs, but it’s been
a great journey”
In a nation obsessed with celebrity gossip, it’s this sort of honesty and integrity that separates EmpireCLS from its competitors. “The staff has an enormous amount of passion for what they do and the chauffeurs feel the same way,” he explains. “Although we’re a big company, it really feels like we’re not. We have this closeness among each other. I try and keep that sort of family feeling in the environment, and because of that, I think that people really care about the company and its success.”
As Seelinger waxes poetically about his company and its pool of luxury vehicles including the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Cadillac XTS, Rolls-Royce Phantom and Ghost and the ever-popular Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator SUVs, it’s clear that EmpireCLS is more than just his business; it’s his blood, sweat and tears, and in many ways, the family that he never had. “A lot of people have a somewhat dysfunctional childhood, which I’m pretty open about, and that was the case with me,” he says. “It had a profound impact on me, and as I got older and entered high school, I developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol and I ended up in a really bad place.”
Despite his dependency, Seelinger always possessed an entrepreneurial spirit and ran several service stations and his own towing business by the age of 19. “I was pretty successful, but anytime I made any money it was gone the next day because of my addiction,” he confesses. After overdosing on drugs and going into respiratory arrest, Seelinger experienced a spiritual awakening of sorts. “I really shouldn’t have lived through that overdose, but I did, and I felt like it was my second chance,” he reveals. “It was important to me to do everything that I could to improve my life.”
After a stint in rehab, Seelinger emerged stronger and more determined than ever to get his life back on track, but he didn’t know where to begin. “I saw an ad in the paper for drivers and I thought, I could drive a limousine,” he divulges. “I had never lived in the area so I got lost every time I picked someone up. But I was very subservient to people and I would put the charm on, so even if I was late by a half hour, they really didn’t care.” In time, Seelinger developed a close friendship with his boss, Alan Lehrer, and eventually, the two became business partners and grew the company from three cars to 150.
“I’m not sure there was a strategy,” he admits. “I think it was just two guys who worked really hard and one of them was good at sales, which at the time was Alan. He really took me under his wing, and I went from being an introvert to an extrovert.” A personality trait he credits as the driving force behind the growth of his company today. “One day Alan asked me to come for a ride with him in the car and he pulled up at this travel agency in a strip mall. He said, ‘I hate to do this to you, but if you don’t go in there and get that account, don’t come out because I’m done,’” Seelinger says with a laugh. “I was sweating profusely, but I took a business card and a brochure I made and I walked in there nervous as hell and asked if the owner was available. They were busy and all I wanted to do was turn around and leave, but Alan was sitting in the car shaking his finger at me.”
“So this nice woman comes out and I asked her if I could take up a moment of her time and speak with her about their transportation services and she invites me into her office,” he continues. “I told her that I really appreciated it because I’d never done this before, and she goes, ‘I know. Alan told me you were coming.’ After that, there was just no stopping me. Once I discovered that I could sell, I just loved going out and doing it.”
But in 1990, tragedy stuck that shook Seelinger to his core. Lehrer was killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving behind a devastated widow and four children. Despite his sadness, Seelinger made it his mission to build an empire that would make his friend proud. After taking the company (then called Empire International) global by creating a large affiliate network in Europe, Seelinger merged with one of their largest competitors, CLS, in 2005. “It was a tough transition because it was the largest transaction that’s ever been done in the history of the industry so it took a few years to get all the synergistic value out of it,” he says. “But today, we’re the largest privately held chauffeur transportation company in the country.”
When Seelinger isn’t busy building his business, he’s shuttling his two equestrian daughters, Madison and Dakota, “from barn to barn to barn.” The 8 and 12-year-old little ladies are also the namesake behind EmpireCLS’ new technology service, Madkota, which launches this summer. While the advanced technology will improve communication between EmpireCLS and its network of international affiliates, it will also offer a downloadable application, which clients can use to customize their travel needs. “It’s much more robust than just an app to book a car,” Seelinger explains. “It can book a restaurant for you or it can direct you to a particular hotel that has availability. Plus, it’s all integrated into our system, so if you come out of a restaurant, you can look at your app and see on your GPS exactly where your chauffeur is waiting.”
Although Seelinger is clearly proud of the technological innovations, at the end of the day, he believes that it’s the company’s commitment to honesty that keeps customers coming back. “My clients always tell me that when something goes wrong, our folks are always honest about it,” he proclaims. “There’s no misleading. It sounds simple, but a lot of companies today don’t do that.”
Photography by Donnelly Marks