Regarding Mr. Valet
By John Van Horn
How do you write a story about a parking legend? Do you talk about his background as a Navy submariner during WWII, or his loyalty to one customer, or his longevity? Or the personal relationships he has developed over more than six decades in the parking industry? PT mostly listened. This charming man did the rest.
Sitting at lunch listening to Herb Citrin talk about his life is an instruction book on how to succeed. He is the definition of quality and service. He insists that the success of his Valet Parking Service, celebrating its 60th year this month, is a result of a focus on those two attributes.
"And relationship-building," he adds.
"When I came back from the service in 1945, I went to work for my uncle's friend, a jeweler. I didn't like being inside, and my dad suggested I contact Lawry's restaurant, where I had worked with him before the war. He told me to offer to take over their valet parking operation."
The 23-year-old got his contract in April 1946 and never looked back.
"It had an interesting clause in the contract. They told me I had to personally be there every day. And I was, for the next 14 years. That made company growth a bit difficult, but a contract is a contract.
"My mother told me I was born under a lucky star. It must have been true. Virtually all of the new business I had in the early years was from people who called out of the blue and asked me to come over and talk about running their valet operation."
(Herb also mentions an incident during the war. He was assigned as a radio operator on the submarine Tullibee. After two patrols, he was transferred to the Tinosa. On the Tullibee's next patrol, it was sunk. Herb is certain that his mother's lucky star had a lot to do with that transfer.)
"I noticed that most of the valets at the time were dressed in dungarees and sloppy shirts. I thought they should look smart. So I bought U.S. Air Force officer uniforms - without the insignia - and dressed my crew in them. It was a big hit. Those uniforms were expensive, but they became my marketing program.
"In the beginning, I put the name of the account on the jacket. After we began to grow, I had to stop that. It was too difficult to keep track of the uniforms and staff."
Citrin focused on Los Angeles' Restaurant Row. Lawry's The Prime Rib was surrounded by other first-class restaurants, and they noticed his sharp-looking crew and great service. Before long, he was handling accounts throughout the area.
"I made it a policy to never say no. I took advantage of every opportunity."
By June 1956, he had 20 accounts and was still working nightly parking cars at Lawry's.
In 1960, Los Angeles International Airport was expanding and needed valet service. He got the deal, but knew he couldn't handle it if he was still parking cars nightly at Lawry's. He had a discussion with management, and after guaranteeing impeccable service, was provided an amended contract. Valet Parking handles Lawry's The Prime Rib to this day.
During the 1960s, hotel and department store accounts began to grow. He also followed his customers as they expanded into San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Austin, San Diego and Honolulu. VPS operates only in Los Angeles today. "We didn't leave any of those cities, but sold the operations. You will still see our logo in over 180 locations in Chicago, Dallas and Austin."
Citrin's company has provided valet services for the Academy Awards for more than 30 years. It covers the Emmys, Golden Globes and other major Hollywood events, and supplies a permanent staff to Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion.
"Most people don't understand that no matter what it says on the ticket, valet operations take responsibility for the car when you drop it off. Any damage or loss and we have to pay. The insurance deductible is high."
In the beginning, parking was provided free at the restaurants. VPS worked for tips and maybe a little support from its customer. Labor laws changed, and it was no longer able to require that the valets turn their tips over to the company.
"It was a problem to get the restaurants to agree to let us charge. They all told us that when Lawry's did, they would. We began charging $1.50 a car at Lawry's in 1978. Think about it. Thirty years later, we can't get more than $4.50 in most locations; $5 is a lot. At the fanciest restaurant in Beverly Hills, we get $7. That's less than the cost for one martini and we are accepting responsibility for a $100,000 vehicle. Makes no sense."
The restaurants fear that if they charge more, customers will go somewhere else. PT commented that it was strange that folks would pay $10 to park at Dodger Stadium or the Hollywood Bowl, but balk at $5 for valet service. "It's the way it is," Herb says.
Do they lose locations? "Sure - but usually we give them up when they become financially negative. In the beginning, we were paid to park the cars; now, in some cases, we pay the restaurants rent for the right to park the cars. When they demand more than is reasonable, or when a competitor over-bids us, it may be time to move on. Sometimes a new owner will come in and bring a parking company with them."
Citrin was first with valet parking at an airport, started the first valet services for special events, and while most valet companies had one or two locations, he grew his operation to more than 200 locations and 1,500 employees.
He sought retirement, and sold Valet Parking Service in 2003. The commercial self-park portion went to Ampco System, and the valet portion was sold to his two senior staff members, Tony Policella and Victor Morad. Herb was provided a three-year consulting contract.
A former member of the National Parking Association's Board of Directors, Citrin keeps in touch with people across the country. "I have a lot of contacts, and do a little additional consulting now and then."
"We have made quite a difference in the parking business, particularly in L.A. At least half the valet companies in town were started by former Valet Parking Services staff."
As we pick up the car after lunch, sure enough, the manager of the garage comes out and shakes hands with Herb. A former employee. Herb remembers him by name and smiles as he notes that he now works for a competitor.
Retire? He still keeps a desk at VPS and goes in often. "It wouldn't seem right. I've been doing this all my life." Herb Citrin is 84, plays tennis twice a week, and works out with a trainer the other days. He lives in a Century City high rise with his wife, Ione, and two cats.
Would he use a valet or park on the street? "If there's a spot on the curb out front, I'll take it. Frankly, I'll use whatever's closer. I want convenience."
And that's what he gave his customers.
Herb Citrin's Exclusive to PT:
"Lawry's called a couple of weeks before I was to start and told me there was a problem. Seemed their existing operator had a 30-day cancellation clause. I was expecting to start right away and had spent a lot of money on uniforms. I needed the job right then."
"They told me they would work something out."
"I went by the next day, and they dressed me in a chef's uniform. Lawry's signature is huge
stainless-steel serving carts that allow chefs to carve the prime rib right at the table. My job was to go around to each cart and refill the gravy and au jus."
"I was the first one to ever do this. Before, the chefs had to leave their stations and return to the kitchen." The concept worked so well that when I left a month later to park cars, they had to hire a replacement for me."
"Someone has been filling that job ever since."
Article Abstract from May, 2006