Airport parking at its finest

A Chicago entrepreneur is reinventing the humble airport garage.

By Alessandra Bianchi, FSB Magazine

(FSB Magazine) -- The off-airport parking industry normally attracts little attention from venture capitalists or business journalists. What's sexy, after all, about running vast garages perfumed by jet fuel? Plenty, if you're Martin Nesbitt, founder and CEO of the Parking Spot (theparkingspot.com).

The Chicago-based company is best known for its whimsical yellow-and-black-spotted shuttle buses and employee uniforms. Customer perks include free newspapers, bottled water and chocolate chip cookies.

Last fall the Parking Spot introduced a premium service called On-Airport Valet parking at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. As if in a dream, a Parking Spot valet meets you and your vehicle in front of the terminal, whisks your car away, washes it and fills the tank while you're gone, and greets you curbside with keys in hand upon your return. Cost: About $20 a day, plus gas.

"It's parking, but it's fun," says Nesbitt, 44, a father of four who enjoys pickup basketball and counts Illinois Senator Barack Obama among his close friends.

Nesbitt founded the Parking Spot in 1997. His first backer was Penny Pritzker, a member of the wealthy Chicago clan that owns the Hyatt hotel chain. The Pritzker family put in $50 million: Today Penny is the company's chairman, and the Pritzkers are its largest shareholder.

To be sure, Nesbitt didn't invent airport valet parking. Park 'N Fly (pnf.com), based in Atlanta, has been shuttling air travelers in style since 1967. Nor is Nesbitt's company, with 30,000 parking spaces and more than $70 million in annual revenues, the biggest. That honor goes to PCAA (fasttrack.com), based in Downey, Calif., which boasts 45,000 spaces nationwide and grossed $76 million last year.

But Nesbitt's Parking Spot is the fastest-growing and most profitable firm in its field, according to Matthew Litfin, a research principal with Chicago investment firm William Blair & Co. Its edge? Technology that enhances service. "They have remade the parking industry," says Debbie Neel, general manager of Off-Airport Properties for Southwest Airlines (Charts, Fortune 500), which uses the Parking Spot to shuttle its crews.

Through digital video recorders and the Internet, Parking Spot's Chicago headquarters monitors cashiers to make sure they're treating customers right at its 16 facilities around ten U.S. airports. Those spotted yellow vans carry cameras and gyroscopes that alert management when a driver brakes too hard or jackrabbits a start. One employee, a grad student in aeronautical engineering, developed a wireless software application that figures out the most efficient distribution of cars in each parking lot, which speeds up the time it takes to park and fly.

Next? Nesbitt plans to expand to 40 locations mainly through acquisitions. "This industry started with someone on a lot with a shoebox and a handful of tickets," says Norm Ennis, a 50-year industry vet and an independent consultant based in Houston. "Outfits such as the Parking Spot are the next generation, the evolution of the business." Top of page

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