You know them by name: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph. One day a year, Santa’s reindeer take flight around the world. But during their off season, they have a different type of traveling gig – shuttling passengers from Purdue University (located in West Lafayette, Indiana) to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Reindeer Shuttle, Inc. was originally started in 2015 by three international graduate students attending Purdue University. Allen Zhang, the founder of Reindeer Shuttle, realized how expensive shuttle services to O’Hare International Airport were when he wanted to surprise his girlfriend at the airport. Crunching numbers, he recognized there was a way to charge less for a shuttle service. Thus, Reindeer Shuttle was created. The name Reindeer Shuttle was chosen because the founders wanted the name to be easy for Purdue students to remember.
When the three founders were nearing the completion of their masters degrees, they decided to sell the business to pursue their career aspirations. During this time, Paul Branham was working at Reindeer Shuttle as a private chauffeur to make extra money while completing his PhD in engineering education at Purdue University. Allen reached out to Paul to see if he knew anyone that would be interested in buying the company. Paul then spoke to his father, Purdue Alumnus Jim Branham, about the opportunity. After several weeks of talks and negotiations, the Branham family acquired Reindeer Shuttle in August 2016. This is truly a family operation, with Paul at the helm as President and CEO, Jim serving as Treasurer, Jim’s wife, Darlene, the company Secretary and daughter Nancy as the Office Manager.
Benetrends was able to help Jim and his family through the use of the Rainmaker Plan® to transfer funds from an IRA account created from his 401(k), which he grew during his 30 years in the pharmaceutical sales industry at Merck.
Jim was very interested in the opportunity from the very beginning. “As a Purdue graduate, (and) a very passionate Purdue graduate, I was intrigued by the possibility of owning a business focused on transporting passengers to and from my alma mater. We pride ourselves in promoting our company as one that is owned by Boilermakers, for Boilermakers.”
And while the family was excited about the acquisition, there were several challenges they faced. The first was creating a seamless transition from the previous owners to the new management. “We wanted to maintain the goodwill they had established with their customer base,” Jim explained. They also had to become familiar with the rules and regulations of the transportation industry. “We’ve had to spend a lot of time and effort on ensuring that we are compliant.”
With other shuttle services available in the Lafayette, Indiana area, Reindeer Shuttle prides itself on being the best option. Prices are 10 to 20 percent less than its competitors. Reservations are done online; no paper tickets are required. Reindeer Shuttle offers more time slots for trips to and from O’Hare International Airport. Additionally, they added stops to Chicago Midway International Airport and now have shuttles going to Indianapolis International Airport.
Jim spoke about how the many positive customer interactions he’s had. Reindeer Shuttle has literally picked up where their competitors have left off. “One time we rescued passengers stranded by a competitor, and the relief they expressed was heartwarming,” Jim stated.
Another story Jim talked about was with a parent who was trying to set up a private car reservation. Jim explained, “Their resources are sometimes limited for this service.” Paul was talking to the concerned parent and encouraged the parent to consider using their competitor if they were unable to arrange the ride. The parent, who was a repeat customer, explained to him, “Paul, I don’t know if you have any kids, but I trust you with mine.” Paul and the parent were able to make the arrangement occur, and the family is still a frequent client.
With over a year under new management, Reindeer Shuttle is hitting its stride. They tripled ridership in one year, and had a record-setting holiday season with students returning to campus after Christmas break. They now have 25 employees and a total of 10 vehicles. But having 10 vehicles brings up an issue.
Santa only has nine reindeer. “We have continued with the reindeer theme. My son decided to name the 10th shuttle Olive,” Jim expressed. As in, “Olive was the other reindeer”. In the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it goes “All of the other reindeer,” which sounds like “Olive, the other reindeer.” “We will need to be even more creative in naming of future vehicle purchases as we maintain our reindeer theme,” Jim joked. And they have. The two latest editions are Bumble and Clarice. Bumble is the abominable snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Clarice is Rudolph's girlfriend.
For anyone aspiring to start their own business, Jim offered a few pieces of advice. He encouraged people to use a third party to help assess the feasibility of starting a new company. He then added, “Secure legal and financial representation to protect your interests in any company acquisition process.”
2018 is looking like a great year already. Although unsure of what the next move is, Reindeer Shuttle hopes to expand its fleet and possibly explore the idea of franchising to reach new locations. “We’re looking into the idea of expanding to different college campuses, but we have to consider several things before making that jump. But we think it’s something that can bring great success and help even more college students,” Jim commented. They were recently recognized as “Best Shuttle Service” by readers of The Purdue Exponent, the student-run campus publication. This is their second year in a row winning the award.
If you ever find yourself near Purdue University and need transportation to an airport, Reindeer Shuttle may be the choice for you.