By expanding his existing limousine business and acquiring an existing company, Sander Kaplan has found continued success on the roads with A Candies Coachworks, Inc.
By Chris Eversole
Sander Kaplan’s success in the private bus business in North Central Florida is an example of luck being “when preparation meets opportunity.”
That was true when he founded A Candies Coachworks, Inc., in 2006, and it was true when he took over his major competitor early this year.
When he got started in the bus business, Kaplan was looking for a way to supplement his limousine service, A Candies Productions, which he founded in 1986 at the age 21.
He wondered if the University of Florida needed help transporting athletic teams and other groups. Based on that hunch, he called the University Athletic Association and asked if it would be interested if he bought a large bus, known in the industry as a motorcoach.
“They said, ‘Absolutely. Please come see us when you’re ready,’” he says. “They were using companies out of Orlando and Jacksonville that were having difficulty being on time and having breakdowns.”
That’s when the preparation really kicked in. Kaplan developed a business plan. “I can’t stress enough the importance of having a good business plan before you make a mistake—and you’re going to make plenty of those,” he says. “I wanted my plan to be recession-proof.”
Kaplan started with one motorcoach, and he added one or two to his collection each year.
Since then, UF has been his major customer, accounting for 85 percent of his business, Kaplan says. Most of the remainder of his work comes from other schools, sororities, fraternities and churches.
Kaplan’s desire to be recession-proof paid off. While the bus business has flourished, the limo business slumped with the recession. “If I had relied on the limo work, I wouldn’t have a business left,” he says.
Embarking on New Adventure
Late last year, Act II of the bus company began. Kaplan learned that Ray Land was interested in selling Fabulous Coachlines, a Branford-based company Land had started in 2004 at 17.
Kaplan bought most of Land’s business in January, with Land keeping some casino bus service lines.
Kaplan’s fleet suddenly went from 10 buses to 15, and his staff grew from 22 to 32.
The nature of A Candies Coachwork’s business changed as well. While much of its business had been one-day work trips, Fabulous Coachlines primarily handled tour business, which can include destinations as far as Canada for two weeks at a time.
“The transition period of merging the two companies was tough,” Kaplan says. “We had to start maintaining the new motorcoaches, consolidating the Fabulous drivers with our staff and creating new contracts with our customers.”
Kaplan also has added a terminal in St. Augustine to serve the northeast coast of Florida. “We keep a motorcoach there, which saves a lot on the gas costs compared to sending a vehicle over there,” Kaplan says.
Now that the growing pains of expansion have eased, Kaplan can enjoy the growth of his bottom line. “We had reached our potential in Gainesville, and I’m glad we have been able to seize the new opportunities.”
Kaplan takes the well-being of his passengers seriously. “We have human lives in our hands, and we need to protect them,” he says.
The biggest safety feature on Kaplan’s buses are the drivers. They range in age from 30 to 73, and most are in their 60s. Kaplan has found that mature drivers are conscientious and are available for flexible hours.
Finding new drivers is tough because each driver must have a passenger certification in addition to a commercial driver’s license.
“We try to attract and keep drivers by being flexible,” Kaplan says. “Some of them don’t want to work weekends, while others prefer weekends.”
Keeping the buses in tip-top shape is essential. Kaplan has his own mechanic, Jason Honeycutt, at his headquarters at 6916 W. University Ave., which is just south of Home Depot.
“We do all the preventative maintenance that we can,” Kaplan says. “We don’t want to have 56 people stranded at the side of the road, have a bunch of upset people—and lose a lot of money.”
“You have your own billboard driving down the road,” Kaplan says, referring to the clean black and gold 25th Anniversary company name painted on the back and side of each bus.
“Our best advertising is great customer service, having a clean bus and a friendly driver,” he says.
Jack Pfaff, UF’s assistant athletic director for operations, attests to A Candies Coachworks’ success in satisfying customers.
“They’re very flexible, such as meeting a team at the airport at three in the morning,” Pfaff says. “They’re always there and on time. They treat everybody well.”
Focus on Delegation
Kaplan credits his staff with his success. “They do the work. I’m just steering, and they are the best in the business,” he says.
The team includes Richard Mount, who has been with Kaplan for 13 years and heads the management team.
Dispatcher Shawn Hiesel coordinates schedules for which bus will handle which trip, which Kaplan says is a challenging and key role in the company.
His trust in his team helps Kaplan keep up with his other responsibilities, including his co-ownership in Deb-Lyn Inc., which operates North Central Florida area Burger Kings. Kaplan manages building remodels and coordinates daily facilities work.
Kaplan’s wife, Lynne, is his most trusted advisor. “She has great input on every major decision and is my greatest asset,” he says. “She has a keen sense of cutting through the bull and bringing the opportunity to the forefront.”
Kaplan credits Lynne and her mother and father for helping when he works around the clock. He also includes daughters Bella, 12, and Darby, 10, in the business. Each has a coach “named” after them by using their birthdates as the coach number.
“The transportation business is not for the weak-hearted,” he says. “I just try to keep one step ahead of what’s happening by being proactive instead of reactive.”