Lisa Renshaw of Penn Parking was born an entrepreneur. She was inspired by her hardworking father who owned a construction business. As an entrepreneurial teen, she tried house painting and making candlestick among other crafts.
In 1983, Renshaw spotted what she thought was a diamond in the rough. She was only 21 and filled with youthful optimism and naivety. The diamond was a run-down parking garage in a risky part of town. No surprise, it had a high operator turn over — four in five years. The restaurant across the street, which had been the garage’s lifeline, closed. The 160-space garage had a lot of empty spaces that she thought she could fill with commuters from the nearby Amtrak station in Baltimore, even though garages were available closer to the station.
In the hopes that she would learn the ropes and be made a partner by the operator, she offered to volunteer her services for three months. It wasn’t just her time that was taken advantage of: The business owed $3,000, and the manager asked her to cover it. Renshaw took out a loan. Instead of paying her back, the manager took the money and ran.
She could have taken a job to pay back the loan. However, believing that she could turn around the business, she approached the operator about managing the garage. At first, he resisted but, eventually, the operator gave in. She fired five of six employees. “I decided to make a go of it,” she said. Renshaw moved into the garage so she could work the night shift and the employee the day shift.
Counter-intuitive as it was, she raised the rates for this garage, the one furthest away from the train station. The garage was the only covered one in the area. Once a week, her employee would wash and wax cars parked there. During the day, she handed out fliers and told people they were parking in the wrong place.
Before her fourth anniversary, she won the bid to take over the operation of a second location, which was closer to the train station. “Taking over the second location made the difference,” she said. Renshaw moved out of the garage.
It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. In the early ‘90s, Renshaw nearly lost a city contract. The City decided to re-bid a contract that Penn Parking had won after the first year of four one-year options contract and award it to another company. As they say “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.” Having won the Baltimore Best Parking Award in 1991, she fought back by asking her customers for help. They signed petitions and made phone calls. Customer loyalty enabled her to overturn the lower bid.
In the ‘90s, she also recognized that she needed a team with more industry expertise, so she brought in experienced executives to help her.
The company grew substantially. By 2017, Penn Parking managed more than 50 parking locations through Maryland, Virginia, and DC, generated annual revenues exceeding $10 million and employed 200 people.
The parking lots and garages industry is projected to reach $10 billion in 2019 by IBISWorld, which provides industry market research reports, statistics, and analysis. During the 35 years, Penn Parking has been in business, new technologies have brought economies of scale, and the industry has consolidated. “When I first started, Baltimore had about 30 parking garage companies,” said Renshaw. “Companies are now getting swallowed up by big companies, or they are getting run out of business by them.” By industry standards, Penn Parking is considered small.
Renshaw resists being bought and fights to stay independent. She does this by reinvesting in technology, people and developing new products and services. Her clients are the owners of the sites, which are often municipalities. Being a certified women-owned and HUBZone business has helped her get in the door of these organizations but, ultimately, she has to deliver on price and service.
Her customers are the people whose cars are parked in Penn garages. Here, the company differentiates itself with quick response times and friendly service. “What we do well is manage entry-level employees,” she said. That translates into adding new concierge, protective escort, and unarmed security services.
When your industry starts consolidating, how will you survive?