Roll With Rondo
Rajon's older brother, William, moved to Boston to look after his baby bro. Now he's taking care of the rest of the NBA, too.
The Celtics and Washington Wizards are just a few minutes from tip-off when William Rondo calls and says to meet him in the TD Garden players’ parking lot. I’d arranged to see the game with him and had been waiting nearby, so I say okay and walk over to the lot, casually strolling past its gate and a couple of security guards. That’s sort of funny, because as neither a basketball player nor an expensive car, I clearly don’t belong here. As one of the guards gestures toward me and starts to say something, Rondo, who’s just gotten out of his car a few feet away, gives him a quick wave. Problem solved.
“I feel like everybody knows me, and I know everybody here,” Rondo says as I follow him into the arena. Then he goes about proving it. He makes small talk with a Celtics employee at the family ticket booth, says hi to the ticket-taker, and shakes hands with the usher. Working our way to his seats, we pass behind the Celtics bench, where Rondo’s little, more-famous brother, Rajon, is just being introduced to the crowd. Rondo gives the cop stationed at the bench a fist-bump and keeps on moving. Passing Section 22, two different fans get up to bro-hug him. When we finally arrive at our seats in Section 20, he greets everybody around him. At this point, I’m expecting him to start kissing babies and passing out campaign flyers.
He’s dressed sharply enough for it, anyway, wearing a white button-down shirt, gray suit jacket, gray jeans, and matching gray Nikes. He resembles his brother enough that you’d know they’re related, but whereas Rajon — the Celtics’ star point guard — looks something like an agitated baby raptor (at least on the court), Will’s face has broader, more traditionally handsome features. Also unlike his brother, he smiles. Frequently, even.
To any follower of the Celtics, it would be slightly shocking to learn that anyone named Rondo is so outgoing. After six stellar — if enigmatic — years in Boston, Rajon is known as shy and reserved. In fact, Will originally moved to town just to help Rajon through the challenges of adjusting to both Boston and the NBA. But in the process, the older Rondo started doing favors for other Celtics, too — making airport runs, arranging transportation for family members — and learned a lot about what bigtime athletes need to make their lives simpler.
Now, at 30 years old, he’s managed to leverage that experience, along with his extreme extroversion and some help from his brother, into a business that has placed him at the heart of the sports and entertainment worlds. With his two-year-old company, Superior Global Travel & Concierge Services, or SGT, his job is essentially to make life easy for pro athletes, celebrities, and other bigwigs across the country.
Rondo says it ultimately boils down to taking care of people. In other words, he’s a professional big brother.
Will Rondo lives in Dorchester with his girlfriend, their year-old baby daughter, Xion, and his 10-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, Xandréa (he just likes X’s, he says). Before moving into the city last summer, though, he was out in the suburbs, near Rajon and the Celtics’ practice facility in Waltham. I met him at a diner there one morning not too long ago for breakfast, and we were chatting about the NBA when the waitress came over. “You talking Celtics?” she asked. “Rondo comes in here.” She meant Rajon. Will laughed, and said that yes, he thought he’d spied him there before. “I’ve seen his girlfriend’s ring — it’s gorgeous!” the waitress exclaimed. “Do you know Rondo?”
“I know him, I’ve seen him before,” Will replied, smiling.
While Will remains very close with Rajon, it’s his relationship to that relationship that’s somewhat awkward. On the one hand, his business is built on connections made through his brother. On the other, he’s determined not to be some freeloading family member. People he’s worked with say he’s loath to bring up the connection, and when it does arise, he tries to move on quickly. “I don’t want anyone to think that just because I’m Rajon Rondo’s brother, you should use my service,” he says. “I’ve always been proud of him, I always acknowledge that he is my relative, that he’s my brother, but I’ve started a business on my own.”
Right now, Rondo says, SGT has 236 clients (about two-thirds of them are regulars), and including the NBA stars he’s met through Rajon, about one-third of his customers are pro athletes. Rondo specializes in arranging travel and chauffeured cars (he subcontracts the actual transportation component to a nationwide network of limo companies), and does everything from plan nights out on the town to arrange kiddie pickups. While most of his business has come through word-of-mouth referrals, his clients — even the nonathletes — can often be traced back to Rajon.
Take the case of the hip-hop artist Common, one of his best customers. A few years ago, the rapper was doing a show in Boston at the House of Blues when he started freestyling about the Celtics and dropped in Rajon’s name. Rajon, who it turned out was in the crowd, went backstage after the show to introduce himself. The two hit it off and became friends. From then on, when they hung out together, Will was usually around, too. “I would keep seeing Will, and Will would tell us that he had this business,” Common says. Eventually, he signed up. “I must say, the service that I get with Rondo has been incredible,” he says. And what qualifies as incredible service to a high-flying recording artist? Common says he appreciates SGT’s “personal touch” and notes that Rondo makes sure his limo is always stocked with the water (Fiji), gum (peppermint Orbit) and chips (plantain) he likes. (Note: This is how you know life is good, when you have a favorite type of bottled water and it always magically appears in your limo.)
Harvard Law School professor Ronald Sullivan has a similar story: He met Rondo in a VIP lounge at a Celtics game, liked his pitch, and now uses SGT all the time. “I have remarkably complicated travel based on my overcommitting to speaking engagements and having conflicting events in different parts of the country,” Sullivan says. “Wherever I go, he has a car there waiting for me.” Perhaps most important, “They remember my mother’s name without prompt.”
And then there’s Kevin Garnett — a client whom Rajon was obviously helpful in landing. Rondo is “very loyal, I like his work ethic, he’s trustworthy,” says KG’s sister, Sonya Garnett-Reese, who manages her brother’s affairs. She’s clearly fond of Rondo, but she says she’d dump him in a minute if she weren’t happy with SGT. “He was able to come to me because he was Rajon’s brother and he knew the type of services Kevin wanted,” she says, “but to keep that business it’s got to be all about what he’s doing; it’s got to be about his work ethic and the quality.” Garnett-Reese says Rondo’s experience with his brother has given him insight into what athletes need to be comfortable. For instance, she particularly likes how Rondo builds personal relationships with restaurant owners to ensure that, when his clients come in, they’re seated in a relatively private area. Then there’s how, whenever KG’s in L.A., the limo driver Rondo arranges for him knows to bring those special cupcakes from the place he likes. (Yes, Kevin Garnett is a cupcake man.)
Garnett-Reese, who is uniquely positioned to understand Rondo’s situation, points out that many pro athletes have family members hitching along for the ride. “But they kind of feel like they’re entitled.” Rondo, she says, “has the drive. Yeah, his brother’s an athlete and making all this money and whatever, but he wanted his own thing.”
The state of that thing right now is small, but growing. Rondo doesn’t own any limos, though he has three employees and annual revenues of around $240,000. Rondo says it’s enough to make him profitable, even if it is only about what his brother makes in two games. Of course, references to his brother will dog Rondo no matter what he does. And that, in a way, highlights his biggest challenge as he works to grow his company: convincing people that he’s got more to offer than just Rajon Rondo’s last name.
One person who remains unconvinced is Scott Solombrino, the president and CEO of Chelsea-based Dav El, which, with more than 12,500 vehicles across the globe, is one of the largest limo companies out there. Solombrino says that while he has no familiarity with SGT, he’s not impressed with the concept. He argues that since many limo companies, like his, take care of concierge services on their own, there’s no need for a third party. If a client has to get somewhere on, say, a private jet, Solombrino says, “We pick up the phone and make two calls.” Besides, he says, credit card companies like American Express already have robust concierge services for their high-income customers.
“I don’t know him and I don’t know of his business, so I’m not being critical of that,” Solombrino says. “But I do know one thing, that there’s nothing unique versus what other people are doing every single day in the marketplace, what they’ve been doing for decades. The uniqueness for him is that his brother is a famous basketball player.”
When I tell Rondo about Solombrino’s criticism, he becomes unusually combative. “Scott Solombrino, I’m sure he’s running a successful business,” he says. “If he could do what I do, then I wouldn’t be in business now.” He continues, emphasizing the perspective he’s gained from watching Rajon deal with his celebrity. “I’m related to a basketball player, so I’m not like a lot of the people [who] overcharge you,” is what Rondo says he tells players he’s recruiting. “They see that I’ve been through it: I’ve seen groupies, I’ve seen the limelight, I’ve seen VIP services, I’ve seen a lot of things, so I tell them they can trust me.”
A week later, on the phone, he brings up Solombrino’s criticism again, unprompted. “Scott doesn’t do half the things I do,” Rondo says. As Rajon could tell you, Will Rondo has long had a competitive side.
In January, Kendrick Perkins, the popular former Celtics center who was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder last year, returned to Boston for the first time in an enemy uniform. He was mobbed before the game by the media, and, as the scrum broke up, I asked him to talk about Rondo and SGT. “After the game,” he said. The Thunder went on to beat the Celtics and, after dealing with yet another scrum (you can’t underestimate the unpleasantness of these things — imagine 25 foul-smelling people, some with severe dandruff issues, sticking microphones and recorders in your face), Perkins made time for me, even with all his old friends waiting for him outside. As I approached him to chat, a Thunder PR flack tried to shoo me away, but Perkins, one of Rajon’s best friends, stepped in. He wanted to take a moment to talk about Will Rondo.
“If you needed anything — assistance on anything — you could call Will at 5 in the morning and he’s gonna be there for you,” Perkins said. Well, Perk, I asked, did you ever have to call Will so early, or late, as the case may be? “I did a few times.” Can you say for what? A smile crossed the 6-foot-10, 270-pound intimidator’s face. “No.” Rondo also declined to provide details.
Those brotherly skills are well honed: Will Rondo was born in Louisville in 1981, the oldest child of William Sr. and Amber Rondo. Five years later came Rajon and then, one year after that, his sister, Dymon. When he was 11, Will’s parents split, leaving Amber to raise the kids. Amber says Will picked up the outgoing nature of his father, which makes sense given that he was the only one of the kids old enough to really know him. Rajon and Dymon ended up more like her, quiet and reserved.
Amber worked the overnight shift at a nearby Philip Morris factory, and though she somehow managed to never miss any of her kids’ games or events, that meant that a lot of times Will was left in charge of his siblings. As a result, pretty much everywhere he went, Rajon went, too. They would go on bike rides, play sports, hit the local arcade, and just generally rattle around the neighborhood. “You don’t usually see big brothers let their little brothers hang with them,” says Jermaine Bentley, Rondo’s cousin.
“We were side by side for the most part,” Rajon says, lounging in the Celtics locker room before a game. “I learned a lot from him, as far as stuff in the classroom. Also, quarterback — he was a pretty good quarterback growing up. He taught me everything he knew” — and here Rajon displays the natural inability of a brother to just say something nice about his sibling — “he didn’t know nothing about basketball, though.”
As close as they were, the Rondo kids were always competitive, whether in the nightly Connect Four and Uno showdowns on their porch, or playing basketball on the hoop out back. “We got in a lot more arguments when we were younger,” Will says. “He’s stubborn. I’m hard-headed. I’m the oldest, so I think I know it all.”
“I’m hard-headed, too,” Rajon acknowledges. “We’re brothers; we agree to disagree.”
Will, the oldest, was always the protector. Dymon recalls that, whenever he had Rajon or her with him, Will made sure to introduce them as his little brother and sister. With close friends, she says, “He always made [the friends] aware, you know, watch after them…. Don’t let nothing happen to them.”
Rondo also often tried to help ease his mother’s burdens by running errands or cooking breakfast for his siblings when she seemed tired. Bacon, eggs, pancakes, and sausage were his go-tos. “Me and Rajon, we could make our own bowl of cereal, but if we wanted something else, we’d tell Will,” Dymon says. “I wouldn’t really compare it to my mother’s, but I’m sure he’s gotten better.” (The good-natured shot, obviously, runs in the Rondo family.)
By the time Rajon made it to high school, Will was off at college at Murray State (he had a brief and unspectacular football career there), but he still made a point of getting to know his brother’s new high school basketball coach, Doug Bibby (who happens to be the cousin of NBA star Mike Bibby). “He came to me to check me out,” Bibby says. The two became friends and, while home from college, Will helped Bibby take players to tournaments, even doing some coaching as well. After Rajon got drafted, Bibby, who’d seen his cousin Mike face all the challenges of adapting to the NBA, suggested that Will move to Boston with Rajon to help him get acclimated.
Rondo was at a limo-industry convention in Atlantic City a couple of years ago, driving around with his friend Barry Gross, the executive director of a Virginia limo service called A Goff Limousine & Bus Company, when his phone rang. It was one of his athlete clients, and the guy needed two stretch SUV limos in Houston, pronto. Also, they had to be white. Also, it was prom weekend in Houston. So Rondo and Gross started working their contacts, trying desperately to hunt down the cars. “We’re handing phones back and forth to each other,” Gross says. Finally, after an hour of frantically calling — dialing up everyone they knew inside and outside of Houston — they found the limos.
On its face, it sounds ridiculous to go to that much trouble to fulfill such a frivolous request. But that’s the nature of the business. “What [athletes] don’t realize is the sheer exhaustion that they can cause people because the demands are so high,” Gross says. “It’s 24/7.”
Rondo’s business basically works like this: When a client contacts him, he first consults his database, where he lists his customers’ various preferences. What types of cars they like, if they have a preferred driver, where their favorite pickup spot is, who their relevant family members are, when it’s anybody’s birthday, and what types of snacks they like in the limo. To keep one client happy, SGT ships a hard-to-find brand of chips to car services all across the country, ensuring that he has them no matter what city he’s in. (“If the bag’s close to being expired, we’re not going to put it in the vehicle,” says one of Rondo’s employees.)
The next step is to subcontract the ride. Because he doesn’t have any vehicles of his own, Rondo has pre-negotiated rates with limo companies in pretty much every big city in the country. (No overhead is, of course, a good thing for a fledgling business, though without his own vehicles, Rondo’s profit margins are smaller. It’s essentially a less-risk, less-reward strategy.)
For some of those limo companies, Rondo’s clients account for enough of their business to give him considerable sway. Before striking out on his own, Rondo earned his stripes by working for Jerald Robbins, the president of Weldon Worldwide Services, a local limo company. When they parted ways, they made a deal: Rondo would get Robbins’s contacts in exchange for subcontracting rides to him. Now, Robbins says, Rondo’s clients make up about 10 percent of Weldon’s business. As a result, Robbins makes sure to always hold cars in reserve on game nights in case they’re needed at the Garden. To accommodate all the athletes (and their very large bodies) that Rondo has brought to him, Robbins added three new SUV limos to his now 28-car fleet. Rondo also gives him pointers on how to stay attuned to the creature comforts players prefer. “High bass, lots of speakers, a lot of high-end stuff,” Robbins says. He adds that he just bought a 14-passenger mini coach that the players frequently use. Robbins, the type of guy you’d more expect to find kibitzing in a deli than thumping bass in a car, is especially proud of the new ride’s “really kick-ass stereo system.”
Most of Rondo’s business right now happens in Boston, New York, Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where many of his entertainment clients are located. Out in L.A., Alex Ghorbani, the CEO of LAX VIP Limousine Service, says Rondo accounts for about 10 percent of his business, or about $8,000 to $10,000 per month on 40 to 55 trips. Ghorbani recently bought another Escalade limo to help accommodate the customers Rondo directs to him. (In case you were wondering, Ghorbani offers this breakdown of limo-service divas: “Athletes are not that bad. The movie industry is worse. The people in the music industry are not that bad because they are always high or drunk…. It makes it easier, but it makes the car so filthy.”)
Rondo says he arranges 12 to 25 rides per day, and has had few instances where a client has gotten out of control in the car. If necessary, he says, he’d cut ties with a big troublemaker. After all, the whole enterprise rests on people trusting him — from the limo operators, club managers, and restaurant owners to the professional basketball players, rappers, and high-powered professors. At the end of the day, what differentiates Will Rondo’s business is Will Rondo. That means everything reflects on him.
“Back door! Back door! Back door all day!” Rondo yells from our seats after Celtics guard Avery Bradley makes a nice cut to the hoop for an easy bucket. The C’s are handling the lowly Wizards pretty easily, and Rondo is especially pumped about the play of Bradley, both a friend and a client. By halftime, Bradley has already piled up 19 points against the Wizards, and Rondo is in such a good mood that he doesn’t even notice that his brother, despite eight assists, has gone scoreless. With the game on break, Rondo embarks on another handshaking tour of the Garden. During 15 minutes of walking around and glad-handing, seemingly the only person he doesn’t talk to is Aztec Gino, a Celtics super fan who dresses up in mock Indian garb and has the unique distinction of being disliked by pretty much everyone (when he’s nearby, Rondo eyes him suspiciously).
As halftime winds down, Rondo calls up his friend Christa Jones and arranges a confab in the Garden concourse. Jones is the vice president of Institutional Advancement at the Urban College of Boston, and also runs Mogul Executive Services, a concierge service (she says her business doesn’t tend to conflict with Rondo’s since he’s more focused on transportation). She helped him get his company set up, and now may be able to help him expand it.
Rondo says he’s intentionally kept things small so far, so he can provide personal attention to all of his clients. But he’s slowly growing: He says he now does VIP transportation for groups, including the American Heart Association, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and the NBA Players Association, and he recently launched a smartphone app for his clients to book through. The app made a big enough splash in the industry that it helped earn him a feature in the trade publication Limousine, Charter & Tour. Rondo says he’d love to eventually put employees on the ground in other cities.
Jones, it turns out, is having a meeting soon with some of the people behind Shark Tank, the ABC reality show where entrepreneurs pitch a panel of venture capitalists (including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) to try to get them to invest. She says she’ll bring up Rondo’s name to try to get him on the show. Rondo likes the idea, but says he also plans on meeting with banks to try to find more-traditional investors.
Of course, there is the same old dilemma: If he does end up getting on the show, it would no doubt be, at least in part, because he’s Rajon Rondo’s brother. Then again, none of the sharks are going to give him any money just because of his bloodline — they’d have to like his business.
As he and Jones hash things out, I think back to that time Rondo and I were chatting at the diner in Waltham: As we were getting up to leave, he passed me the pamphlet he’d just produced for SGT. I pointed out how it didn’t say the name “Rondo” on it anywhere. He nodded — that was intentional — but then waffled for a moment. “Do you think I’d benefit more if I used the name and said who I was related to?” In the end, though, he didn’t waver: If you go on the SGT website, you won’t find his last name anywhere.
Ever the prideful big brother, what he likes best, he says, is when he’s being recommended by a satisfied customer and Rajon doesn’t come up. “Sometimes they leave off my last name,” he says, “and just say, ‘Call this guy, Will. He’ll take care of you.’”
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/05/william-rondo-nba-concierge/