Car Trouble

Two Boston limo companies are fighting over drivers. And restrooms. And anything else you can think of.

Between slurps of soup during lunch in New York, Dawson Rutter pauses to regurgitate numbers. Numbers about his profits. Numbers about operating costs. Numbers about building his limousine company, Commonwealth Worldwide, from a single car into a fleet that’s become an industry player. Lots of numbers. The man loves numbers. Somewhere, maybe beneath his napkin, I suspect he’s hiding an abacus.

While Rutter talks, I entertain myself by figuring out who he looks like. He’s wearing a nice suit, though it doesn’t fit him that well. He has carefully combed silver hair, and a pair of nondescript glasses sit atop his ruddy nose. I finally settle on Russell Crowe in The Insider—both are a bit disheveled and full in the face.

“I think the critical point is that it’s personal from Scott’s side,” Rutter says, jogging me from my temporary coma. He’s talking about his chief competitor, Scott Solombrino, the owner of Dav El, one of the biggest and most profitable outfits in the business. Both Rutter and Solombrino started their respective companies in Boston and turned them into national successes. (Both are still headquartered in Massachusetts.) That’s about the only thing they seem to agree on. On nearly every other point, they have radically different opinions. Rutter says they used to be friends; Solombrino acidly denies it. Rutter recalls a conversation they had about Dav El’s buying Commonwealth; Solombrino maintains that no such conversation occurred. For that matter, Solombrino disputes that Rutter’s limo company is even much of a success.

“I find Dawson Rutter to be a person who would go to any length to be a person other than Dawson Rutter,” Solombrino later tells me. “He wants to elevate himself. He wants to try to make himself more relevant because he probably didn’t make good choices in his career. I am a self-made guy. I didn’t take any shortcuts.”

Today, not surprisingly, the two are bitter rivals engaged in endless litigation. And plenty of verbal sparring.
“Because I’m a small player who’s becoming a large player,” Rutter says, “I don’t feel threatened by Dav El. But Dav El certainly feels threatened by me.”

This is how most of our lunch goes. We’re eating at a pretentious restaurant in New York City’s St. Regis Hotel. Over $26 cheeseburgers served on fancy plates and washed down with Pellegrino, Rutter fires more shots in an ongoing battle that oscillates between silly and ridiculous. To wit: Solombrino is suing Rutter for poaching Dav El drivers who signed noncompete agreements forbidding them from working for another limo company until 18 months after leaving Dav El, for fear they would disseminate proprietary information. I don’t understand why the drivers have to sign noncompete clauses. They’re in the service industry. Why keep drivers who don’t earn that much from jumping ship if they think they can make a better buck? (I was in the service industry. No one at Bennigan’s cared when I left.) Solombrino says the contract with his drivers was designed, in part, to keep them from talking to sleazy supermarket tabloids about which celebrity client does blow or which two movie stars enjoy copulating in the back of a moving car. Dav El is seeking $25,000 in compensation for each driver who defected to Commonwealth.

“No one is forced to sign a noncompete,” Solombrino says, noting that if someone doesn’t want to work for him, that person is free to go elsewhere. “People understand that there are rules. And we’re allowed to set those rules.”
Six former Dav El employees who now work for Commonwealth have in turn sued Solombrino. The suit alleges that while they were working for Dav El, they were victims of “short-pay”—receiving fewer wages than they should have. According to Commonwealth’s lawyer, the defendants are seeking about $20,000 in combined back pay. Solombrino says he’s never withheld pay from anyone.

But that’s not the best part. The complaint filed by Dav El claims that a Commonwealth driver has “continued to utilize the [restrooms] at the Peninsula Hotel, one of Dav El’s clients, . . . even though such facilities are off limits to other chauffeurs.” Put more simply, this thing is a pissing match, a fight over who can use the bathroom at which New York hotel. (Solombrino says the facilities aren’t an issue at all and makes a point of telling me that those words don’t appear in any lawsuit filed by Dav El. So I check again. They do.)

That is why Rutter and I are eating at the St. Regis: Commonwealth has a deal with this hotel to provide limousines, while Dav El has a similar contract with the Peninsula. The two hotels sit directly across from each other on Fifth Avenue, and as such they are symbolic—the respective base camps for Commonwealth and Dav El’s climb up Mount Absurdity. I fear hypoxia has already set in for Rutter and Solombrino. Because if either of them were getting oxygen to their brains, they’d realize they’re millionaires bickering over restrooms.

The whole thing is a lot like a scene I once watched unfold while waiting for the T. Two fat pigeons entertained me and a few others with a little fight: They pecked at each other and flapped their wings, two birds of a feather refusing to give ground. The difference, though, is that the birds eventually moved on.

THAT RUTTER AND Solombrino are such hostile antagonists makes little sense considering how alike they are. Solombrino bought his first company car for $600 when he was a freshman at Suffolk. By 1987 he was doing well enough to buy Dav El. Today, according to Limousine & Chauffeured Transportation magazine, Dav El operates nearly 1,000 vehicles, making it the nation’s second-largest fleet. Rutter got his start in 1982 when he bought his first car while living in Brighton as a college student. He built slowly from there; now Commonwealth is ranked 25th, with 109 vehicles.

Both Rutter and Solombrino worked as chauffeurs for more-established companies while trying to launch their respective businesses. Rutter even drove a cab for a while to support himself. “Scott and I and his dad did weddings together,” Rutter says. “After he [bought] Dav El, we had lunch to discuss his buying my company. We had lunch. We had dinner. We talked on the phone.” Rutter trails off, and this is where it becomes apparent that, on a personal level, the icy interaction between him and Solombrino bothers him. Solombrino might not think the two were friends, but Rutter does.

“We had no relationship whatsoever,” counters Solombrino. After being asked repeatedly over several months, he has finally agreed to a meeting. When Solombrino arrives, he’s flanked by three PR henchmen. (If Rutter looks like a frumpy Russell Crowe, Solombrino could pass for Squiggy from Laverne & Shirley.) “I can’t ever recall having been with him. I can’t ever recall knowing him or his wife or his family, his kids, whether he has kids,” he says of Rutter. “If he’s just trying to make a living associating himself with me, I don’t know why.”

RUTTER BELIEVES it was Commonwealth’s move into New York that brought Solombrino’s wrath. The limo business is an unrepentant bar fight of backstabbing and name-calling, and New York City is home to some of its best brawlers.
Rutter says Commonwealth put a help-wanted ad in one of the New York papers, an ad to which several Dav El employees responded. This precipitated Dav El’s complaint against Commonwealth, which gave way to the countercomplaint by Commonwealth’s employees. And now here they are—mired in disputes about bathrooms and whether or not they were friends.

I ask several former Dav El employees who now work for Commonwealth about the ongoing to-do. All say they disliked their time at Dav El, but really enjoy working for Commonwealth and Rutter. But then, I wouldn’t expect them to badmouth the guy who signs their checks. So I walk over to the Peninsula Hotel and talk to a Dav El driver who’s waiting in his car. The driver tells me he’s treated “pretty well,” and that he’s paid on time. Again, hardly surprising. While I’m in the neighborhood, I stop in to learn more about the Peninsula bathrooms.

“Everyone is allowed to use the lobby bathroom,” says Antonio Miranda, who’s handling security. He’s the first impartial observer I’ve talked to. “We have a contract with Dav El, so their drivers use the employee facilities. But we wouldn’t refuse to let another company use our bathroom. If Dav El is making a big deal out of it, that’s them.”

WHEN SOLOMBRINO and Rutter aren’t arguing over bathrooms (I make a pit stop at the Peninsula; the bathroom is nice, and I dig the free hand lotion), they do a mean comedy routine. Very Abbott and Costello.

Solombrino’s complaint says the employees who defected to Commonwealth funneled Dav El clients to Rutter. “There’s no evidence of that,” Rutter shoots back. “But that’s competition. The best man wins.”

“I have huge credibility. He has none,” retorts Solombrino. To prove his point, he lists his bona fides—appearances on CNBC and NBC, and articles in the Globe, the L.A. Times, and elsewhere. My favorite is when he tells me he was president of his class at Revere High School. “Understand what I’ve done. You are looking at a person who has reshaped the chauffeured car business. People might say they dislike me. They might say they hate me. They’re not going to say they don’t respect me, because I have taken the industry to a different level.”

This could go on for some time because strong-willed, successful businessmen don’t like to give in. Especially these two.

Meanwhile, both are hemorrhaging legal fees. Rutter estimates the litigation has cost him somewhere between $150,000 and $175,000. When I ask what he’s spent, Solombrino balks, and his PR flacks instruct him not to answer. All Solombrino will say is that it has cost him “more than $25,000.” It’s not until the fact checker here is going back over my notes that we notice, in a background memo prepared by his public relations firm, the helpful information that Solombrino “has spent nearly $450,000 in legal fees.” Oops. So much for spin control.

Best-case scenario if Solombrino wins: He gets $25,000 per employee who violated a noncompete clause, which would be less than what he’s shelled out for his lawyers. The best case for Rutter is similarly grim: His employees recover around $20,000 and Rutter keeps a bunch of drivers who, while great guys, are largely interchangeable. Maybe Rutter lucks out and the judge forces Solombrino to pick up Rutter’s legal fees, or vice versa. But that’s about it.

So why not settle? Why not accept the fact that no one can win this fight, but that everyone can lose?

“Regardless of where either party stands in terms of being successful or unsuccessful, I believe this is all about him thinking that we will, at some point, back down,” says Rutter. Both he and Solombrino hint that the other camp has offered to settle. But when I ask about this, both vigorously deny it. “I consider it a cost of doing business,” Rutter says. “We’re making a lot of money. And we’re taking part of those profits and using them in this way because I consider it to be important.”

Rutter also says he wants to help his drivers, and Solombrino sings a similar tune about standards and right and wrong. The implacable truth, though, is that they’re getting something out of this—Solombrino wants to wound Rutter just as Rutter wants to wound Solombrino.

That they both remain rich, despite this crazy confrontation, makes me jealous, and it reminds me of a story about Arthur Miller. After Death of a Salesman, with everyone singing his praises, Miller happens upon an old classmate who’s become a hot dog vendor. The vendor, unaware of Miller’s literary triumph, asks his old pal what he’s been up to.

“I’m, you know, a famous playwright,” Miller tells him.

“A famous playwright, eh?” the vendor responds. “I should have gone into that.”

Really, $150,000 or more for legal fees? Just because they can?

I should have gone into that.