When his business was sued three times in rapid succession, Buck Ward, the founder of Segway of Richmond, wasted no time in selling most of his company and diving headfirst into a different sort of vehicle.
He now owns the Richmond Trolley Company, the venture behind the old-fashioned red trolley cars you’ve probably seen cruising Richmond recently filled with tourists and tipsy bridal parties.
Ward spent $400,000 on five trolley cars from the West Coast. Since late last year, he’s been building the business one ride at a time.
BizSense caught up with Ward to find out how it feels to have his business riding on four wheels instead of two.
The following is an edited transcript.
Richmond BizSense: Tell us about the fleet.
Buck Ward: There are two open-air, San Francisco-style trolleys and three enclosed trolleys. They are totally refurbished. We added air conditioning to three of them. It was a real ordeal getting them shipped here from the West Coast. It took two and a half months to get the first trolley. We ran our first tour Dec. 2, and they showed up two days before.
RBS: How hard has it been to attract customers, given that trolleys haven’t been seen on the streets of Richmond for a century?
BW: We’re focused on private charters: weddings and brides, corporate events, and food and wine tours. We thought we’d do 25 private charters in the first quarter. We did 75.
The historical tours have started. We’re just getting into the season. We’ll do it Thursdays through Sundays. We’re going to start doing trolley tours of Hollywood Cemetery. We’ll start offering those every Sunday beginning this week.
RBS: What kind of revenue is it bringing in?
BW: We’ve done $40,000 worth of charters. Our hope is that by working with hotels and others we can drive a lot of traffic. I don’t know what that number’s going to look like.
RBS: What’s the status of the Segway lawsuits?
BW: They still are pending, if you can believe that. It’s just slow. We hope to have them resolved sometime this year.
RBS: The Segway shop on Cary is obviously still open for business. Who is running it now?
BW: We did find a buyer and worked out a partnership. It’s with John Moulton, who we had outsourced it to [once the lawsuits were filed], out of Fredericksburg. I still have a minority stake in the business.
RBS: Where does one find trolley drivers these days?
BW: That’s a really big deal – getting a qualified driver with their CDL license. GRTC has helped us get people who are retired [GRTC drivers] or who work there part time.
RBS: Where do you store five trolley cars in Richmond?
BW: The other thing that was really a worry was where we were going to garage these things. I can’t put them in my driveway. GRTC has been phenomenal. They’ve allowed us to put them at the old bus barn on Cary Street [free of charge].
RBS: Is there potential for trolley business outside Richmond?
BW: We were invited by the White House to have three trolleys for the state dinner for the prime minister of England. We had the president and his wife on Trolley #28. And all sorts of celebrities like Warren Buffet and George Clooney.
We’re going to put a little plaque where the president sat on the back. We haven’t done it yet. We’re supposed to get some pictures from the Secret Service.
RBS: How’d you score that deal?
BW: It was pure luck. A White House staffer Googled us. They did a lot of due diligence about us first.
RBS: When you first bought the trolleys, you talked about wanting them to eventually be electric hybrids. How has that panned out?
BW: We’re still talking to Dominion [Resources] and others about converting the gas engines to electric. Electric vehicles are coming. We’re very excited about the possibility of having the electric trolley return to Richmond 125 years after the first one. That’s our goal.
RBS: You paid $400,000 for the trolleys already. How much will the conversion to electric cost, and how will you pay for it?
BW: We need partners for it. We have a huge investment in the trolleys already. The conversion is going to be somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000 per trolley. We’ll look for corporate partners.
RBS: Is five trolleys enough, or do you have dreams of a bigger fleet?
BW: We’re barely four months into this. We’re not looking to buy any more trolleys right now.