Mark Allen gets emotional when he talks about the help he received from the business community and local governments throughout Florida. They offered grant money for his Jacksonville-based driving school when he seriously questioned how he could move forward with his dream and goal to operate the largest driving school in the state.
One minute he was focusing on building “All Florida Safety Institute” with 19 locations all over Florida. Then COVID hit. For the next several weeks, the company was unable to teach anybody.
In March 2020, the company was 5 years old. The business had gone from a two-person operation to having about 100 employees, including 67 driving instructors in areas that include Jacksonville, Tampa, Palm Bay, and Melbourne.
At the time, All Florida Safety Institute was the third fastest growing company in Northeast Florida, according to the Jacksonville Business Journal. Most clients are teens, but about 25 percent include young adults, transplants from other states and people from other countries.
“We started it from scratch with me and one car and a friend who came with me from the auto industry, and we were growing fast until the pandemic hit,” said Mark Allen, founder. “At our lowest point, we had $10 in our banking account…We were thinking, wow, we can't even buy a pizza with that.”
Serial entrepreneurs are used to ups and downs
Allen started his career by working at a Jacksonville car dealership while he was in college at the University of Florida. Years later he went on to own a car dealership followed by a motorcycle dealership and a watercraft business. From age 19 to 49, Allen worked in the auto and power sports industries.
These days the driving school is a $10 million a year organization that offers private driving lessons and license testing. The company also has a state contract to handle testing at tax and licensing offices as well as a contract to teach classes in high schools. It's a multi-faceted business that teaches between 3500 to 5000 students a month how to drive.
I wanted to know why he got into an industry that's been around for decades. Allen's answer was simple: He believes he could provide something different with a focus on preplanning and predictive driving.
"We not only teach car control and defensive driving but incorporate our predictive driving program which mitigates or eliminates potential accidents," he said. "That's what makes us different."
There's nothing like an entrepreneur who is passionate about a mission. In Allen's case, passion helped him to push forward during COVID when he struggled to make rent payments at various locations and got deferments for car payments.
His passion for driving started as a teen. In the 27 years when he was running other businesses, he also trained professionals to drive better. Think race car drivers, people in law enforcement, and personal bodyguards. He specialized in teaching people in high-risk professions who must think about other things while driving.
When he retired, he decided to dust off a 20-year-old business plan to start a driving school.
"My goal is to play a role in reducing deaths by teens and young adults in the entire state by five percent," he said. "That's several hundred of your daughters and sons and my kids. To me, if I can help several hundred teens, I feel like I'm doing God's work. Yes, I want to make a good living too of course, but that's not my primary goal."
Moving forward during a crisis
Still, adversity has a way of making you question your ability to stay on course with achieving your goals. Because Allen's primary goal was to serve others, when COVID hit, he said his biggest two concerns were taking care of employees and staying in touch with the 350 clients who had already paid for services in advance. All but 14 employees were furloughed.
He applied for every type of grant that he could find. And every time he felt like he should give up, another grant came through. Each time, the money was just enough to get them through another big challenge. The company received COVID-related grants from multiple counties in Florida that ranged from $3,000 to $50,000. They also received a $100,000 grant from the Small Business Administration.
Huston Pullen, regional director of the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida, said he's grateful every time he hears about how government funding played a role in saving jobs and building businesses.
The SBDC helps to provide clients with funding resources, funding applications, and overall support during the pandemic.
"The reason we do what we do is that we want to help support small businesses at any stage under any circumstance to grow and succeed," he said. "We’re grateful for the opportunity to serve the small businesses of our community."
Why the driving school is back to growth mode
All Florida Safety Institute now has 26 locations throughout the state, strategically placed in areas where the farthest Floridians must drive is 45 minutes to get to their next location. At its peak, the business has about 190 employees.
The pandemic forced them to explore new areas for growth. With several new locations and lots of new expenses, once the company opened back up, it got up to speed quickly and doubled revenues in 2020.
Lisa Caffey, a friend and customer, said she's stayed in touch with Allen throughout the years when he owned other businesses. She's a realtor now, but she met him many years ago when she was an elementary school teacher who taught his twin daughters.
She turned to his company when she wanted her son, Andrew, to learn how to drive at age 15. She appreciated that the instructor was calm and in control. The school's techniques instilled confidence in her son's ability to drive.
"As a parent, if I had tried to teach him, I would have never gotten on the interstate with him. They taught him how to drive during rush hour traffic. He quickly got comfortable driving to places like the airport and St. Augustine," Caffey said, " Now Andrew is 18 and comfortable driving everywhere. I don’t worry about him when he wants to visit a friend a couple of hours away in Savannah or even four hours away in Tampa. I'm not concerned because they taught him both defensive and proactive tactics."
Mike Greiner, assistant executive director at the driving school, helped start the company in 2015, when it was just him and Allen. He's a national go-kart racer and a state champion for four years. Similar to Allen, he takes driving as seriously as working hard to build a business.
"We literally started this business by googling, "how to build a driving school," he said. "We knew we had something different to offer, but we just needed help in getting started."
"Before the quarantine, we were in a good place. We were in cruise control," he said. "But being locked down for two months hurt us a lot. All of that security disappeared in a couple of weeks. Rent was due and so many people needed to be paid."
"But when things changed, we went from having little to no business to having more business than we could handle. We did the best we could with the staff that we had until we could do better."
Now the company is seeking investors to further expand. Despite supply chain issues with cars and other challenges, Greiner said the company is in a great position for growth. He says it's all about the company's mission.
Allen said that anybody can learn to pilot a car, but it takes education and experience to be able to drive a car safely.
"Our goal is to change the way the next generation drives," he said.
Marcia Pledger is the opinion and engagement editor for The Florida Times-Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: All Florida Safety Institute driving school is back to growth mode