By LOU WILIN
As streams of Findlay High School football fans walked through a residential neighborhood toward Donnell Stadium on a Friday evening, gently whirring golf carts turned heads.
A red golf cart cruised north on West Street toward a couple approaching from the north.
“You want a ride?” Judy Brenner called out.
Perplexed, the couple hesitated.
Then came the magic words.
“It’s free,” Brenner said.
The couple readily hopped aboard and then rode in leisure. Brenner invited them to call or text for a post-game ride back to their car while the golf cart driver, Jereme Phillips, dropped them off near Donnell Stadium.
Phillips’ and Brenner’s business, Flag City Cart Co., shuttles people to Findlay High and University of Findlay football games. It also shuttles folks from downtown parking spots to restaurants and bars on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
A second cart, a blue one driven by a volunteer, also offers rides for the same times and occasions.
Rides are free, though drivers accept tips. The business’ revenue comes from advertising on digital or billboard-type displays on the sides of the golf carts.
“It’s a mobile advertisement company,” Brenner said. “Our advertisers pay for the ad spot, knowing that it’s consistently moving people around and being seen in the downtown area.”
Brenner and Phillips got the idea while walking in downtown Toledo years ago, where golf carts gave rides for a charge. Brenner and Phillips liked the idea and began to explore it, among other potential business ventures.
“This one, we kind of got that fire, ‘OK, this is the one. Let’s take this path and do it,'” Brenner said.
Both have day jobs. He is sales manager for Taylor Hyundai of Findlay. She is finance manager for Taylor Kia of Findlay.
Both were determined from early on to go far in life. Both came from single-parent homes.
Phillips’ mother worked jobs in factories, offices and other places.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps, serving from 1993 to 1997. Then he served in the Army National Guard from 2000 to 2006.
“My mother has always been kind of my rock in my life until I met Judy,” Phillips said.
Brenner was the oldest of three children.
“I took on kind of the mom role when my Mom was going to school, trying to work to support the family,” she said. “We grew up very, very low poverty. The older I got I always told myself, ‘I will never live that way. I don’t care what I have to do, I’m not going to do it.'”
“I mean, my Mom sleeping on a mattress in the middle of the living room floor because it’s a two-bedroom house, and there’s three kids,” Brenner said. “The no-Christmases because the church had to fund it. That type of thing gave me that internal drive, and I told myself that would never be me.”
Brenner started working for Taylor Automotive in 2005 as a cashier.
“I made it known, ‘I’m not settling for $6 an hour. I want to be up with the big dogs. I want to learn new things, and I don’t ever want to struggle, ever,'” she said. “They’ve given me numerous opportunities to acquire new skills and get more training to bring me where I am today.”
An irrepressible force within impels Brenner further forward and upward. Just getting Flag City Cart Co. started has meant overcoming delays, obstacles and risks.
The business’ startup date was delayed a couple of months for, among other things, back-and-forth with city officials over licensing of drivers, insurance, drug tests and background checks, Phillips said.
“It’s such a new concept that cities don’t know how to regulate it,” Phillips said.
Feedback and questions from the city “kind of came in, like, one piece at a time. One day it’s your drivers need to do this, you need to have this insurance, the city needs to be indemnified,” he said. “Then maybe a month later we get another email. ‘Oh yeah, your (digital) ads have to run for 15 minutes apiece.'”
He said city officials were concerned that if the ads changed too frequently it could cause a strobing effect, distracting other motorists.
Phillips and Brenner wanted the ads to alternate more frequently.
“That was kind of a setback. So that took about a week to get fixed.”
The city eventually agreed to let the digital ads change each minute.
Getting the golf carts properly equipped took time and money. Seat belts, turn signals, a horn and rearview mirror were added. To be deemed roadworthy the carts had to pass inspection by the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office, Phillips said.
Brenner and Phillips had to have brackets specially made to fasten the advertising boards to the carts. The digital ads are powered by a generator hidden aboard the cart.
The entrepreneurs also had to figure out how to route the exhaust for the generator.
But there was still more generator problem-solving.
“Another big issue was filling up the generator. We didn’t want to have to take it out and fill it up every time,” Phillips said. “So we ran a line from the main (fuel) tank to the generator, so it just runs off one tank.”
“We’ve had many moments where it’s like … ‘Let’s just throw in the towel, it’s not going to work,'” Brenner said.
“We expected hurdles. We just didn’t know. We’ve never owned a business before and then you run into something and you get frustrated because you thought it was going to be something else,” she said.
But sometimes the something else can be a pleasant surprise.
Before a football game, Phillips and Brenner picked up a family on Hurd Avenue with elderly members. To make room for everyone, Brenner got out of the cart. Phillips drove the family around the block and pulled up behind the grandstands.
“Can you stop here for us?” a woman passenger asked. He pulled over, just a few steps from the grandstands. From there, the woman took charge as she stepped off the cart.
“OK, Dad, you’re going to hop off here,” she said. More directions to other family members for their drop-off point near the north gate. “Lori, you sit here with Alice, get her where she needs to go.”
Then the woman astonished Phillips. She slipped him a $20 bill.
“Oh, thank you. It’s way too much,” Phillips said. “Thank you.”
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