Colonial was a scrawny wannabe when co-founders Tad Lindner and Serge Gambal made a bold move in 1969.
The Bender family, which ran a local construction and real estate firm, was looking to outsource management of its parking lots.
All the big firms, including Doggett Parking and PMI, wanted the job. Lindner and Gambal offered the best price.
“A Bender guy called and said, ‘You can’t pay me this. You can’t make enough money,’ ” recalls Eric Lindner, 55, who is Tad’s son, a former Colonial manager and now a budding author. “Dad and Serge said yes they could. They were both numbers guys, and they had run the numbers and said they could do the deal.”
Colonial won the job pioneering a tactic that has since become standard practice in garages and lots.
The two “realized they could actually sell 130 percent of the capacity because at any given time, only 100 percent will show up. It’s overbooking, just like the airlines overbook,” Eric said.
The key was to hire smart and motivated attendants who could jockey the cars around, stacking them in the aisles and cramming them elsewhere.
The Bender deal put Colonial on the map, giving it entree to the big institutional and corporate employers who commanded thousands of spaces. By 1984, Colonial was the largest parking company in Washington.
The Lindners are an influential yet low-key Washington family whose business touches almost everyone. They have to constantly refresh their business just like any enterprise facing head winds. In the case of parking, the challenges include a growing interest among urban dwellers to give up their cars and walk, bike or take mass transit to get around. That means firms will have to work harder at filling their spaces.
In response, Colonial has gone high-tech, partnering with a company called ParkMe that developed an app to give commuters real-time recommendations on available spaces. Colonial also has created a rewards program that earns frequent users free meals. And it makes space for Zipcars and bike racks, as well as setting cheaper parking fees during off-peak hours.
“Responding to changing habits” is how Eric puts it.
Such nimbleness has kept Colonial near the head of the pack and the Lindners as one of the city’s preeminent business clans. They recently completed the peaceful end to their 50-year business partnership with the Gambals, although the families still partner on other projects.
I know the Lindners a little bit. (That doesn’t stop me from muttering when I pay their parking tribute.) They are successful, influential, reserved — and decent people.
Their business doesn’t stop at parking. They are a force in local real estate as well, partnering on numerous developments from Independence Square with Mort Zuckerman’s Boston Properties, to Plaza of the Patriots with Clark Enterprises, to projects on the Southwest Waterfront.