By the time he was 20, Christopher Washington was a veteran of various jobs. He had restocked shelves, cleaned bathrooms, been a janitor, a custodian. And his then-current occupation as a pool technician wasn’t exactly going to lead him to something better.
It wasn’t that Christopher, a smart, serious young man, couldn’t do other jobs, but a learning disability that limited his reading skills relegated him to opportunities that depended more on his muscle than his mind.
Thinking about what else he might like to do, he remembered all the times he helped his grandparents with chores that required driving – shopping, doctor appointments and the like – and set about wondering if that could be turned into a business.
And Chris-on-Call was born. At the beginning, his service menu included pool cleaning, lawn cutting, delivery service, and car washing. “Pretty much anything involving manual labor,” he said.
But then he noticed something.
“The majority of the calls I was getting was for driver services.”
Now it’s three years later. Christopher Washington, now 24, has quit his day job and narrowed his focus. Chris-on-Call has morphed into a thriving business, a concierge service that offers everything from picking up dry cleaning to food delivery, from high-end transportation for dignitaries and proms and weddings (the Prestige Service) to going to a client’s home to meet repairmen and installers.
“While working as a pool technician, I decided I had to find something different to do,” Christopher said. “I was so tired of working jobs with no future. I decided that owning my own business was the way to go, but I had to decide what to do.”
That’s when he remembered helping his grandparents.
“I opened the business as a more-or-less all-round chore guy in fall 2015 while still keeping my full-time job. Once I saw that what I was getting requests for was driving/delivery services, I refocused and concentrated just on appointment and driver services.
“In the summer of 2017, I quit my full-time job and concentrated on driver and appointment services. It took off like a rocket!”
As the business began to expand, Christopher and his mother, Julie Gilbert, knew they needed some help. Julie’s husband had once owned a custom-home design business and had turned to a SCORE chapter in Baton Rouge, so she and Christopher found and contacted SCORE Memphis.
SCORE became an informational resource for Chris-on-Call, with Jim Frommel, a veteran of 40 years of financial management for television and radio stations, always ready to provide expertise.
Jim “was very enthusiastic about what Chris-on-Call was bringing to Memphis, was encouraging and, most importantly, gave us referrals to the professionals we really needed,” Julie said. “CPA, attorney, printer/design group, business coach, business banking. And, of course, we gained access to all of the SCORE webinars, archives and document templates.”
Christopher and Julie recently met with the entire SCORE Memphis group at its monthly luncheon during which they recounted the company’s success.
“Getting the business name out to the community is great,” Julie said. “Word-of-mouth advertising can’t be beat.”
Jim remembers the early meetings being conducted by email because Chris-on-Call had already starting bursting at the seams.
Those meetings covered issues such as how to hire new employees, how to get insurance, how to put a price point on services and how to set up a financial reporting system.
“It was obvious from my very first meeting with Chris that his determination, along with dedication to customer service, would make Chris-on-Call the success it is today,” Jim said.
Julie is more than just a proud mother. A former well-traveled Naval officer who took her son to live in Europe, Asia, Alaska and Louisiana as well as Tennessee during his formative years, Julie Gilbert holds a Doctor of Pharmacy degree and works from her Louisiana home for Pharmacy Benefits Management. Since she can set her own hours, she can help her son by answering phones, researching new ideas, attending SCORE webinars and handling as much of the administrative work as she can do remotely.
If there are important meetings for the company, she comes to Tennessee.
When Christopher decided to set out on his own in the business world, she acknowledges she was worried, but proud.
“This young man, who was teased terribly in school due to his disability, was able to purchase a house at 22,” she said. “Not sure how many, if any, of his former classmates, the so-called ‘normal’ ones, have been able to achieve that.
“Christopher believes in himself and I believe in him. He works long hours and is always thinking about how to improve and expand.”
A highlight came this year when he provided transportation for dignitaries and national media visiting Memphis for the events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Chris-on-Call has earned City of Memphis certifications in Minority/Women-Owned Business Enterprise and Small Business Enterprise, making it available for such jobs. (UPDATE: As of May 8, Chris-on-Call has received a certification from Shelby County Minority Business Enterprise.)
The result was a series of rave reviews – “It was a pleasure having you as my driver, I’ll use you any time I come to Memphis” said one – that will only help the company’s reputation as a dependable method of transportation.
And the MLK remembrance created a highlight for the young man who was once the butt of jokes in school.
“Getting invited to sit down at a table for lunch with the icons of the Civil Rights Era,” he said of a professional high point. “I learned so much listening to them talk. It truly was an honor and a pleasure.
“Of course, hearing compliments from them on my service makes me feel so proud of what I do and what I’ve accomplished.”
Christopher isn’t content with the successes the past year or so have brought.
Coming soon will be a revamped and improved website (http://www.chris-on-call.com/) and some business-to-business contracts. And don’t be surprised if Chris-on-Call becomes known outside the Bluff City. Christopher sees chances to make his business into a franchise that can be started in other cities.
Until then, he will continue to add drivers – he has one other full-time driver and others he can use on a part-time basis – and add more high-end cars to his Prestige Service line. He wants to add Shelby County certifications to those he has with Memphis and add a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise certification from Memphis International Airport.
While he loves driving – he drove more than 4,000 miles from Anchorage to Baton Rouge after his junior year in high school – he knows his future may be away from the seat behind the wheel.
“My personal goal is to drive only for Prestige Service and when not driving to be out networking to further increase business,” he said. “This business is my life, I live it daily and dream about it at night. … I want others to know that having a disability is not an excuse; you can do anything you want to do.”
And that delights his mother.
“I never understood the cliché ‘my heart overflowed’ until I saw my son, the one who was teased relentlessly for something he had no control over, become a strong, independent man,” Julie said, her words aglow with understandable pride. “He created Chris-on-Call because he couldn’t get any other job due to others’ preconceived notions about someone with a reading problem. And maybe that’s the best that could have happened. He was pushed into starting something with the potential to be a national brand.”
Gary Robinson joined the Memphis chapter of SCORE in November 2017 after a 40-year career as a journalist. He spent 31 years at The Commercial Appeal, including six years as executive sports editor and eight years as digital managing editor. He now serves as vice chairman of the Memphis chapter.