How the Woman Behind Toronto’s Biggest Taxi Company Battles Uber: “It’s a Wake-Up Call”

In our 9–5 series, we profile women at the top of their game. This week, Beck Taxi’s operations manager Kristine Hubbard talks about what it’s really like to work for the family-run cab company, how Uber changed the industry and her most memorable day on the job

Ishani Nath

Name: Kristine Hubbard, Beck Taxi’s operations manager

Age: 40

Education: Bachelor of history from Western University

Length of time at Beck Taxi: 25 years

A woman with long reddish hair, wearing a black blazer and jeans standing in front of a Beck Taxi cab

(Courtesy of Kristine Hubbard)

If you were to explain your job to someone at a cocktail party, how would you say what an operations manager does?

There’s no job description. It’s whatever needs to get done. When people ask me what I do, I say I work at a taxi company. If people ask for the details, which doesn’t often happen, I say that I manage contracts, communications, dispatch software, our tech team and payroll, and I can do the banking—there’s a whole list. I can even answer calls for service from my office.

You mentioned that you try and work on dispatch—taking incoming requests for taxis—at least once a day. What is the most memorable call you’ve gotten? 

I didn’t necessarily take the call, but it was when there was a child missing in the city a couple years ago. I just panic when that happens. The police had tagged us in a tweet alerting us to the fact that a child had gone missing after a school trip, and he was lost in the downtown core. Right away, I ran into the dispatch office saying, “There’s a kid missing!” I started sitting down at every channel telling everyone to keep an eye out and giving the description of the kid, what he was wearing and where he was last seen. As we were calling, a dispatcher stood up and said, “A driver sees him. A driver has the kid.” I could cry right now thinking about it. It was amazing because I knew the driver who found the child; his name is Wondimu, and he’s one of the nicest guys. All I could think was, my god, if my child was lost, I would hope it was Wondimu who found him.

As the operations manager, what is your relationship with your drivers like Wondimu? 

Amazing—at least, I feel like it’s amazing. The reality is taxi drivers are our customers, we are a marketing service for people who have small businesses that happen to be taxis. I’ll be walking down Yonge Street while my daughter is at her soccer practice and see drivers that I know, and they often honk, wave and offer me a ride. Even if I take a taxi to go somewhere, the entire trip there is work, but it doesn’t feel like work, because while I’m gathering information, I’m asking them about their family and how many kids they have. The conversation always turns to that. We’re all just trying to do the best we can here, and I do thoroughly enjoy talking to drivers and hanging out and having these conversations.

You’ve also gotten behind the wheel as a taxi driver—what was that like?

For the Undercover Boss Canada episode we did, I drove a taxi for a segment and picked people up, and it was terrifying (that segment ultimately got cut). Toronto is a pretty fast-paced city, and you have to be able to do a lot of things at the same time. When you’re in a car, picking people up, and you’re downtown at night near the Eaton Centre, there are a million things going on around you. People crossing, traffic, cyclists, pedestrians, the customers in the back are talking to you, you’re turning on your meter and making sure you’re ready to start your trip. There’s also the responsibility; these strangers were trusting me to get them to wherever they’re going. It was overwhelming.

Beck Taxi is a family business your grandfather started in 1968. According to a Toronto Star profile, your mom was forced to work there. But at 15, you begged to join. What made you want to work there so badly?  

Even when I wasn’t working here, I had been coming here for years. My mum, Gail Beck-Souter, who now owns Beck Taxi, was working 18 hours a day sometimes, frankly it felt like she was there working all the time. I saw her working and she was just awesome. When you grow up around people in a work environment like this, they do kind of become your family—and you just want to be around people that you have good memories with and want to spend time with. It gets into your blood. Even now, I don’t like to stay away. Even when I went to Western [University], I had no classes on Friday afternoons so I would drive home and I would work on Friday night and Saturday during the day, go out in the evening and then back to school on Sundays.

Beck Taxi is a family business, but things haven’t always gone smoothly—and the Toronto Star detailed some of that drama. How do you manage mixing family with business?

The Toronto Star article, frankly, was actually kind of a relief because it put all of the history with my extended family all out there, and I didn’t have to worry about anyone finding out. People always have this idea that if you’re successful in business, then you’re successful in everything, and that we as a family have no problems because Beck Taxi is a big company. But the reality is that everyone’s got family drama to some degree—I do think we’re the winners in that category, though.

My immediate family is something different all together. My dad used to call family meetings with me, my brother and my mom and tell us, “OK, we’re all we’ve got.” I’m reminded of that conversation over and over when things feel like they’re falling apart. If we’re all we’ve got, it’s going to be a problem if we can’t work things out. We still struggle. We’ve gone to family counselling once, and we should probably do it again. You make decisions about what’s important, and I have made the very clear decision that my family, and of course now with my children and my husband, are the most important thing to me.

Now as an operations manager, what is a typical day like for you? 

I literally barely open my eyes before I’m checking my phone to see if there’s anything that’s happened overnight that is concerning. Obviously the worst message we can get is that a driver has been assaulted or there’s been an accident. Typically we don’t receive those messages, but it becomes routine to check. I then have to go about my personal routine of getting my kids ready for school or whatever they’re doing that day. If I don’t have anything urgent when I get into the office, I go into the dispatch for as long as they’ll let me. When I get back, I probably have messages from different drivers or it could be something like a customer invoice or monitoring where our tech team is on the Beck Taxi app and bugs that need to be fixed. I might go see my mum, what’s on her mind and how she’s doing. Overall, I try not to plan too much because stuff often comes in as the day goes on and we’re in the type of business where things just pop up.

Taxis operate 24/7 in theory, but what are your hours?

I’m really trying to be good about only working the workday, around 8:30 to 4:30/5 p.m. But of course, I’m on call all the time, answering phone calls or emails.

How has the rise of Uber changed things for Beck Taxi and your job?

I’m not sure that Uber was the biggest thing to affect our industry. It seems that way because it’s the first time the public or the media started to look at how our industry works, but we’ve had a lot of disruptive things happen. Technology has been happening all along. Beck Taxi had an app before Uber introduced their app in Toronto. What Uber did allow us to elevate was the level of customer service, people’s understanding of how important it is to engage with your customers and make sure your cars are clean and make sure that service was professional and courteous. That was difficult before because there was a sense like, “We don’t have to worry about that because what else are people going to do for rides?” It’s been a wake-up call for everybody.

The taxi industry is also fairly male-dominated, what’s your experience been?

I have to say, I haven’t noticed that it’s affected my ability to do my job at all—aside from when people do things like ask me to make photocopies in a meeting that I’m attending. My mum encountered stuff like that too. I think probably the biggest challenge I had was my age. People assume that I’ve been just been brought into the business and am just starting out. They think that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m just the boss’s daughter. That’s what’s motivated me to do every job and to work more than I have to because I don’t want to be just the boss’s daughter.

You mentioned you grew up watching your mom work at Beck Taxi, do you remember seeing her handle some similar challenges? 

One of the most memorable moments I have is when there was a problem with a taxi driver. I was at my mum’s office, prior to when I was actually working at Beck, and the driver refused to speak to her. He said he wanted to speak to her husband (who also worked there, but would not have handled this type situation). My mum lost it. When she took over Beck Taxi, she was explicitly told by other cab company owners that she wouldn’t succeed because she’s a woman and that she should sell. So when this taxi driver asked for her husband, she said, “You’re not going to speak to anyone. Take your taxi and go join another company. This isn’t going to work.” The driver’s wife later called my mum and gave a very elaborate apology. My mum said, “OK, you tell him that you are the only reason that he is going to keep working with us. That he should thank you for the rest of his time with us that he’s allowed to continue working.” The man/woman thing didn’t matter after I witnessed that moment—and that’s also why my mum is my hero.

What attributes would you say someone needs to succeed in an industry like this?

You have to be able to really listen before you speak. You need to be able to have “on-paper” conversations, meaning if you wouldn’t put it on paper, then don’t say it. When it comes to discussions, really understanding what you can control is important. For a few years, it was like there was a tornado going on around me—between Uber and City Hall and drivers coming in and crying because they felt like their business were going to be destroyed. It was probably the worst time in my life, I was working all the time and at City Hall until late many nights. The only reason I think I survived it was because I knew what I could control, had zero expectations and was sure that the right thing to do was to fight and that we were on the right side of it.

It sounds like your days can get quite long and stressful. How do you unwind at the end of the day? 

I walk in my door, my dog is there with his whole body wagging, not just his tail, and see my husband and kids. My whole family is my equalizer, I have no problem unwinding at home.

Related: 

What’s Really Involved in Becoming a Midwife (& How it Differs From a Doctor or a Doula)
Meet the Boss Babe Behind a New, All-Woman Taxi Service
Should You #DeleteUber? Here’s What You Need To Know

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