Local cabbie has driving ambition

Taxi company owner relies on work, faith

June 11, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In the world of Howard County taxicab businesses, Richard Atta-Pokuis the uncola.

With 60 to 70 white Columbia Cabs cruising the county's roads every day, the four dark-blue cabs of Atta-Poku's Mini-Star Cab company are a distinct minority -- but he hopes to change that.

Howard County may be seen as a land of economic plenty, but starting a new business, especially in competition with a much larger, established company like Columbia Cab, is tough. To succeed, a new operator has to be inventive, resourceful and willing to make personal sacrifices.

PrestonA. PairoJr., a veteran county lawyer who has come to know Atta-Poku, said that's exactly what the native of Ghana is doing.

"I don't know when he sleeps. I can't say enough nice things about him," Pairo said.

"This is the old American attitude about building a business," Pairo said. "If you gethim to do something, it's done -- you can take it to the bank."

Now, with a strong economy and a proposed increase in taxi fees before the County Council, Atta-Poku, 47, hopes that his years of building a customer base will finally pay off. He said he hopes to add two more cars by year's end, in addition to the fledgling sedan -- one Lincoln -- and courier services he offers.

Atta-Poku owns three of the cabs, and a friend, EmmanuelIzuchukwu, 51, of Nigeria, owns and operates the fourth car.

"Everything here, I did for myself," Atta-Poku said.

His office reflects that, from the chest-high mechanic's tool set to the haphazard collection of computers, office furniture, video equipment, toy trucks, photos and mementos of his native Ghana.

His office is obscure, nearly hidden in the side of an old building at St. John's Lane and Frederick Road in Ellicott City. Several rolls of flypaper hang from the ceiling in the back office.

For the first two years, he was a one-man band, he said, getting up in the middle of the night to pick up a fare, mastering brake repairs from manuals and learning business computer skills.

When he had only one car, he couldn't afford the money for routine repairs or the time to take it out of service.

"I had no idea about mechanics. I bought books, changed brakes, oil, everything. When you are in my situation, you will do it," he said.

Still, things were tight for a long while. The pressure destroyed a romantic relationship along the way.

In the beginning, he carried a cell phone and printed handbills, walking through neighborhoods and handing them out. Later, he placed a large ad in the local telephone book, which helped, he said.

"I had no idea that this thing would survive," Atta-Poku said.

The company's name reflects his faith as a born-again Christian, he said. It represents the little star of Bethlehem and his belief that he can beat the odds and prosper.

Others have tried and have failed to prosper.

MehdiMahmoudi, 48, who runs a one-man, one-cab operation called A-Plus Action Taxi Service, said he's likely to leave the business soon and return to school to study computers.

After three years, Mahmoudi said, "There's not enough business anymore."

Columbia Cab isn't worried about competition, said Frank Auwah, chief operating officer of the Jessup-based company.

"We really haven't given it a thought in that sense," Auwah said, referring to his company's efforts over the last year to win the first fare increases since 1991.

The bill proposed by County Executive James N. Robey calls for slightly higher taxi rates and surcharges for things like riding after 9 p.m., crossing the county line, paying with a credit card or carrying more than six grocery bags. If it passes and attracts more competition, Auwah said, "the people of the county would benefit. We look at the bigger picture."

That describes Atta-Poku's attitude as well.

He came to the United States in 1992, he said, but almost returned to Ghana shortly thereafter, when he was nearly killed in New York during a drive-by shooting.

"I was going to go back home," he said, but a friend persuaded him to at least see Washington, D.C., before leaving.

He passed through Howard County on the way and later decided to stay in this area and return to school.

To support himself, yet keep a flexible schedule, he began driving for Columbia Cab.

After a year of working for someone else, Atta-Poku became dissatisfied and he went to see how hard it would be to get a county license and operate independently. It turned out to be easier than he thought.

Despite leaving the larger company, his relations with Columbia drivers are good, he said, and he often passes calls he can't handle to friends who drive for the larger company.

Atta-Poku sometimes does favors for customers -- like picking up groceries for an elderly person, or retrieving someone's children in an emergency -- without charging. He knows that when they need a ride and they do have the money, they will call Mini-Star.

"At the moment we are very much secure," he said, partly because of those efforts to build business through personal relationships.

"I hope it's going to pay off."

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