Two years ago, Pascal Bright was driving a cab, thinking he would find a job in computer network engineering. Today, he is an owner of the fast-growing Columbia Flyer taxi service that has made its mark as the second-largest cab company in the county.
In a little more than a year, the company has nearly doubled in size, and is becoming known among area hotel managers. The company has begun an aggressive advertising campaign that includes posting fliers in apartment complexes, homes and businesses; and distributing coupons that give riders monthlong discounts on service.
But more important to Bright and the nine other founders, the company is bringing competition to an area that has seen little. Columbia Cab has for years dominated the local market with 70 cars, only once facing competition with the four-car Mini Star. That company is now down to one car, according to county records.
"There were no other companies and people couldn't find satisfaction," Bright said. "Some of us realized we could give the county better. We had ideas about cabbing. We knew what the community [needed] to be satisfied with transportation services."
According to the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association in Kensington, there are approximately 6,700 cab companies in the country, with between 170,000 and 180,000 cabs on American roads and about 250,000 drivers.
Although most cab companies own their own vehicles, several - like the county's companies - exist as a collection of owner-operators who pay a cab company to send them to jobs and use their name and color scheme. With so many of the cab companies' business operations being the same, and fares that are controlled by the county government, it is tough for one company to distinguish itself, said Harold E. Morgan, director of education for TLPA, but it can be done.
"[If] you can't compete on fares, you compete on service and maybe providing better equipment," Morgan said. "They should try and provide better service, have cleaner cabs, have the drivers look neat and clean, have the air conditioning and heat working - try to out-service the other company."
That's exactly what the owners of Columbia Flyer are trying to do. The company got its start last year when 10 Columbia Cab drivers split from that company, dissatisfied with management practices there and inflexible rules that forced drivers to pay a fee even when business was slow and the company had few calls on which to send them.
Most of the drivers who left the company were immigrants from Ghana, who took the jobs because of the flexibility it provided them to further their studies, but they could not afford to pay fees when there was no work.
Getting started was slow going. The partners spent thousands of dollars on dispatch equipment and their office in Ellicott City, and they had to establish themselves in an area where virtually no other cab company had operated.
But in the early stages, the men were determined to bring new dimensions to their taxi company, in their marketing efforts and their service.
Not only do they offer coupons to riders, they provide training for drivers on customer service and manners, safe driving, keeping their cars clean and map reading.
Reminders of their emphasis on customer service are apparent in the office. On brightly colored paper behind the dispatch desk, a note reminds the dispatcher not to yell into the dispatch microphone when a customer is on the phone, to use "please" and "thank you" and to answer the phone pleasantly with "How may I help you?"
Bright said drivers occasionally will provide a free ride to a regular customer who is low on cash.
"In this business, you really have to reach out to people," Bright said. "We are there for the customers, no matter what."
Columbia Flyer drivers pay the company's service fee only when they work - a practice that may cause scheduling trouble down the road, Morgan said - but as long as the company is growing, and wooing other drivers from local companies, it is the competition who may have to do the adjusting.
"Sooner or later if the older company wants the same business, they'll have to take a look at their practices to say, what do we need to do different to beat this upstart because we're losing drivers," he said.