A Drive Through Toronto

“[I] begged my mother to let me work when I was 16. She never had to tell me how important it was to treat people with respect and courtesy. I watched it every day of my life.” —Kristine Hubbard, Operations Manager

Despite increased regulation, Toronto’s Beck Taxi continues its trend as the city’s favourite taxicab company

Gail Beck-Souter’s life, it seems, has been a series of exceptions to the rules. She is a successful woman in an industry dominated by men, a committed capitalist in a city bent on bureaucratizing its taxicab industry, and a firm and consistent manager in a business full of independent spirits. “When I took over Beck Taxi after my father’s death, in 1985, the other brokerage owners circled like vultures,” Gail says. “My own uncle said he would have to leave because he didn’t want to be part of a ‘sinking ship.’”

She laughs heartily at the memory, saying, “It was the best thing that ever happened, because it made me resolve to succeed in spite of them—and we have.”

Now Toronto’s largest brokerage with 1,600 cars and 3,000 drivers, Beck Taxi remains a family business. Gail is the general manager; her husband, Don Souter, is manager; her son, Michael Souter, is supervisor and head of IT; her nephew, Jeff Tuchow, is dispatcher; her sister, Laura Tracey-Hart, runs accounts receivable; and her daughter, Kristine Hubbard, is operations manager.

Gail Beck-Souter, general manager, took over Beck Taxi from her father in 1985

Beck Taxi began in 1967 with Jim Beck. With a small fleet of cabs at his disposal, he decided he could improve the industry. “My father had a vision of a better service,” Gail says. “He aimed to have a car at the door within five minutes of every call.” Gail went to work answering the phones the day Beck Taxi opened.

Technology has progressed significantly since then, and Beck Taxi has kept itself advanced. Wireless terminals in the cabs, computerized charge accounts, and e-mail billing services are just some of the changes the company has made. In some areas, however, Beck Taxi maintains traditional services: every caller speaks to a live call taker, and cabs are still dispatched by a human dispatcher, not an automated dispatch.

The dispatchers, numbering around a dozen, take orders from 35 call takers. In 2010, the company fielded six million calls. Furthermore, the staff enjoys an on-site gym, exceptional training and recognition programs, and a positive, team-oriented atmosphere. Such a climate makes for an attractive professional environment.

As operations manager of the growing firm, Kristine has taken her place within the well-oiled machine. “[I] begged my mother to let me work when I was 16,” Kristine says. “She never had to tell me how important it was to treat people with respect and courtesy. I watched it every day of my life.”

Unfortunately, not all aspects of the business run smoothly. The City of Toronto regulates the industry, and Gail speaks for the industry when she fumes in exasperation: “We are not regulated. We are overregulated.”

In 1998, Toronto devised a two-tiered system of licensing, flooding the market with 1,403 extra cabs. “We had drivers who had waited for a plate for 20 years, who then received a permit they cannot sell or lease,” Gail says. “If the driver gets sick, the car sits, earning nothing. No one else can drive the car. It has been a nightmare.”

“Now, councillors are tossing around ideas like, ‘Let’s have a standard cab that everyone must drive,’ or, ‘Let’s paint all cabs the same colour,’” Kristine adds. “Our colours are our company. It’s like telling Coke, ‘Now you have to market yourself without your brand identifiers.’”

Gail remembers better days, when she sat on Toronto’s now-defunct Taxi Advisory Committee to help improve standards for both riders and drivers. “For the past decade, it seemed Toronto wanted to decimate the industry,” she says. “No one is served when drivers can’t make a living … Driving a cab is that driver’s business. Why are city-hall politicians allowed to throw around ludicrous suggestions like, ‘Let’s paint all the cabs in the city pink for the Pride Parade?’ It’s like they live in fantasyland.”

Now, with a new, business-oriented mayor and council, Toronto is undertaking a review of the cab-industry structure. Gail and Kristine are optimistic that common sense will prevail, and that the City and the cab industry will once again work as partners.

“The politicians say they support riders, not drivers,” Gail says. “Well, six million riders called us last year. No one is more interested in serving them than us.”