In 1987, it was a lot harder to get a cab in New Haven.
That summer, only 14 taxis served the state’s second-largest city. Crime was high and New Haven, once a bustling industrial center, was economically in shambles. Even so, Bill Scalzi, then a manager at Yellow Cab in Hartford, saw an opportunity. The son and grandson of taxi owners and a former driver himself, he saw a ready market.
He founded Metro Taxi on Sept. 1 of that year. Now, 267 cabs are licensed to operate in the Elm City, and more than half of them — 142 — belong to his company, the largest in the state. He smiles at the suggestion that he weaned New Haven on a staple of urban transportation and continues to grow his company, despite economic swings and oil price surges. He attributes much of his recent success to the same factor that helped him build his company in its infancy: He cares a lot about taxis.
“Every mass transit system will fail without taxis,” he said. “The more we embrace mass transit, the more we need taxis.”
While he acknowledges that New Haven’s renaissance during the late 1990s buoyed his own fortunes, Scalzi argues that taxis have played no small role in strengthening the city’s economy. The city was eager for his service, he said, and he expanded rapidly.
THE ALL-SEVENS GUY
Scalzi rises in the morning with the conviction that taxis are and will always be integral to urban economies.
Seventeen cab companies now operate taxis in New Haven, and they get most of their business from callers asking for a ride (only about a quarter of his drivers’ jobs are flag-downs and fares from the queues at the train station and airport). To beckon a car from Metro Taxi, a New Haven passenger dials 777-7777. From the very beginning, Scalzi said, the seven sevens were wildly successful.
“I meet people all over the state who have never taken a cab in their life and they know I’m the ‘all-sevens guy,’ ” he said.
Scalzi’s dominance of the market comes through in the phone book. Obvious copycats include Quick Taxi (777-7778), Horizon Cab Co. (777-5555) and New Haven Yellow Taxi (777-0007). (He got the idea for the seven sevens number from his old employer, Yellow Cab, a 90-vehicle operation and the second-largest cab operator in Connecticut.)
But even after adopting the memorable and highly successful number, Scalzi had a lot to learn about the trade he would later get to know intimately.
Over the course of his life, Scalzi, a tall, youthful 52 year-old, has done virtually all of the jobs that make a taxi company run — sweeping the floors, keeping the books, driving cabs and performing maintenance.
A career in cabs, after all, is part of his pedigree.
Scalzi’s grandfather started a cab company in nearby Meriden in 1918, which his father later took over and passed on to Scalzi’s brother. (Scalzi bought his brother out in 1999 and integrated the company into Metro Taxi). After graduating with a degree in computer engineering from the University of Hartford, he spent seven years driving for and managing the family business before heading back to Hartford for more professional experience at Yellow Cab, then the largest taxi operation in the state. He later became the biggest competitor of his starter job when he saw the chance to build a fleet from the ground up in New Haven.
Today, Scalzi spends much of his day in the corner office of Metro Taxi’s headquarters, a one-story complex on an out-of-the-way, leafy West Haven street.
Lining the walls and shelves of his office are a century’s worth of taxi relics, from old meters to small-scale models of cabs. His most prized antique is the meter that went on one of his grandfather’s first taxis in 1918. Roughly the size and sturdiness of a small safe, the meter, Scalzi explained, rested on the passenger side door of the cab.
Scalzi’s life, too, revolves around taxis. He helped found Connecticut’s Taxi Task Force, a group that advises the Connecticut Department of Transportation on taxi policy. He regularly attends taxi conventions around the country and counts owners of different taxi companies as friends.
He met his wife, Isabelle, through the taxi too; during his time at Yellow Cab, he made a sales call to the office where she worked. Over time, he converted her to appreciate the taxi, too. Now, she coordinates Metro Taxi’s recruiting and outreach.
INTO THE SPACE AGE
The day Scalzi opened up shop in 1987, he had 14 taxis on the streets. Within a week, he had 25.
“It was like opening up the floodgates,” he said.
Since then he has steadily built up what is now a 48-employee business. His fleet has grown over the years, aided by the expensive gadgets that adorn his cabs’ dashboards and make the driver’s seat look like a cockpit.
In the beginning, Scalzi’s dispatchers tracked his fleet on a large metal board with tape representing streets and magnets signaling the approximate location of each car.
In 1993, the company upgraded to its first computerized system. Five years later, as substantial Yale-led development began picking up steam in New Haven, the 74 cars in his fleet taxed his operation to the limit, so he bought a half-million dollar Digital Dispatch System. With satellites tracking his taxis and transmitting their locations directly to Metro Taxi’s dispatchers, Scalzi was able to put 35 more cars on the road by the year’s end.
Most of this moment-to-moment coordination takes place at Metro Taxi headquarters.
In one half of the room, a unit of four or five phone operators answer passengers’ calls and enter their locations into a computer system that beams them immediately to the entire fleet. Two dispatchers sit in a raised section in the corner of the room, staring at a cluster of large screens, parsing traffic patterns and keeping tabs on the fleet’s deployment.
Whenever Scalzi walks into the dispatch room, he glances at two screens that serve as barometers for the day’s operations. Video feeds above the heads of the dispatchers show critical traffic points on I-91 and I-95 and a flat-screen monitor above the phone operators displays the day’s call volume, the number of callers on each line and how long they’ve been waiting. Twenty-five seconds is a rush, and 40 seconds is average. Much over 40 is too long, Scalzi explained.
Since updating his dispatch system, Scalzi keeps up with the times by modernizing his marketing efforts, reducing costs and lessening his company’s impact on the environment. Sometimes, however, those interests conflict. Although he bought a hybrid car last year and said he would like to replace all of his cars with them, having a fleet of hybrids is not financially feasible, he said.
Over the course of the year, the typical Metro Taxi driver will travel 75,000 miles in his car. Scalzi replaces roughly a third of his fleet every year, usually with used police cruisers with 60 or 70 thousand miles on them. With so many miles to travel each year, he said, the cars that make up his fleet must be durable and cost-effective to maintain.
The batteries of hybrids cost about $7,000 and have to be replaced every 100,000 to 150,000 miles, which explains the indignation that led some New York City taxi owners to resist Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to require all cabs in that city to be hybrids by 2012 (a judge sided with the taxi owners in a ruling this fall).
“For fleets, hybrids aren’t the ultimate answer,” Scalzi said.
But there are other methods that both reduce costs and help the environment, he said.
For instance, he said, he burns used motor oil to heat the company’s offices in the winter. And the scale of the operation allows him to buy car parts for maintenance in bulk. His eyes are wide and his voice is excited as he describes these innovations; indeed, making improvements to his taxi company, even small ones, get him going. Perhaps because they also help the bottom line.
Although he would not disclose his annual revenue, back-of-the-envelope calculations show his company brings in well in excess of $5 million a year.
IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
Richard Miller is in the driver’s seat for 14 hours a day, six days a week, and some weeks puts in hours on Sundays — but his wages pale in comparison to Scalzi’s take-home.
Miller, who immigrated to Connecticut 17 years ago from Ghana, has driven for Metro Taxi for the last 14 years. He drives the company’s only hybrid, a 2008 Ford Escape that Scalzi bought to promote Metro Taxi’s greening efforts. Miller won the right to drive the car in a raffle during last year’s annual driver picnic.
Like all of Metro Taxi’s drivers, he is his own boss; he leases his car from Scalzi and uses the company’s dispatch system only at his own discretion. Although the work is manageable, he said, making enough to support himself, his wife and three children can be tough.
“You have to be on the road every day,” Miller said. “You see what you can make out of it.”
Miller leases his vehicle by the week, with payment due by the end of business each Friday. Since his car is more expensive to buy and maintain than the other cars in the fleet, his lease is $800 a week, $60 more than what other drivers pay for their Crown Victorias. But the savings on gas make up for the difference; on a busy day, he typically spends about $35 on gas, which he buys wholesale from Metro Taxi. When he drove a Crown Victoria, Miller said, that number was closer to $65.
A major challenge for Metro Taxi’s drivers is fluctuating gas prices, Scalzi said, something that does not escape his attention. His hands are tied fare-wise, since fares are set by the state. But he and other taxi company operators pushed the Connecticut Department of Transportation to come up with a scheme that increases the fuel surcharge based on gas prices, which peaked at a national average of $3.73 a gallon this summer.
Scalzi said he has also worked to reduce other costs for drivers by selling gas wholesale, eliminating fees for processing charges, covering all insurance and maintenance himself and reducing late fees for lease payments by pushing back the deadline.
Scalzi also works to keep the lease fee as low as possible; it’s gone up by only about $100 since he started business, he said. Unlike some other cab operators, the payment is due at the end of each week, not at the beginning, giving drivers a chance to earn before they have to pay. Only 10 percent of the drivers pay late fees, he said.
But even so, the lease system is difficult for the drivers, said Graham Hodges, a self-avowed devotee of the taxi. Hodges, a Colgate history professor who authored a 240-page book entitled “Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver,” put himself through college as a New York cab driver during the 1970s. In his experience, the lease system puts much of the risk of doing business on the drivers, he said.
“He has to make $740 before he makes a dime,” Hodges said of taxi drivers. “If he gets sick or has to take a vacation — it’s all on him.”
Hodges prefers a commission system, in which the driver makes a certain percentage of every dollar earned. That’s the pay scheme he worked under as a driver.
But Scalzi said he tries his hardest to be as generous as possible to his drivers. And the drivers are happy; 65 percent of all the drivers who have ever been with Metro Taxi since its founding are still driving one of Scalzi’s cabs.
Full-time drivers like these are in for a tough career, Hodges said.
“My experience is the job does grind you down,” Hodges said. “There are hardships in that job.” (Hodges would know. He was twice fired during his time as a driver, once for getting into an accident and once for refusing to work on Sundays.)
Despite the hardships, though, many drivers, like Samuel Senanu, are enthusiastic about their job. Senanu, who moved to the United States from Ghana seven years ago and this fall celebrated his second anniversary with Metro Taxi, drives a cab to support his wife and two children while he puts himself through Southern Connecticut State University.
Senanu said he was inspired by Scalzi’s words on his first day.
“The first time I met Bill, he told me, ‘I made a fortune driving a cab,’ ” Senanu said. “You can be very successful.”