Mitzi Palmer 0000-00-00 00:00:00
By the mid 1800s, when trains were revolutionizing the way America traveled and did business, six miles of railroad around Memphis had been constructed, establishing the city as a prime transportation hub in the South while swelling the city’s population to more than 30,000 people. Recognizing this movement as a prime business opportunity, Memphis native Page Patterson began operating horse-drawn omnibuses in 1856 between the four local train stations, transporting passengers and their luggage to and from connecting trains. He fittingly named his company Patterson Transfer and Storage and, nearly 30 years later, was bought out by Memphian Robert Galloway, who merged his competing company with Patterson’s business — keeping intact the well-established Patterson name. Galloway’s business had started in the late 1800s, but by the early 1930s, he had bought a franchise system based on a special-purpose automobile built in 1921 by John Hertz — of today’s rental car acclaim — known as the taxicab. Hertz developed the first modern American taxicab operation in Chicago and branded his special auto fleet with a standardized color scheme declared by early marketing statistics to be the most recognizable: swamp holly orange. The Yellow Cab was off and clicking. In about 1935, Galloway turned the business operations over to his son, Robert Jr., who owned property in the 300 block of Jefferson, west of Lauderdale (now Danny Thomas) in Downtown Memphis, where the business operated. The company relocated its operations in 1967 to the current site on South Second. Years later, after the company absorbed Jolly Cab Company and was purchased by New York Stock Exchange–listed companies National Industries, then Fuqua Industries, William Hamilton Smythe III — already involved in operations management — bought Yellow Cab. The year was 1979 — one year before Memphis Carriage Tours began horse-drawn carriage operations Downtown. Today, the company is still owned and operated by Smythe, along with his son, William Hamilton “Ham” Smythe IV. But it’s far more than a single cab operation these days. Together, the father-son duo run Yellow Cab Company, Checker Cab Company, and Premier Transportation Services, a third division added to include car, bus, shuttle, and contract driver services. “In 1989, a number of smaller cab companies went out of business due to poor management,” says Ham IV, “so we started Checker Cab when the others folded.” In 2000, the firm decided to incorporate all the non-taxi functions it had been providing for decades, and Premier Transportation Services took to the streets. “Our company was the first transportation group in the Memphis area to implement a computerized dispatching system employing global positioning technology,” says Ham. “We installed them in each taxicab in 2001. A customer services representative takes the customer’s call, and then the system uses a small computer that automatically matches customers with an available cab in their area. It dramatically cuts down on manpower as well as response time. Some customers have even complained that we arrive too early!” What further separates Premier, Yellow, and Checker from many other transportation entities in the area is attention to driver qualification and training. “We spend a lot of time working with our drivers,” Ham says, of his approximately 160 chauffeurs and cab drivers, “and we’re very careful about who we put behind the wheel.” All drivers undergo background checks, motor vehicle checks, and medical exams, not only before they are qualified, but also each year they’re with the company. Plus, they must pass a defensive driving test every two years. Drivers for Yellow Cab and Checker Cab are independent contractors who work with the option of using their own vehicle or renting a taxicab on a 12- or 24-hour increment. Logging anywhere from 200 to 300 miles on an average day, the drivers have to be self-motivated individuals. “It’s a very independent way of making a living,” Ham says, “so it appeals to self-starters.” And the training pays off in a number of ways, but most visibly in 2008 with a coveted Driver of the Year award from the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association. Customers span the spectrum of jobs and destinations. “Our office is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” says Ham, “so we carry everyone from executives going to and from the airport to unemployed people. There are people going to the hospital and those delivering packages or just having a night on the town. So just about anybody is a potential customer.” That includes the rich and famous. Ham laughs as he recalls one night several years ago when Premier was hired to transport Willie Nelson from the Mid-South Coliseum to the airport. After the show and several encores later, Nelson ran out of the building and toward the waiting vehicle and driver. “Here’s this guy, all hot and sweaty, running toward the driver, in a cowboy hat, long hair, and pigtails, trying to get in the car. The driver, not a fan of country music, said, ‘Get back, you hobo! This is Mr. Nelson’s car!’” It was only after the Coliseum manager assured the driver that the man standing before Him was indeed Willie Nelson that the amused singer was allowed inside the car. The future of this Memphis-based company looks as bright as its swamp holly orange cabs. It recently added eight wheelchair-accessible taxicabs to the fleet, four of which accommodate two wheelchair passengers at a time. “We’re the first in the city to offer unscheduled wheelchairaccessible transportation at taxicab prices — which are set by the city,” says Ham. “We’ve always carried wheelchair-using passengers, but these minivans have been converted for rear-loading wheelchair use.” The Premier team is also working on a phone application that allows customers to text in and pay for their orders. “Say you’re in a loud bar or a business meeting and don’t want to disrupt anyone,” Ham explains. “You can text in your order, and because it’s GPS-enabled, we know where to go to pick you up.” Long supporters of local nonprofits that include the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis, Memphis Youth Leadership Foundation, New Ballet Ensemble, and area schools, Premier encourages Downtown development in a variety of ways. “We know that a thriving downtown is essential to our business,” acknowledges Ham. “For most cities — Memphis included — the cab business makes sense as a means for getting around town where you have a thriving, urban, dynamic setting.” Premier Transportation Services Inc., 581 S. Second, 577-7700, cabs: 577-7777, premierofmemphis.com.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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