As art director for several major magazines, Roula Angel enjoyed a privileged place among Sydney’s social set – so her career switch, into the blokey, rough and ready taxi industry, was destined to shock.
Across the nation, the industry is in turmoil, with disruptive technologies making an aggressive entry into the point to point transport sector, led by global ‘ride sharing’ giant, Uber.
So far the smartphone app-based enterprise has been given the green light in NSW, WA and the ACT, with Tasmania likely to be next to regulate it. But everywhere else in Australia, ‘ride sharing’ remains outlawed.
Even before the Uber shake-up, a mountain of issues was preventing a prosperous outlook for various taxi enterprises across the nation.
In every state, there’s a suffocating regulatory regime, often to the advantage of vested interests of one industry stakeholder at the expense of another.
Throw into NSW’s tangle of red tape and testosterone a determined, capable and passionate Greek Australian woman and things start to get interesting.
“When I tell people what I do, they usually laugh or assume I’m making things up,” Roula says.
“It doesn’t really bother me, it’s to be expected I guess. There will always be an underlying sexism in Australian society and we’re a long way off from true equality.”
Her gutsy determination and active role in the NSW taxi industry has certainly not gone unnoticed.
“Roula is a very active member of the taxi industry in a highly competitive environment and is an example of a businesswoman working hard to achieve success,” NSW Taxi Council CEO Roy Wakelin-King told Neos Kosmos.
“It’s a challenging time for taxi owners and operators around Australia, but that only reinforces the importance of strong business practices and innovating within the law to ensure the ongoing viability of taxi services.”
He said the council was “proud to have Roula as a member and recognises her ongoing contributions to our industry”.
But the transition into the cut-throat, high-pressure world of taxi fleet management, with its exhaustingly long days, round-the-clock weekends and on-call existence, came in tragic circumstances.
Roula’s family was left devastated when her father Angelo died after a stroke in late 2014, leaving her and sister Theony to take over the family business, a fleet of taxis and commercial and residential property investments.
She said her father, in his peculiar way – which often involved “tough love” – had already prepared her for the switch from a high-flying career in visual communications with packed social schedules, to the rough and tumble taxi industry, where aesthetics didn’t matter but being a woman did.
“I’ll never forget the day he called me, while I was still working in magazines,” Roula explains. “He said to me: ‘I’m leaving for Greece for three months tomorrow. Come and take over. You can either sink or swim – it’s up to you.’
“That’s the way my father was – nothing ever came to him without hard work, sweat and determination – and he thought that was the best way to also prepare me and my sister for the real world.”
Roula took the challenge with both hands – she swam.
And while she admits that it seemed a ‘mission impossible’ at the time, she was resourceful and called other taxi operators close to her father, asked them as many questions as they could handle and eventually, put her stamp on the family business.
Despite often exhausting days, Roula keeps a packed schedule with her other passions, which often revolve around her pride in her Greek culture. “It’s an ideal form of escapism for me. It keeps things in balance and also keeps me sane by allowing me to do something I really enjoy,” she explains.
The former drama student is host of the ‘Glitz and Goss’ segment on Meraki TV and was also a host on now-defunct Optus subscription channel GA-TV and, as one of the hosts of Karamela Radio in Sydney, interviewed countless Greek artists and celebrities.
Roula, who has risen to the challenge of running the family-owned fleet of more than a dozen taxis, believes the industry has been through its worst and is cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead.
“It’s not hard to work out I’m no fan of Uber, which shouldn’t be getting a free kick in point to point transport at the expense of taxi operators who are lumbered with considerable up-front and ongoing compliance costs,” she says.
“But there’s a saying: ‘From adversity comes opportunity.’
“The war with Uber has delivered a golden opportunity that otherwise probably would never have come – getting the NSW government to review and undo its ridiculous regulatory regime, one we have to put up with each and every day.”
The standout issue with legalisation of Uber with minimal regulatory impediments is that it is being carried out by the same governments who happily once accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for a licence from operators.
Those operators have largely suffered in silence, hamstrung by ongoing regulatory changes that have reduced flexibility in the way they can commercially operate their taxi licence asset and have added significant costs.
“If I’m going to be honest about it, I’d have to say the taxi industry seems to be built on rorts and self-interest,” Roula says.
“The government has been part of the problem, imposing all sorts of regulatory restrictions to make life harder for taxi operators, then issuing its own, government-owned taxi licences to compete with us and further squeeze us.”
Roula says there’s a very good reason why the public often perceives taxi drivers to be reckless on the road.
“It’s because they’re not held accountable. My third party property insurance (green slip) recently went up $1,000 to around $8,000 per taxi and there’s a $1,000 excess in the event of an accident.
“But under NSW law, if one of my taxis is in an accident, I’m unable to claim the excess from the driver.
“Meanwhile, that vehicle is out of action while it gets repaired and the driver can then go and drive for another operator with impunity. Where’s the fairness in that?”
A spokesman for the NSW Taxi Council said in relation to operators recovering excess costs from drivers, “the current laws are being reviewed”.
Roula said another archaic rule was mandatory affiliation with a taxi network, including monthly fees for radio access, decreasingly relevant in an environment of technological innovation.
“The network and government would occasionally cook up hare-brained ideas around how to extract more revenue from taxi operators, including compulsory application of stickers in the taxi which were marked up considerably and carried the network’s branding,” she says.
Several years ago, the introduction of mandatory ‘braille’ notices in taxis, in the form of raised lettering was exposed through the major media outlets.
The taxi networks in NSW had to install security cameras, point of sale terminals and radios and meter, from which they generate revenue from every transaction.
Another thought bubble was the introduction of security screens which had to be installed and later uninstalled at the expense of taxi operators.
“The non-mandatory affiliation with taxi networks is currently proposed as part of the NSW reforms,” the NSW Taxi Council.
“Networks are also under significant pressure due to the reforms and face viability challenges of their own.”
Roula also cited technological innovation as an area in which the industry had been lagging behind its competition.
The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) held up the introduction of a new universal taxi booking app, ‘ihail’, amazingly – given the illegalities involving Uber-X drivers – citing concerns over its unfair competitive advantage and lack of competition in its payment processing functions.