Apr 01, 2016

Veteran taxi operator and driver Henk Blumink has received his fair share of impressive tips from passengers in almost 50 years in the industry.

So it may be surprising to hear the most rewarding tip he says he ever received was a mere five cents, in the early 1990s, from an elderly customer who had apparently not quite kept track of inflation.

“I picked this lady up at the shopping centre and drove her home,” says Henk, chuckling at the memory.

“She’d be well into her 90s. She said ‘could you carry these groceries inside for me?’ So I put them on the kitchen table.

“She’d already paid me the fare; when I put the groceries on the table she took five cents out of her purse and said ‘Here sonny, go and buy yourself a drink’. In her eyes, it was a great tip. 

The story, one of dozens Henk has collected, is a good illustration of the work ethic and sense of humour he has found invaluable in the course of a highly successful career. Respect for the customer, excellent communication skills and the ability to sense a person’s needs are essential traits for a good taxi driver, he says.

“You sometimes get passengers who don’t want to communicate, and you’ve got to respect that,” he says.

“You’ve got to be able to read a person; every person is different. Some people want to chat, some people don’t. You’ve got to judge them.”

If experience is anything to go by, Henk’s advice would be well worth listening to.

An owner of two Geelong Radio Cabs taxis, which he still drives a couple of days a week, Henk is also on the board of Geelong Taxi network, which runs 146 cars.

Henk was 15 when he arrived in Geelong from Holland in 1955 with his family. After completing an apprenticeship to become a fitter and turner, he worked during the day and studied industrial engineering at night, eventually working at the Alcoa Aluminium company. He started driving taxis in 1967 as a part-time job ‘on the side’, but his entrepreneurial streak soon shone through and he bought his own taxi licence in 1972.

“I wanted to start working for myself; I saw some opportunities there,” he said.

From then on, Henk was hooked, and apart from an eight-year stint in the retail industry when he owned his own food store and milk bar, taxis have been his lifeblood.

“I do love the industry,” Henk says.

“You’re a freelance sort of person. You go out in the morning and you never know where you’re going to end up or what the job is going to do.

“We do a lot of driving for the disabled and the elderly down here; we really are their only form of transport. It’s quite rewarding in that way.”

Henk has so many stories about his taxi adventures he says he could “write a book”. Like the time he pulled up at a rank on a Saturday night at two in the morning and “here’s this drunk hanging off the post”.

“He hops in the car and says ‘I want to go to Warrnambool’ [about 200km away]. So I say ‘show me the money’.

“He pulled a wad of $50 notes out of his sock big enough to choke a horse. I reckon he would have had about two or three thousand dollars in there.”

The passenger, offended at the question, then decided he didn’t want to take Henk’s cab after all and got back out. Henk did a quick trip around the small block and came back to the same rank.

“There he was, still hanging off the post,” Henk says.

“So he got back into the car; he didn’t recognise me – as I said he was a bit annebriated – and I said ‘where to?’ and he said ‘Warrnambool’.

“We got a few kilometres down the road and he tapped me on the shoulder and he said ‘you’re a bloody good bloke; I wouldn’t go with the other taxi driver because he wouldn’t trust me. But I’ll give you a $50 tip because you didn’t ask me to show you the money!’

While Henk has been collecting stories during his driving career, he’s also been a witness to huge changes in the industry. The biggest transformation, he says, has been “going from radio communication to where we are now”, and the advances in technology .

“The technology now is just so great,” he says.

“The security we’ve got now with the cameras is tremendous; that’s made a huge difference.”

But there are some things that will never change, according to Henk, and those are the qualities that make a good driver. 

“I always believed we are a customer service industry, providing a service to customers,” Henk says 

“Don’t knock back the short fare, because you don’t know where it’s going to finish up. You’re there to serve the customer.

“The way the industry is going in Victoria, it’s a ‘wait and see’ as far as licence holders go. I believe there is a future for the industry, but we’ve got to be customer oriented.

“Driver training is extremely important; customer relations is the key to where we’re going to go. If we can just focus on customer service, respectful drivers that know where they’re going, clean and up-to-date vehicles, we’ll survive.”

Henk is not planning on exiting the taxi game in the near future – in fact, his love for the industry has proved to be a family affair.

“My daughter drives for me a couple of days a week while I go and play golf, and the cars are on the road full-time. And I’ve got an 18-year-old grandson who’s starting to do the books for me. I’d like to keep the licences in the family.

“And I plan on staying.”