They say optimism is both healthy and contagious; if this is true, Chris Sikavitsas is a good person to be around.
As co-owner of Taxi Staffing Service, a fleet company that has been in operation since 1969, Chris knows too well the effects the swift and sweeping changes of recent times have had on the state’s taxi industry.
However, he remains supremely optimistic about the future, predicting that not only will taxis survive, but the industry will reinvent itself and positively thrive.
“The waters have been muddied up in the last several years, but I believe [the taxi industry] will find its feet and it will thrive in the future, once it is deregulated and the costs of regulation are reduced,” Chris says.
“I believe it will find its niche market and will compete very well against the likes of any other new entrants into the transport scene. It will find its place.”
Chris is well placed to make such a call – the Sikavitsas family may be relative newcomers to the taxi business, having bought Taxi Staffing Service in 2010, but they are transport veterans of more than 50 years. Chris and his brother Jim Sikavitsas are co-owners of Tullamarine Bus Lines, the company started by their late father Nick Sikavitsas back in 1964. Nick came to Melbourne from Greece in 1956 and had a variety of jobs before becoming a bus driver, Chris says.
“From bus driving he went to owning several bus routes, becoming a bus proprietor and it went on from there.”
Chris explains the family was looking to expand its operations in the bus industry in Melbourne in the early 2000s and found there were very few opportunities.
“So, we were looking for other opportunities in transport and an opportunity came up where this taxi business was for sale.”
Identifying a number of similarities between the two industries, the Sikavitsases decided to diversify their transport interests.
“We felt we had the skill set, understanding and experience to not only take ownership, but to successfully operate the business and navigate it through its challenges,” Chris says.
“It was about providing services and we felt we had done so in buses; we thought we had the right approach and we could take that same approach over to the taxis.”
They did just that, taking over Taxi Staffing Service in 2010. There have been no shortage of challenges in that time, with the advent of ride-sharing providing heavy competition for the driver pool.
“We started off with 121 cars in the fleet and we grew it to 135; now it’s at a steady 45,” Chris says. “It’s a significant difference. The biggest downsizing happened in the last two years and what drove that change was really the lack of drivers available to the industry.”
Chris says although the business has sustained losses, it has been – and still is – a matter of playing the waiting game while trying to minimise costs.
“We’ve been biding our time and waiting to see where the goal posts were going to be so we could then aim and regroup and restructure,” he says.
“Because our income is sort of out of our hands, we look at costs. So, we try to adjust the fleet size to match driver availability, reduce overheads where possible and try to get better value for money for products.”
A significant reduction in overheads was behind the business moving from Richmond to Airport West, where the company’s existing bus services operates. One thing that will never be compromised, Chris says, is the quality of the service his business provides.
“You can never achieve perfect quality but you should always aim to do so,” he says.
“Identify who you are and work with it.”
Providing a top quality service is what helps differentiate Taxi Staffing Service from other fleet operators. Chris believes that service includes providing quality vehicles and treating drivers with dignity and respect.
As for what constitutes a great driver, Chris says it all comes down to attitude.
“You’ll find that if a driver has a good attitude and an attitude where they truly want to provide a good service, that’s ultimately the foundation of a great driver,” he says.
“The rest comes with experience – they need to be part psychologist, part diplomat, also sometimes like an almanac or tourist guide – that comes a lot easier when the attitude is right and they truly want to provide a great service to anyone that hops into their cab.”
Chris uses the analogy of the restaurant industry to illustrate his thoughts about the future of point-to-point transport.
“You’ve got fast food, casual dining and fine dining co-existing; they concentrate on their market. Once you identify your market, you can deliver quality and consistency.
“What I see happening is a co-existence of all these professional point to point transport companies, such as taxis, hire car and ride-share services.
“You have to be positive. I prefer to drive that optimism in every corner of my business because it actually flows from us to our staff, to our drivers and ultimately, to the customer.
“It can be tiring, but it’s very rewarding when you pull it off. I love the interaction with the staff, with the drivers, and knowing my involvement is one small but key aspect of providing a safe, quality taxi service that is part of the overall transport needs of Melburnians.
“I love it and I wouldn’t change it.”