Gary Schumacher, owner of Taxi 9000, has been at the steering wheel of the taxi business in Bismarck since 1983. He acknowledges it may be time to switch lanes — but he will still be moving in the same direction.
"We may be a dying breed," he said. "I am still wrestling with that."
Now that Uber and Lyft have hit the pavement, the long-time business owner is watching a cataclysmic movement in how business is done.
"Smartphones have changed the taxi business," he said. "I haven't straightened out in my mind on how to move forward. We need to hybrid something."
Schumacher sees two groups of customers in need of transportation services — those with knowledge of apps and have access to smartphones and those who do not. He doesn't really want to leave anyone behind.
He also cringes at the thought of turning valued employees into contracted workers. Such a move would save him 15 percent of his expenses right there, he concedes. But there is a professionalism among those drivers that commands respect.
"Market conditions may force us to change our business model," he said. "But we still have a strong customer base, employee drivers who are background checked by the Bismarck Police Department."
He is beset by deep reflections as he turns 60 and watches his friends going south for their winters. Yet, he is still in Bismarck with his 50 employees — sometimes managing, sometimes dispatching, sometimes even driving — no matter how many degrees below zero the wind chills may be.
He calls many of his customers by name. Some are kids whose parents arrange for rides to school through his service. Some are disabled and may take extra time to transport.
"The great majority of our users are not credit card users and don't have the accessibility to that. They don't have smartphones," he said.
As Schumacher searches for his new business model, news media outlets across the nation have reported the demise of taxi companies — 2017 was not a good year for many, as Lyft and Uber have gained a foothold in markets large and small.
• Newton Yellow Cab, which had served Boston’s western suburbs since the 1960s, closed its doors in August 2017.
• The Yellow Cab Co. of Cleveland, after 90 years in business, also closed in 2017.
• Capital City Cab in Santa Fe, N.M., closed in 2017 after being the sole taxi service in that city for more than 30 years.
• The Yellow Taxi Checker Cab company in Saginaw, Mich., which began during the days of horse and buggies, closed its doors at the end of 2016 after more than 142 years in business.
Many of those business owners pointed to an inability to compete with largely unregulated challengers. In addition to providing benefits to company employees and maintaining liability insurance, pricing is another onus to taxi cab companies, which are required to set an unchanging fee to customers. However, Uber has instituted surge pricing, in which rates will change depending upon how many calls are coming in and how many drivers are on the streets.
That algorithm is a carefully guarded trade secret, as evidenced in a court decision in January 2018 in Florida that required the number of Uber pickups and fees paid to Broward County for airport access be made public. However, the method used by Uber to compute its services was proprietary information and not public.
"They are unstoppable," Schumacher said of Uber. "We cannot compete on that platform."