‘You won’t write this story’

Me­tered taxi com­pany’s al­legedly head­ing for scrapheap

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - 20

WITH THE SOC­CER WORLD CUP around the cor­ner, one of South Africa’s dom­i­nant me­tered taxi or­gan­i­sa­tions is on the verge of be­ing liq­ui­dated. Fin­week un­der­stands that Safe Cab has had fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties since at least the sec­ond half of 2008, threat­en­ing about 300 jobs. Ac­cord­ing to our sources at McCarthy Fleet Ser­vices, Safe Cab has failed to ser­vice its debt for the past six months and part of Safe Cab’s fleet of around 300 taxis is on the verge of be­ing re­pos­sessed.

Dif­fer­ent sources who worked for the com­pany un­til the last week of Jan­uary have told Fin­week that around 80 for­mer Safe Cab owner-driv­ers were laid off in the same week as its man­age­ment sim­ply de­manded their ve­hi­cles.

“Without any no­tice what­so­ever we were or­dered to hand over our keys on Mon­day, 26 Jan­uary,” says one driver. He says al­though the driv­ers paid their daily R500 lease fees (up from R400 in De­cem­ber 2008) to man­age­ment, the re­main­ing fleet was to be taken off the road dur­ing the same week and the ve­hi­cles were be­ing re­pos­sessed by the com­pany Safe Cab had bought them from.

Our source at McCarthy Fleet Ser­vices says Safe Cab’s fleet of around 200 Nis­san Liv­inas and Ti­idas was pro­cured from the Wood­mead McCarthy Nis­san branch and that fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment at Safe Cab was to blame for the com­pany’s prob­lems. “They haven’t paid their debt for six months now,” says the source. “We haven’t re­pos­sessed the ve­hi­cles yet but I think that’s where it is go­ing.”

Safe Cab MD Ri­aan Timm con­firmed by phone that the com­pany had in­deed “got­ten rid of some driv­ers for bad per­for­mance and theft”. He says those were driv­ers who mis­used their ve­hi­cles and weren’t bring­ing in any money be­cause they al­leged there was no busi­ness. “Thank God we’ve got a satel­lite tracking sys­tem that tells us how many trips and how many kilo­me­tres they did,” says Timm.

He says 90 peo­ple were “got­ten rid of ”. “It’s not true the com­pany is be­ing liq­ui­dated and all our ve­hi­cles are on full main­te­nance lease.” He says the com­pany sim­ply took the ve­hi­cles from the driv­ers.

Asked if the driv­ers were re­placed, Timm in­sists his com­pany leases new ve­hi­cles to owner-driv­ers and there­fore wouldn’t lease out old cars. “Peo­ple pay off the ve­hi­cles from us,” is all Timm would say.

He also de­nied both the liq­ui­da­tion claims and al­le­ga­tions the com­pany had any fi­nan­cial prob­lems and told Fin­week the com­pany bought a new fleet of 1 400 ve­hi­cles in the third week of Jan­uary “with R175m fi­nance from the In­dus­trial De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (IDC)”.

Al­though it con­firmed that Safe Cab has been granted a fund­ing fa­cil­ity, the IDC de­nies it has re­ceived any of the money. “They’re yet to ac­cess it pend­ing fi­nal­i­sa­tion of cer­tain pro­cesses,” is all Ku­gan Thaver, head of IDC Trans­porta­tion, would say.

Asked about the 100 ve­hi­cles al­legedly re­pos­sessed by McCarthy Fleet Ser­vices, Timm says the com­pany ter­mi­nated the agree­ment “by mu­tual con­sent” and Safe Cab re­turned the ve­hi­cles, as it has had prob­lems with McCarthy.

Says Timm: “They sold us ve­hi­cles that were im­pos­si­ble. It’s not cor­rect to say we’re in fi­nan­cial trou­ble.” Asked why the com­pany had agreed to buy the “im­pos­si­ble mod­els”, Timm said McCarthy changed the orig­i­nal ve­hi­cles “for some rea­son” and Safe Cab later dis­cov­ered they couldn’t be used. He says those “prob­lems” were the rea­son Safe Cab hasn’t been ser­vic­ing its debt to McCarthy for six months.

When asked for more de­tails, Timm in­vited Fin­week to come to the com­pany’s offices so he can dis­cuss the whole is­sue be­cause “we have noth­ing to hide”.

An­other for­mer Safe Cab driver says he quit on 22 Jan­uary – the same day Timm claims to have re­ceived the “new fleet” – be­cause it was hard to make the daily R500 re­quired. “You get beaten up by the boss if you don’t have the money. The prob­lem is he has bounc­ers. He moers peo­ple,” says the source, adding: “You pay for your own petrol, cell­phone bill and still have to feed your fam­ily.”

When Fin­week ar­rived at the Sand­ton Drive ad­dress for a meet­ing with Timm, he was busy in a meet­ing with two peo­ple, while four other suited gen­tle­men were wait­ing out­side. Let­ters ad­dressed to driv­ers hang­ing on the walls paint a pic­ture of a com­pany in ur­gent need of some cash liq­uid­ity.

“Please note that as from… De­cem­ber you have to cash up daily, not on the sec­ond day or a week later,” reads one (dated 9 De­cem­ber) and signed “The Pres­i­dent”. An­other one (dated 5 Jan­uary 2009) reads: “Please note that as from 9 Jan­uary the daily cash-up goes up to R500.” Driv­ers are again cau­tioned to cash-up daily. The au­thor is “The Pres­i­dent, Ri­aan Timm”.

Timm an­nounced my turn to join him in the board­room, “Where is this Nkosi­nathi (sic) who talks too much?” He again de­nied the liq­ui­da­tion ru­mours and lec­tured me – in an in­creas­ingly less than friendly tone – on the process of get­ting a

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com­pany into liq­ui­da­tion, of which he says none has hap­pened to his com­pany.

He said Safe Cab (of which he’s the sole di­rec­tor) was “backed by an­other com­pany with a lot more money than Safe Cab could ever dream of ”. He says it was “a rep­utable” com­pany about which he would dis­close noth­ing.

Sud­denly he reached for the door and peeped in the di­rec­tion of the re­cep­tion be­fore re­turn­ing. The dark, tall fat man who’d been milling around re­cep­tion walked in and shut the door be­hind him. He leaned against the door, block- ing ei­ther en­try or exit.

Mean­while, Timm was right in front of me, his right hand fist half-clenched and his fore­head al­most touch­ing my blunt nose. “Who’s your source? Who’s your f…ing source?” he de­manded. His Black­Berry rang for the third time in less than five min­utes. “Why must I deny the liq­ui­da­tion ru­mours? There’s no liq­ui­da­tion. Why must I deny it?” he barked into the phone.

To the re­lief of your diminu­tive re­porter Timm cooled down and point­edly asked: “Have I threat­ened you? Did I hurt you? Am I armed?”

An­other phone call came in. “Where the hell did he dis­ap­pear to? How can he just dis­ap­pear and never be heard of ?”

Timm was talk­ing into the phone and lifted his head and looked me straight in the eye, while still talk­ing. “Peo­ple do dis­ap­pear without a trace and never be seen again.” At that stage Jack­son, the bouncer, was or­dered to leave.

“You’re not go­ing to write the story,” Timm told me. “No­body has ever writ­ten about my com­pany. You’re not go­ing to write about it.”

Then he sat down and started talk­ing about the com­pany again, spell­ing out what a won­der­ful empowerment op­por­tu­nity it is. “Every­one is at the same level of empowerment and the Gov­ern­ment can never do that. It’s gen­uine empowerment and each of my driv­ers earns about R30 000/ month…”

Timm’s phone rang again and I made a quick dash for free­dom.

sikonathim@fin­week.co.za

IDC de­nies fund­ing claim. Safe Cab

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