Liberian native Charles Weanquoi believes in friendly smiles, a sharp-looking suit and opening the door of his white Ford Tempo for his customers.
"Service counts," said Weanquoi, one of Rock Hill's newest cab owners.
Weanquoi, who moved to the United States in 1979, joins two other major cab companies who all are saying customer service will keep them alive in Rock Hill's suddenly competitive taxicab industry. This month, Weanquoi's Nimba Cab Service has joined newcomer Carolina's Cab and stalwart Veterans Cab in what is locally becoming a fierce business.
The cab wars have begun.
"It was my anticipation that Rock Hill was a growing community, and I felt I could come here, start something small and grow with it," said Weanquoi, who also operates a cab service in Cornelius, N.C., and formerly owned a clothing store in Charlotte. "It was shocking to me to find so much competition."
'A classy cab'
Pete Ferrigan, co-owner of Carolina's Cab, isn't afraid of doing battle. The self-described entrepreneur with deep pockets opened his taxi service last week, storming Cherry Road with 22 Dodge Caravan minivans, a full staff and a big advertising budget.
"We don't do anything small. We don't care who else is out there," Ferrigan quipped. "This area needs a classy cab company."
Ferrigan, with a varied background in sales, manufacturing and real estate, and company president Tanya Dunphy said they decided to launch Carolina's Cab after a disappointing taxi ride from Charlotte/Douglas International Airport to Fort Mill that overcharged and was less than sanitary. Ferrigan said the greater Rock Hill area, including York, Fort Mill, Tega Cay and Lake Wylie, needs more options for cab service, and pledged his business will make quality a priority.
"This is a cab company that is run like a limousine service," said Frank Ferraro, co-owner and operations director.
Ferraro said Carolina's Cab vehicles are equipped with GPS devices to ensure drivers take the shortest routes, and all vans are cleaned on a daily basis. He said mileage rates are the same in all areas and cheaper flat-rates are offered for airport and uptown destinations in Charlotte. Cabs will soon be equipped with wireless credit card machines, he said, and all drivers are required to dress professionally and pass extensive background checks.
'We're still here'
Darryl Whisonant, the longtime owner of Veterans Cab, in business for 60 years in Rock Hill, has often been the only game in town. But he said he's not worried about the newest competitors. His father and seven business partners founded the company after returning from World War II. Along the way, Veterans Cab has survived gas shortages, price hikes, disputes with city leaders, crime and plenty of Johnny-come-latelys, he said.
"It's happened before. They come, and they go," Whisonant said about competition. "But we're still here."
Last year, Whisonant and his cabbies successfully lobbied the City Council to raise the city-regulated cab fares to a $2 base fee and $2 per mile to offset rising gas prices.
"Now other companies are coming in here to take advantage of what we fought for," he said. "But there's nothing we can do about that."
Whisonant said Veterans operates about 15 cabs, and most drivers, who own their vehicles, stay plenty busy driving customers on errands, to appointments or to the airport. He said his company's reputation and service will carry it past all newcomers.
Lt. Mike Peek of the Rock Hill Police Department said the newcomers are a welcome addition to Rock Hill. Local police inspect and license all cab operators annually, Peek said, and so far, all the new drivers have passed. He noted that because Rock Hill has a limited customer base and regulated fees, the extra competition will push cab drivers, new and old, to improve customer service and quality.
"I think to have some competition is a good thing," Peek said, noting the added pressure to outdo the competition may result in quicker service and cleaner cabs. "Veterans has had a corner on the market for awhile. ... Now, you're seeing the growth in the city."
Nimba Cab owner Weanquoi doesn't have a 60-year reputation or a stable of new vans, but he's confident all three companies can succeed in Rock Hill. He stays busy on weekends when "everyone who gets in the car is tipsy," and he said weekday business is increasing. He believes customers care less about the size of his fleet -- which consists of the single Ford Tempo so far -- and more about the bright white smile behind the wheel.
"We'll all be just fine," Weanquoi said. "If your customers can depend on you, you will grow and succeed."