In technological time, the antiquated dispatch system at Crown is like the first printing press. The old computer looks like Atari's PONG.
Yet, the 10-year-old system is the only one among cab companies in Charlotte. Numeric zip codes are spaced out on a screen, and the cabs, represented by green rectangles, are listed below the codes. A dispatcher in the St. George Street office clicks on the closest cab, which pages the driver for the pick-up. The dispatcher then gives the customer an estimate of how long it will take for the driver to arrive. Operations Manager Pratul Khandelwhal (or P.K., as he's known) admits with a guilty smile that these estimates can be "optimistic."
Crown's founder, P.K.'s uncle Kisan Khandelwal, didn't mean to start the largest cab company in town. It just sort of happened one day. In 1985, when Kisan couldn't find a buyer for his old car, his neighbor suggested he paint it yellow and hire out the car. Kisan's first cab made him money, so he bought another one. Eventually, he stopped painting the cars yellow, opting for a distinguished royal emblem. By 1997, 170 crowns were painted on cabs around Charlotte.
But the city thought that was too many. In 1998, Mecklenburg County deregulated the cab market to free up competition from the big three: Crown, Yellow and Checker. Former Crown drivers started their own cabbie services: Nations, Diamond, Speedy and King. According to P.K., dividing the industry into multiple smaller companies hurt customers. In 2002, Crown had only 22 cars to meet the same demand. With fewer cars, wait times increased. It got so bad, says P.K., people would call four cab companies and take whichever one showed up first. Crown had to redirect 10 percent of its calls to other companies.
Kisan was going to sell his business, but first offered it to P.K., who had just finished his MBA in India. P.K. wasn't sure about coming to America. He didn't know English well. But he was excited by the challenge of saving a tanking company. He arrived in Charlotte on a Saturday night at 11:30 and began working the next day at 2pm. Still with a thick accent, P.K. says the hardest part has been dealing with abuse; he is often cursed out on the phone or hung up on.
P.K. says 60 percent of his drivers are foreigners from countries, including Somalia, Liberia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Russia, Pakistan and Britain. "They're all educated. You'd be amazed," P.K. says. "All these people have second businesses." Some have master's degrees. Gabir Ahmad, from Sudan, is a pathologist with a medical degree. With a minimum income of $50,000 to $60,000 for full-time drivers, many immigrants opt not to pursue a more prestigious job where their ethnicity would be a major barrier, says P.K., who sees the cab business as one of the most diverse you could work in. "This is the only industry where you get to interact with all these people," he says.