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VOL. 120 | NO. 249 | Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Transport Business Remains Family Affair

By Tracy Adams

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TOOLS OF THE TRADE: Hamilton Smythe of Premier Transportation Services shows off one of the vintage vehicles in the 150-year-old company's fleet. -- Photograph By Tracy Adams

Premier Transportation Services has been transporting Memphians and area visitors in one form or another for nearly 150 years.

The company, which began as Patterson Transfer & Storage, has been a family affair since 1960, when W. Hamilton Smythe III became general manager.

Today, Premier is run by W. Hamilton "Ham" Smythe IV.

Small operation. With 65 employees and 80 contract drivers, Premier Transportation is one of the city's oldest small businesses. Yellow Cab and Checker Cab are divisions of Premier.

"We don't really look at ourselves as a small business, but I guess that's what we are," Smythe said. "I guess we've been around so long and have grown quite a bit that it doesn't feel like a small business."

What makes Premier a small business is the way it operates, Smythe added.

"All of the drivers for Yellow Cab and Checker Cab are contract drivers," he said. "Ninety percent of your cab businesses are run that way."

Working arrangement. Yellow Cab and Checker Cab drivers lease the use of their vehicles from Premier. The arrangement has eliminated the need to track the number of fares for each driver.

"We still track all the fares; we use an integrated GPS system," Smythe said. "We just don't track them for the purposes of making sure we're not stiffed at the end of the day."

Drivers receive 100 percent of their fares and pay Premier a flat fee to lease their vehicles that range in terms from 12 hours to a purchase arrangement, Smythe said.

Premier Transportation Services
Owner: W. Hamilton "Ham" Smythe IV
Founded: 1854
Basics: The 150-year-old company, which began as Patterson Transfer & Storage, offers taxi services as well as a range of non-cab transportation services. 577-7700, www.premierofmemphis.com

"We have some drivers who have been with us for 20 years or more and they still lease, and we have some who have only been here for a year and they're on the purchase plan," he said. "The arrangement lets them choose according to their career goals and financial situation what is best for them."

Non-cab services. Drivers for Premier Transportation, the youngest division of the business, are company employees.

"Premier is made up of all our non-cab services," Smythe said. "The trips are different from the kinds of trips our cab drivers get."

Premier Transportation is responsible for all casino-to-casino shuttles in Tunica, said Deborah Crawford, Premier marketing director. Outside of the taxi services the company provides, Premier also offers convention and group transportation, school service, chauffeured limousine and sedan service, transportation management and package delivery.

Premier also has two vintage vehicles that are most often requested for weddings and to be used in local parades, Smythe said.

"The Model A is very popular," he said. "It's a 1930s car."

The other vintage car is a 1930s 33-White tour bus that seats 14 passengers.

Economy's impact. While Premier has weathered several lean years financially, most recently the shift in petroleum prices and the job market have had the heaviest impact on the business, Smythe said.

"The price of regular gas doesn't really affect us because the drivers are responsible for purchasing their gas," he said. "We did get hit pretty hard when diesel gas went up. It went up quickly, and there haven't been any dips in pricing like we have seen with unleaded prices."

Premier contracts a great deal of its non-taxi business, and those agreed-upon prices have to be honored regardless of fluctuations in petroleum pricing, he said.

"We had to take it on the chin with some weddings and other events we'd booked in advance," he said. "On the other hand, it's difficult to tell a longtime customer that you have to increase rates because diesel prices went up 70 cents because there is a risk of losing some business."

Hiring drivers. The unemployment rate also affects Smythe's business, he said.

"A 5 percent unemployment rate is not good for our business," he said. "We have a hard time finding good drivers with an unemployment rate that low. It's unfortunate to say, but a 10 percent unemployment rate is good for us and our customers."

Premier screens its drivers for criminal history, driving record, drug use and knowledge of the Memphis metropolitan area.

"We have to screen because our customers are entrusting us with their lives and safety," Smythe said. "When unemployment is down, we have fewer qualified drivers to choose from."

A good portion of Premier's cab drivers use the taxi business as a secondary source of income, while many others are college students, he said.

"We do have the career driver here, but they don't number as many as the others," he said. "We try to offer an employment opportunity that will be attractive to a variety of hard-working, honest and dependable people."

PROPERTY SALES 85 205 21,165
MORTGAGES 76 206 24,338
BANKRUPTCIES 46 90 13,558