Lovedeep Singh Khangura is 35-years old but he is not a doctor, lawyer or celebrity.
He owns a fleet of taxis and is perhaps the first person in Australia to introduce Mercedes Benz on the roads of Melbourne under his company Khangura Corporation.
In many ways, Lovedeep Singh Khangura’s story does not quite defy stereotypes. Growing up in India, he studied his Bachelor’s degree in engineering (electronics) but it was the time of global recession and jobs were hard to come by. So when his father asked him ‘what next?’, he went to the doors of the newly-opened education service provider in his home state of Punjab and between America and Australia, he had to make a choice. Deciding to go with RMIT, he got enrolled at the Master’s program for engineering in IT. In the course of the program and till the end of the degree, his roles were defined –studying by day and driving taxis by night. It was his latter routine that would shape his life in Australia – becoming an IT engineer-turned businessman with an unstoppable drive to succeed. Today, Khangura has a fleet of 80 cabs and four companies under his Khangura Corporation and is, perhaps, the first to introduce Mercedes as taxis in a bid to provide the best of services.
Like the hundreds of international students, Khangura took to driving taxis to pay his bills. “I would have my uniform, wear a jacket on top and attend classes, then go back to driving,” he says. It was not a lucrative job, he admits but it was easy and, most importantly, he could manage his time well. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was doing it because it was hard to find other jobs.”
By the end of his studies in 2003, Khangura thought he could not do this forever and wondered how his parents would react to him driving a cab especially after adding a few degrees to his name. He started looking for jobs but did not make much headway save for a job with Telstra in the call centre department. He worked five days with the telecom firm and the rest of the two days he was back to driving. “It was pretty much seven days. I kept on going and there were no promotions either.”
After eight months, along with a friend he went to enrol into short service with the army. After clearing the medical and other tests, they were asked to sit for the written test. “Confident we had cleared most of the hurdles we took our time, slowly cruising along. We didn’t take it seriously and we failed because we were supposed to do it quick. They said come after three months,” he laughs. Once again, he found himself at the crossroads.
Around that time, Australia’s education policies had opened up and when one of his cousins came to study here, they decided to buy a cab together and divide into a day and night driving shift between the two of them. This small venture had an eventful start. The day they bought the cab, they met with a major accident. “Someone did an illegal U-turn and hit our car. Thankfully none of us were injured and we got a replacement of the car.” Undeterred, they went ahead. After eight months, Khangura was on an expansion mode. “The cars started coming and the cousins kept coming from India too.” So he had ‘trusted’ manpower to scale his business.
But it was a tough market, says Khangura. With limited licences and their prices soaring, the prices of cabs also started going up. When he had five cars, he stopped driving and got fully involved in the servicing part of the business. “I said this is what we are doing and this is what we are going to do now. The boot of my car used to be full of tools. Looking back it was a good move, I enjoyed it all. There was no going to office, I got a bit settled, the money was OK and that was what drove us. Of course this is not a glamorous business but it is good business to be in if you do it right. There is a lot of work, you are on the call 24 hours for 365 days with no public holiday.”
To keep his parents happy and to put his IT background to use, Khangura also started a computer business at the same time. “When I stopped driving I had a lot of time because cars don’t break down every day.” This business didn’t expand because the software side of the market had saturated but he still had the hardware side (which is his forte) to sustain. But Khangura was already climbing up the ladder. He set up a brokerage firm South Eastern Taxi Brokers related to the business. What it did was provide Eftpos facilities in cabs. “So if you want to pay by card we charge a service fee. Initially, when we took over it was all manual, now there are mobile terminals and saves us rents. We had a good flow of drivers; a lot of people had trust in us because we were paying them on time. So people started giving their leases as well to us to run the cabs. That’s when we thought we are going to expand this big time.”
Khangura’s next venture was setting up a workshop Punjab Motor Works. “I hired someone to manage the workshop. We do servicing, cleaning, painting, road worthies for taxis.” When he accumulated 25 cabs, the space was running out and he had to follow strict regulations such as toilet facilities for drivers to upkeep a bigger workshop. “You have to be compliant with the rules which are good. It keeps the standard up. When we started, the standards were not that high because they were not that serious. But the Taxi Service Commission started telling people what to do. We started employing more people.” Today he has a total of 80 cabs.
With the government selling taxi licence from July 1, Khangura saw it as a unique opportunity to provide better service. “The fact is there are no good cars in the taxi market. People would sell us junk, we would work on them and run for three years.” So he started putting new cabs including Mercedes. “It is an open, competitive market now. Europe has Mercedes as taxis. Right now we got four of them on the road. We are the first people in Australia to have Mercs as taxis. People are excited about it. They call and thank us.”
Khangura says he had a theme in mind when he added the Mercedes to his fleet and that is, to provide good service to normal people and not going the luxury way. There was a lot of thought behind putting the Mercedes on the roads as taxis, he says. “With the government changing rules every now and again, you got to be on top of things.” The other plus side is that these cars cost less on fuel and service is good. “If we have good drivers it is going to be very sustainable. The condition of a car is totally in the hands of a good driver.” His ultimate dream is to replace every cab with a Mercedes.
But there is more happening for Khangura. In May, he forayed into the insurance business and believes he has got a good start at the right time. “Punjab & Co Taxi Cover provides a good policy. Our experience is that most of the clubs file for bankruptcy and shut down and the owner is then liable for all the damages. We deal with Zurich and they give us full comprehensive for taxi. So we are giving customers a deal at a really reasonable price and we are opened 365 days. I have a relationship with all the owners so we are doing alright. We already have 50 plus members. Now we got private cars as well to insure and all our drivers are trying to push and get a better deal.”
Having been in the business of cabs for so long, one pertinent question he faces is of the sometimes bad reputation that taxi drivers have earned for themselves. “We do get complaints. It is part of the business but there are two sides to the story – sometimes drivers are not sensitised about cultures and sometimes you get one bad customer and it affects the whole shift.” What helps for Khangura is the fact is that having been a driver himself he says he has a better insight into the industry and also understands the plight of drivers and fathom ‘who is lying’.
Clearly Khangura is in a happy place now. He attributes his success to two team members who have been with him for 7-8 years. “Team work is key to success,” he reflects. “I love my life here. I am grateful I was given an opportunity to do something here. So one of the reasons for putting better cars is to give something back to this country. Perhaps people will realise it someday, if not today. They will remember Indians came and did something good because we get flak for so many things otherwise,” he laughs. Rest assured, this car czar is changing the face of the ride.