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Upstart Taxicab Business Surviving a Rocky Road : Entrepreneurs: Caring for kids while steering their company, the couple hang tough.

December 26, 1992|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With $800 in his pocket, 23-year-old Chad Forestelle announced to his parents little more than a year ago that he intended to start his own taxi company in the Oxnard-Port Hueneme area.

True, he had experience as a cabbie, but he was a high school dropout, and the venerable Yellow Cab company operating in that area has seen competitors come and go.

"I thought he was crazy," said his mother, Judi Forestelle of Oxnard. "We told him, 'You can't do that.' He said, 'Watch me.' The kid's got guts."

With his parents' blessing and financial help, Forestelle opened his Channel Island Cab Co. on July 27, 1991, with one taxi, a 1982 Dodge station wagon.

It was rocky from the start: After only a month, the cab was totaled by a drunk driver.

But Forestelle and his wife, Monica, 24, kept the business afloat. Now they have four green and white taxis--three of them station wagons--on the road. They have yet to see a profit, but they feel they are over the worst times.

"Yellow Cab said we would go out of business in the second month," he said. "We pulled through. We never went out."

Ben Hardin, owner of the Yellow Cab company operating in Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Camarillo, looks at the fledgling company with nonchalance. He watched Taxi Taxi fold in 1990, after less than a year. Then the Oxnard-based Gold Coast Cab Co. closed in the spring of 1991 after four years.

"I don't pay much attention to them," he said of the latest competitor. He has 15 cabs and he claims the new company hasn't cut into his business much.

Forestelle insists his taxi company is here to stay. Calls are increasing and he's buying another cab, he said. "I wouldn't be building it up to throw it away."

That comes from a guy who dropped out of Oxnard's Channel Islands High School in the 11th grade, preferring surfing to class--a guy who, for a while, fell in with the wrong crowd.

"I had an attitude," he admitted. "Now I'm a workaholic. I love what I do."

He and his wife run the Channel Island Cab Co. out of the back of a video store at 2718 Vineyard Ave. on the outskirts of Oxnard. With them during the day are her two daughters, ages 2 and 4, from a previous marriage.

It's noisy, with a television blaring in the corner, telephones ringing and radio transmissions blaring. Posters of Magic Johnson hang on the wall, and Forestelle's baseball card collection is on display in a big glass case.

"It's very hard," said Monica Forestelle, between dispatching calls. She was comforting her younger daughter on her lap, despite being seven months pregnant. "We work all the time." Her mother-in-law watches the girls on the weekend so they can both work, either driving or dispatching.

They have 13 drivers working as independent contractors, keeping half of what they get in fares and giving the other half to the company. The drivers also pay $4 a shift, which goes toward the $20,000 in insurance required to put the cabs on the road.

The couple have had some bleak times since they opened. One driver took off with the cab for three days, returning without any fares and no recollection of where he'd been.

"We gave him a second chance and he did it again," said Monica Forestelle. "We learned the hard way."

Another driver ran out of gas, abandoned the cab and took the keys. It cost them $85 to have new keys made and retrieve the car.

Then, on Halloween night in 1991, driver Kent Pippins was robbed at gunpoint of $103. Pippins, a former construction contractor, wasn't hurt and still drives a cab.

When the couple opened the cab company, they did it with some chutzpah. Chad Forestelle appeared in a television commercial with a unidentified beat-up yellow taxi next to his shiny Channel Island cab.

Mild hostility between the two cab companies has eased. The Forestelles insist they aren't out to put the independently owned Yellow Cab out of business.

"There is enough business for both of us," said Monica Forestelle. "We just want a little more of it."

Both taxi companies charge the same fare, $1.90 plus $1.40 per mile. Cab companies are licensed and regulated by the cities in which they operate, and Channel Island Cab Co. is licensed in Oxnard and Port Hueneme.

If business continues to grow, the Forestelles want to expand into Camarillo and Ventura. Customers, they say, tell them they are faster than Yellow Cab.

To Hardin's way of thinking, that just shows they aren't very busy. "Right now my cars are moving all over Oxnard," he said, claiming an average response time of 15 to 20 minutes. From his office near the city's transportation center, he said he could see two Channel Island cabs that had been sitting in the same spot for some time.

"We know we can't compete with Yellow Cab," Monica Forestelle said. "They have their regular people. We have ours. They have their bars. We have ours."

Chad Forestelle had no doubts from the beginning that he could run a cab company. He spent two years driving for Gold Coast Cab Co. where he met his wife, who also drove while taking accounting classes at Ventura College.

Starting the business became something of a family project. In the beginning, his father, William Forestelle, helped him set up the operation and occasionally dispatched calls.

"He's had a lot of doors slammed in his face, but he still picks himself up and goes along," his father said. "He's going to make it."

Monica Forestelle has put college on hold, but Chad Forestelle scoffs at the idea of finishing high school.

"I don't think I need it," he said. "I'm happy where I am. I don't have any regrets."

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