From allegations of a toxic work culture and drivers committing sexual assault to CEO Travis Kalanick stepping down, it’s safe to say Uber had a rough 2017. It’s struggled in Canada too, with Quebec coming too close for comfort in banning the ride-sharing company from its streets in September, and it’s still not legal in Vancouver.

New Uber Canada GM Rob Khazzam at the company’s headquarters at King St. and Dufferin St.

And that was all before Uber finally acknowledged that a 2016 security breach it tried to hide saw hackers access 57 million user accounts and 815,000 accounts in Canada.

But the tides are turning. Uber named a new CEO – Dara Khosrowshahi – in August 2017, it overhauled its “cultural norms” in November after weeks of feedback from Uber employees, and appointed Rob Khazzam as its newest Canadian general manager in October.

Khazzam, a “good ol’ Toronto boy” through and through, as Don Cherry would say, joined Uber in 2014 after graduating from The University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business and working on Bay Street in finance for almost five years.

He led Uber’s expansion team in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for a year and a half, before focusing on eastern and central Europe for almost two years after that, where he was responsible for growing the company to nine countries and 40 cities.

Speaking to a group of reporters at Uber Canada’s swanky new headquarters just north of the Canadian National Exhibition grounds and BMO Field, Khazzam got straight to the point in recognizing Uber’s tumultuous history.

“It was a difficult year. We went through a really challenging period where we lost sight of where we were going,” he explained. “We had a number of executives who left the company and, to speak quite candidly, as a leader for our business in Europe at the time, I went through a period of soul-searching as well. ‘Is this really a place that I see myself continuing to work at? What values does this business have, and do I think we’re going to get back on track?’ I was like anyone else following the company in mid-2017; there were questions about whether we were going to make it through.”

Khazzam was “re-energized” by Uber’s new CEO Khosrowshahi after he painted a clear picture of the values he expected the company to have and how it would recover from the recent negativity at an all-hands meeting with employees shortly after he was hired in the fall.

The opportunity to come back and settle in Canada after spending almost four years moving to different cities every two months presented itself soon after, and it was too good to pass up. Until now, Canada has been under the North America business umbrella since Uber’s inception, but the Canadian market has grown to more than 2.2 million riders and 50,000 drivers since 2014, with 50,000 new users signing up for the app every week.

“They told me that for the first time, the Canadian business needed its own leader. The market here is important and a huge opportunity for Uber, and they wanted to put a leader in who would go implement Khosrowshahi’s new vision,” Khazzam continued. “I’m a Toronto guy and while I’ve enjoyed living abroad in funky places, I was excited at the prospect of growing the business and improving customer trust here at home.”

Three goals for Uber Canada’s new GM

One of his three major priorities for 2018 and beyond emphasizes building trust and fostering a healthy culture and work environment internally. Uber as a whole has been working on that as well, restructuring its board by adding a number of independent board members, promoting diversity and inclusion, and improving how it holds leadership accountable – all of which Khazzam embraces. The company also released strict guidelines and policies around workplace harassment, rolled out mandatory manager training, and hired a new, experienced head of human resources, to make sure previous incidents don’t happen again.

In fact, Khazzam tells the journalists he’s gone through “three or four” rounds of training to help him become a better leader that is prepared to deal with any issues that may arise.

He takes a moment to recognize just how fast Uber has grown in Canada in approximately three years, noting that building long-term relationships with riders is another one of his goals. He also wants to cultivate better ties with Uber drivers themselves and ensure their voices feel heard. The company has implemented a number of driver-oriented features and services to improve their work experiences.

“We’ve heard often from many of our drivers and riders that they wanted tipping, so we’ve rolled that out [in 2017]. Then we heard our drivers wanted 24/7 phone support so they could always call Uber if they had an issue, and we launched that too,” the 31-year-old Canadian GM highlighted. “We also decided to emphasize in-person interactions and rolled out partner support centres across the country that create an Apple-like experience for our drivers. They can go in and get training or, let’s say it’s their first day, meet an Uber employee face-to-face who can explain the basics of what it means to be an Uber driver.”

Uber has invested more than a million dollars into this program and now boasts eight partner support centre locations in Canada. Along with these centres, Uber Canada has also launched quarterly partner roundtables for drivers to talk with executives about what’s working well, what’s not, where there’s room for improvement, and anything else on their minds.

Khazzam’s third priority involves being a better and more constructive partner to cities it’s in. He acknowledged that the company’s rapid expansion was disruptive to other sectors, perceived as “too aggressive”, and largely unregulated.

“We’re not often understood, and we often don’t do a great job of explaining ourselves. There was huge coverage in Toronto and across the country of how we would be regulated on the policy side, and there was also a social debate around the ethics of ride-sharing. It was really an intense thing, but regulations were passed, and now Uber’s regulated, which I think is the most important part in growing our relationship with cities and riders. We’re acting as stewards for this large industry, and we’re also partners to the city in regulating that,” he said.

Khazzam added that he speaks with the City of Toronto almost every week on policy matters. “A huge chunk” of Uber’s 200 employees in Canada work with various levels of government on data exchanges like driver background checks and vehicle safety inspections so the company can remain accountable for what it delivers.

The future is limitless

Moving forward, Khazzam recognizes the role ride-sharing can play in alleviating congestion problems and hopes that as Uber grows, it will continue to be a more viable alternative to owning a car.

The company is chasing this dream by launching and investing heavily in UberPOOL, which allows users heading in the same direction to carpool and split the fare. That service, Khazzam says, represents around 20 per cent of Uber’s business in Toronto right now.

Uber is also making inroads in the accessibility industry. The Canadian GM says he often hears feedback from users telling him Uber doesn’t do enough in this space, despite marketing its service “to everyone”. As a result, he’s launched UberWAV, a wheelchair-accessible service with a seven to eight-minute average arrival time.

“If any of you have people close to you who are in a wheelchair, are injured, or have disabilities, you know the challenges. You could wait up to 40, 45 minutes to get a car, two years ago, if you needed a wheelchair-accessible vehicle,” he explained. “We met with those communities and devised a way to try to do better. And, over the last year, we’ve invested a lot of time and resources into this. People can now get an UberWAV car in less than 10 minutes, which is still higher than UberX but it’s a huge improvement from some of the previous options.”

UberWAV has grown 200 per cent year-over-year in terms of number of trips, a clear indication that a service like this was badly needed in the bustling metropolis of Toronto.

Beyond also expanding the range of its food delivery service UberEATS, Khazzam highlights the company’s $5 million investment into researching an autonomous vehicle fleet in Canada as another area it wants to focus on. Uber has been doing “limited” driverless car testing around the University of Toronto with humans still inside the vehicles to collect data and make tweaks to the self-diving platform.

While he admits they are getting close, Khazzam emphasizes that a self-driving Uber fleet still doesn’t have an immediate timeline. Having some of the testing take place in Toronto is “a spot of pride” for him and his team, he adds.

Working with municipalities will also be key to its forward-looking strategy. Uber joined forces with the city of Innisfil in 2017 for Canada’s first ridesharing and transit partnership.

“The goal of the partnership was to bring on-demand transportation to a town of 35,000 people that’s in a footprint the size of Mississauga. There’s a real density issue there, and in other rural or suburban areas in Canada, too, that make mass transit difficult to set up. It makes these systems unaffordable,” Khazzam pointed out.

One feature of the partnership is there is a flat fee from the town to its Go Station, given that Innisfil is a “bedroom community” for commuters heading to work in nearby Toronto. Initial reports show that in terms of cost and ridership, Innisfil is now “moving more people for less money than what it had anticipated from a more conventional public transit system”. It is being reported that the Uber-Innisfil partnership is saving the city approximately $8 million a year compared to what a bus system would have cost it

Uber will certainly have its plate full this year, Khazzam laughs, and from an outside perspective, the company in Canada looks like it’s in good hands.

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