It's not exactly a bear hug, but it comes close. Eckart Diepenhorst, the new chief executive of MyTaxi, is nothing if not effusive when greeting people for the first time.
While other CEOs may be a little wary around journalists, "Ecki", as the big man is known by everyone in the company, offers a warm smile and a firm handshake as he welcomes The Irish Times into his office.
It’s a sunny day in Hamburg and, with MyTaxi’s headquarters situated across from what is Europe’s second-largest port, the office provides impressive views. Outside, ships travel up and down the river Elbe. Inside is also a hive of activity, with numerous people popping in and out of the room and a co-worker over from Athens for the week working in the corner.
It’s certainly not the usual set-up. And, as Diepenhorst makes clear early on, he’s not your average boss.
“I’m not a preacher, but I do try to be totally genuine when I outline my strategic vision and I think this is something that people like and can get behind,” he says, describing why he is the right man to be leading Europe’s largest e-hailing company.
Prior to joining the company just under two years ago as its head of international operations, Diepenhorst, who previously spent 14 years in a variety of senior roles with Carphone Warehouse, took a sabbatical that included a long trip around New Zealand in a camper van with his wife and then toddler child. During this time, he decided he only wanted to go back to the corporate world if he could make a real difference.
“I wanted to have more purpose in what I did and being at MyTaxi has given me that opportunity,” he says.
One of four children whose father was a professional soldier, Diepenhorst experienced frequent moves during his childhood. So it’s not surprising that the issue of mobility matters so much to him.
But Diepenhorst, who only took over in the driver’s seat in June, exudes something of a religious fervour when it comes to talking about the company he now runs. As he sees it, MyTaxi isn’t just about getting people from A to B but about bringing huge improvements to cities and improving the quality of life of those living in them.
“Mobility is a key driver for integration and diversity. It is what enables different cultures to talk to each other, for people to find work and so on. We play our part in this by helping people to move about freely but we also want to do this in a sustainable manner,” he says.
“Today, about 60 per cent of all traffic is happening inside cities and this is only going to grow. You don’t need a crystal ball to realise that public transportation will struggle to deal with this. MyTaxi can play a valuable part in ensuring a better mobility network.”
Diepenhorst outlines several ways the company can help, including initiatives such as car pooling and encouraging more energy-efficient vehicles, as well as introducing additional modes of transportation and using artificial intelligence and/or machine learning to better predict where and when cars will be needed.
His comments may seem glib but Diepenhorst, who was born and lives in Hamburg, comes across as sincere, taking his time to think about what he wants to say rather than just spouting off inspirational but meaningless remarks that have been prepared by someone else.
Whether Daimler – the car giant that acquired a majority share in MyTaxi in 2014 – ultimately shares his take on the company's mission is anyone's guess, but it is backing him to lead it to further success in the near to medium term at least.
MyTaxi, founded in Hamburg in 2009, has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years. It now has 10 million customers and 100,000 drivers. The former start-up, which was snapped up by Daimler in 2014 and merged with rival Hailo two years later, has more than 500 employees in 26 European offices. Its service is available in 100 European cities, including Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.
Unlike rivals such as Uber, which have focused on a “growth at any price” strategy that has led to fierce confrontations with regulators and drivers, MyTaxi has kept both on board, opting to collaborate with authorities and only working with licensed cabbies.
While adamant that further growth is critical for the company as it looks to stay ahead of its competitors, Diepenhorst insists MyTaxi isn’t interested in pursuing growth just for the financial rewards.
‘Double the workforce’
“If you want to change the world for the better and if you want to have a real impact on how mobility is being rethought, you need to be a certain size so that you get a network effect. So we are focused on growing by at least 50 per cent year-on-year, with plans to almost double the workforce from current levels, open more offices and perhaps adding a country or two,” he says.
“We could of course achieve growth by just doubling or tripling the number of cars we have on the road and underpaying the drivers to making prices cheaper but we genuinely want to find solutions that will make our cities better places to live in,” Diepenhorst adds.
He says that some city authorities have directly approached the company to establish operations locally as part of a strategy to resolve issues.
Closer relationships with regulators is, of course, critical for a company that is reliant on local authorities continuing to restrict the growth of Uber, Cabify, Taxify and any other number of rivals by ensuring they are as tightly regulated as traditional cab drivers.
“The regulatory framework is changing in the markets in which we operate. We need to make sure the industry we operate in is modern, flexible and dynamic enough to react to competition,” says Diepenhorst.
“There is a race for scale and very tough competition in front of us but we have a great product and service, so aren’t afraid.”
MyTaxi doesn’t disclose profits or revenues although recently filed accounts show its Irish business chalked up a near €4 million loss in 2016, the year in which it announced an all-share merger with Hailo.
The local business reported the pretax loss after writing off a €4.7 million intercompany loan. In that year, it recorded a 33 per cent rise in turnover to €9.07 million.
Despite major teething problems following the Hailo rebrand as customers were migrated over to the MyTaxi app in the Republic, the company says it now enjoys success in Ireland. It recorded its busiest-ever quarter in the three months to September last when it carried more than four million passengers.
Dublin consistently ranks as the third-best performing city overall for MyTaxi behind Hamburg and London.
While the company was strongly criticised by both drivers and customers over the quality of its app during the changeover, Diepenhorst says: “The Irish business is one we are all incredibly proud of and I believe there is further growth possible in the market if we can get enough drivers.”
Diepenhorst also sees opportunities for MyTaxi outside of Europe, though he says it isn’t seriously considering following up on these.
“We’re very conscious that this is still a young company that is growing very fast. Even just being able to deal with the growth we’re currently experiencing is tough enough so we don’t want to distract ourselves further,” he says.
Closer to home, Diepenhorst is busy trying to balance running a fast-growing company and raising a young family.
That typically means him starting the day between 5am and 6am to help get the kids up and out to creche before heading to the office. He tries to make sure he’s home again by early evening to help put the children to bed before putting in a few more hours of work and finishing up before midnight. He tries to offset his long working weeks with yoga and singing lessons.
Diepenhorst still sees MyTaxi very much as a technology, rather than a transportation, company, pointing out the high number of staff it employs in areas such as product design and software development. If anything, these numbers are likely to increase as the move to driverless vehicles nears.
“Sometime soon, MyTaxi will be seen as being a lot more than just a company that facilitates taking people from one place to another in a car. There will be other transportation options in the mix and plenty of other types of innovation as well,” he says.
“Driverless cars will of course come at some point, but I expect it will be many years before they are a reality on our roads.”
Name: Eckart Diepenhorst
Position: Chief executive, MyTaxi
Family: Married with two children, aged 4 ½ and 1½
Something you might expect: Diepenhorst uses MyTaxi regularly while travelling although he also likes to check out the competition.
Something that might surprise: He takes singing lessons but is horrified at the idea that someone might hear him sing.