Lorraine Eales reckons she’s a poor driver, but she’s always in the driving seat at work.
The 45-year-old mum of five runs Sheffield’s Mercury Taxis with husband Andrew - and keeps 400 men under control. The business celebrates its 25th anniversary this week and much of its success is down to the woman they call Dronfield’s answer to ‘business dragon’ Deborah Meaden...
Q. You’re a women in charge of a predominantly male workforce. What have been your biggest challenges?
A. Out of 400 men, we have ONE female driver, but in our call-centre it’s about 50-50. In the early days, when I had to be tough on payments, I had some drivers really argue with me. It was hard, but I’ve had to be fearless and strong. My son Jonathan, who works for the company, calls me Deborah Meaden, because he says I’m such a tough cookie!
We have a tiled foyer at the office and staff said they could tell whether I was in a good mood or bad mood by the click of my heels! The reputation is something I’ve learned to live with.
The biggest challenge has undoubtedly been the drivers respecting me though, as well as the company going computerised. As crazy as it seems, we were afraid staff might defect, it seemed such a massive step back then. Computers just seemed overwhelming. We had to work long hours to get the systems in – I remember my husband Andrew working 36 hours without sleep. We used to take it in turns – I’d do days from 7am and Andrew started at 7pm and worked right through the night.
Q. How long have you and Andrew been together?
A. I met him when I was 19 when we were both working at what was then the city’s leading hotel, the Grosvenor House. I was a receptionist and he was a night porter. He had just set up Mercury Taxis. I helped him out by answering the taxi office phones. I left the Grosvenor to become credit controller at what was the Moat House Hotel at Meadowhead. We were married at 21 and I had our son Jonathan a year later.
Q. Have you ever been a taxi driver?
A. In the early days of the business I used to take some of the night club staff home from Cairo Jax. I wouldn’t say I’m a good driver, though!
Q. You have five children. Was your large family planned?
A. Yes. After having two babies close together we didn’t have our third child Josh until 2001. His birth was quite an event. The new Jessop’s Hospital had just opened and when I arrived staff said I wasn’t due for a while yet. So we decided to take the children for a bite to eat over at the Hallamshire Hospital restaurant. Josh suddenly put on a spurt and I only got as far as the brand new foyer of Jessops when his head appeared and I had to deliver him right there! Midwives appeared from all over and closed the entrance. I felt a bit guilty when I heard later that they couldn’t get their brand new carpets clean!
We decided we wanted a fourth and had Jordan shortly after. Then, when our daughter Sophie became a teenager, I really wanted another girl so we tried again and were delighted when Charley-May appeared.
Q. You have been married for 24 years and you work together. What makes the relationship work?
A. We’ve just had to learn to deal with things together. There have been disagreements along the way. I remember that we used to fall out at home, not speak in the car on the way to our office in Crookes but then have to put a positive face on as we walked through the door.
We enjoy having friends who also have young children round so we can chat and they can play. And maybe having our own bar helps!
Q. How do you manage your large family while running a business that thrives during anti-social hours?
A. Organisation. Our youngest goes to bed at 7.30pm, Jordan at 8 and Joshua at 8:30. And help from childminders and parents.
Q. You’re renowned for being a grafter...
A. Yes. I was in hospital for five days when I had Jonathan and I did the taxi company books and debt collection while I was in there! I now have five children and I worked on the day I had three of them. The only reason it wasn’t all five was because I had Joshua and Jordan on a Saturday morning.
Q. Any regrets?
A. I do regret working full time and such long hours to build the business from 50 cars when we moved to Northfield Road to over 400 when Josh and Jordan were small. I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mum, but now I think the boys missed too much, so I’m trying to be around more for Charley-May, who basically has four adults and a child-minder spoiling her!
Our older two had it tough, too. We worked long hours to build the business. Jonathan and Sophie were either in the office with us, in after-school club or helping out by giving the babies their bottles. They had to grow up very quickly. Joshua is 12 now and I wouldn’t dream of leaving him in charge.
Q. You are a family-run firm?
A. Yes we’re very proud of that. Not many taxi businesses in the whole of the UK can say that they are a genuinely family-run business.
Our eldest son Jonathan came to work at Mercury after finishing his GCSEs. He started as a cleaner and worked his way up. He has taken more or less everything off me as accounts manager now. We employed my mum and dad for a while too. Dad came to us after being made redundant from the steelworks where he had worked as a fettler.
We’re really proud of Jonathan - our genes didn’t mix and when he was twelve, his back twisted causing his leg to drag. The Children’s Hospital put Jonathan in a full body cast from chest to ankle and a cage on his leg for four months. We had to turn screws each day for six weeks. It was a very hard time for him and he did get bullied.
The Children’s Hospital Charityis one of our two nominated charities this year. Tomorrow we stage our biggest annual fundraiser, a charity Golf Day in aid of our other charity, St Luke’s Hospice. It will be followed by a party at Napoleons Casino on Ecclesall Road to celebrate 25 years in business.
Q. What do you love about running your own company?
A. No two days are ever the same and it is a complete challenge all the time. Getting to a fleet of 400 cars, being comfortable financially and having a legacy to leave to our children has taken a lot of hard work and we’re proud of what we’ve achieved.