“People love our product, they don’t necessarily love us,” says Susan Anderson, who was named general manager of Uber Australia and New Zealand in April. With the company since 2016, Anderson experienced the seismic shifts Uber went through in 2017 when co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick sidestepped out of his executive role while retaining his board position.
On his watch, Uber had allowed a culture of bullying and sexual harassment to develop, paid hackers to cover up a cyber breach and deployed “greyball” technology that could be used to shield Uber from full regulatory and legal scrutiny. Kalanick had also warned the fleet of Uber drivers that his end goal was to make them entirely redundant by using autonomous driverless vehicles. His crash-or-crash-through approach eventually crashed.
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Former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi replaced Kalanick in August 2017. Khosrowshahi then hired Barney Harford as chief operating officer, to whom Anderson reports each month. She has no direct relationship with the Uber board. And Uber’s executive ranks continue to morph. It is still looking for a full-time CFO and in May lost chief brand officer Bozoma “Boz” Saint John, who lasted just a year in the role.
Susan Anderson knows Uber still has a big job ahead of it to rebuild trust in the brand and its reputation. “What do we need to work on?” she asks. “We want to do the right thing, period. Every person I have encountered is mission-driven to do the right thing. It’s important that translates in an authentic way externally — because that is not how we are perceived.”
The game of executive musical chairs and reputational challenges has seemingly had minimal impact on the scale of Uber’s community of drivers and riders. It operates in 65 countries, employs 16,000 people, claims 75 million riders, three million drivers and 15 million daily trips. In Australia and NZ the company employs 550 people, has 68,000 drivers using the platform on a regular basis, 2.8 million regular riders and has recently launched UberPool in Sydney and Melbourne, which lets riders share the cost of a journey. More than 10,000 restaurants have signed up to Uber Eats.
Can brand beat trust
Arguably, there is a moment for a brand when it becomes bigger than the business that spawned it — and that’s when the brand becomes a verb. It’s happened for Google — “google it” and now Uber — “uber it”. So when the brand becomes a verb does trust and reputation even matter?
Yes, says Anderson. “Trust is fundamental to our business. (Uber) doesn’t exist unless riders and drivers trust we will do the right thing.”
Anderson believes safety and the perception of safety are critical to Uber’s success and reputation. “Firstly, I’m going to get a ride home late at night within three minutes. When a car arrives I see a licence number so I can check it’s the right car. I see a photo so I can check it’s the right driver. Every one of our drivers has been background-checked,” she says. “Then we have GPS tracking so we can see where you are and you can share your ETA.”
Before the end of the year, Uber will release an SOS button on the app for both drivers and riders — press it, and an alert goes straight to emergency services with your details and current location.
Uber operates in:
65 countries, has
3 million drivers,
employs 16,000 people,
carries 75 million riders daily and
made 4 billion trips worldwide in 2017
Uber is also working with governments and local authorities to gain their trust. In Canberra, it partners with the ACT government at Christmas to run a subsidised “last mile” service, which gets people home safely from office parties.
Anderson cites the diversity and inclusion in Australia as a signal of a corporate attitude that has moved on from its much-criticised “bro culture” past. “When I look at the Australia New Zealand business — 40 per cent of the team are women… five out of eight of the executive leadership team are female. This is a team that my predecessor (David Rohrsheim who is on paternity leave) built and it has a really strong culture, good diversity.”
Anderson says, “We are sending out a strong messaging in the Australian and New Zealand business that we have diversity, we have inclusion and a really clear direction.”
Uber Australia and NZ appointed its first “head of trust and safety” last December. Sean McIntyre, who has a background in health and safety most recently honed at PwC Australia, has also completed the AICD’s Foundations of Directorship governance module.
The company was also relieved in June to win a reprieve in London. Uber had gone to court after Transport for London (TfL) said last September that it was not “fit and proper” to keep its licence. At the time, TfL said “Uber’s approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues, which have potential public safety and security implications. These include its approach to reporting serious criminal offences; how medical certificates are obtained; how enhanced disclosure and barring service checks are obtained; and to explaining the use of Greyball, a software that could be used to block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to the app and prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law-enforcement duties.”
Nine months on and the changes Uber has agreed to have secured it a 15-month probationary licence.
Disrupting the disruptor
When its ride-sharing service first emerged in San Francisco in 2011, Uber was the great disruptor. Since then, taxi companies have lifted their game and got into the app business, while other ride-share businesses such as Lyft (with a 35 per cent US market share) have emerged as contenders — many charging drivers less than Uber.
According to analysis from The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, after Uber takes its 25 per cent cut, an Uber driver’s take-home pay is around $14.62 an hour, well below the minimum wage.
So could the disruptor be disrupted?
“We are used to competition,” says Anderson. “It’s a good way to stay focused on your customer.” And she’s unfazed by the competition. “If Uber is not the platform where drivers can earn the most, they will go elsewhere. So we work to make this the platform where they can make the most.”
Michelle Wood, outgoing AICD General Manager Marketing & Communications, will be taking up the role of Head of Communications at Uber ANZ. Ms Wood had no involvement in the editorial process for this article.