Jerilyn Ugaste, owner of Forest Park’s Blue Cab, has succeeded in an arena where female bosses are rare: a taxicab company. She says she is one of “no more than 12” women nationally at the helm of a taxicab service. And her efforts are recognized across her industry, most recently with an award for outstanding contribution to women in transportation from the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) this past October at the group’s Las Vegas convention.
Her father didn’t expect it. He didn’t even expect a daughter. Before Jerilyn’s birth, Charles Ugaste got so excited about having a namesake boy, he printed up business cards that read “Charles Ugaste and Son” — cards that never got used, as Jerilyn proved to be an only child. Ugaste, who owned a DeSoto-Plymouth car dealership in Chicago and later purchased the cab company, did bring his only child to work though not necessarily with dynastic intent.
“He was Italian and wanted to keep an eye on me!” chuckled the Florida-tanned Jerilyn last week, who appears considerably younger than her 71 years.
At age 16, she was put to work in the bookkeeping and billing office with additional responsibilities, such as making dad’s lunch. “The old Italians didn’t believe in the daughters running the business, only the sons,” she says.
But there was no son. And Jerilyn loved the job and the company, continuing to work through college, marriage and the birth of her own son, Jim. Charles Ugaste died in 1979 at age 73. Soon afterward Jerilyn, by then 37, took over the company — despite a world of naysayers who felt a woman could perhaps keep the books but wasn’t strong enough to make the tough decisions inherent in ownership.
When asked what her toughest challenges were in the transition from bookkeeper to boss, Jerilyn immediately says, “Knowing what the cars needed and knowing who I could trust.” She quickly learned about maintenance and repair, what reasonable repair costs looked like, and who could be relied upon to give her honest answers.
Jerilyn runs Blue Cab from an office appropriately painted blue and filled with family photos, award plaques and lots of toy-sized taxicabs and taxi-shaped ornaments. The building was originally a Wendy’s restaurant, and a sealed window covered by blinds — formerly the drive-thru window — is the only sign of its previous use. She has fun with the color: dressed in a blue shirt with sparkling stripes and sporting a French manicure featuring a sparkling blue line between nails and tips.
Jerilyn credits her own perseverance and the advice of several industry mentors for her ensuing success. She has not only run her businesses (she also owns Northwest Delivery, a messenger service) successfully, she has also represented her industry in some high-profile venues, even testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee in the 1980s about the relative cost efficiency of privately-run transportation versus government-operated bus lines.
Blue Cab is a busy place, with 120 cabs, 140 drivers and an office staff of 20. Northwest Delivery shares the space and has its own fleet of 10 vehicles.
Jerilyn brought her son, Jim Bennett, 49, into the business when he was a teenager (he began by washing cabs and checking oil) and credits him with making Blue Cab one of the first such companies of its size to have computers as well as cameras in the cabs.
Jim, also an only child, is now Blue Cab’s vice president, and shares the blue office with his mother. He had cameras placed in the vehicles in 2000, after a driver was shot and killed during a robbery. Since the installation, he says, “people still try stuff” but no driver has been lost, and virtually all Blue Cab’s drivers are pleased with the presence of the cameras.
“My dad would have loved this, though he never envisioned it,” Jerilyn says.