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Uber Canada's GM on company's plan to win back trust of drivers, riders and investors

Uber Canada's recently-appointed general manager Rob Khazzam poses for a photograph in Toronto on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After a year of extreme tumult, Uber Technologies Inc. is framing 2018 as a chance to change.

The ride-sharing company dealt with allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic workplace culture, the revelation of a major data breach after which it paid hackers to erase stolen data from 57 million users and keep quiet, and endless leadership shakeups, including the resignation of co-founding chief executive Travis Kalanick.

Now, with freshly installed CEO Dara Khosrowshahi at the helm, Uber is trying to shift its corporate culture and public-facing brand to win the trust of drivers, riders and investors alike.

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In Canada, the face of Uber's turnaround is Rob Khazzam. The new general manager grew up in Toronto, cut his teeth there working in finance, then spent nearly four years overseeing the service's growth around central and eastern Europe before returning home late last year as its Canadian general manager.

He sat down with The Globe and Mail Wednesday at Uber's new national headquarters in Toronto's west end.

Analyst Hubert Horan projected that Uber lost $5-billion (U.S.) last year – how is it going to sustain and attract investors with such deep losses?

Our CEO, Dara, articulated a clear vision: Turning a profit and becoming sustainable and self-sufficient is an important corporate goal, but we're going to continue to innovate and invest. I think he'd say we need to strike a better balance, probably, than we had a few years ago. This next phase will be about making the right tradeoffs: Where do we want to invest a lot? Where do we want to make sure we're operating a really sustainable business?

The Softbank transaction [the Japanese conglomerate bought a large stake last month from existing investors, a transaction that implied a $48-billion value for Uber, according to Bloomberg] is a really great vote of confidence. To have an amazing, large-scale institutional investor with an incredible track record buying what appears to be 14 per cent of the company is an enormous vote of confidence in the market.

Is your Canadian business profitable?

We don't comment about the profitability of our specific business units. The business here is sustainable and it's self-sufficient.

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Uber has said that 815,000 drivers and riders were affected in Canada by the 2016 data breach. Are you notifying these riders and drivers if their information was breached?

We're working really closely with the Privacy Commissioner on this issue. That's a private dialogue and one we're being very constructive in. If accounts have been flagged as part of that data breach, we have automatically enhanced fraud protections and alerts.

You and Uber have lately been reiterating the importance of a safe and healthy workplace culture. What are your plans within the next year to implement that?

It starts with culture and values. We've published new cultural norms, which are really important, because for us to be successful we need to share a common vision of who we are and where we're going. We've invested in making sure we have mandatory management training for all the managers in the company. We have a diversity and equal pay policy – we've established equal pay across all job families and all levels of Uber. We've established very clear privacy guardrails, where you can't access data internally for areas of the business you have no business accessing.

The last one I'd mention is leadership. I think Dara's got a great track record, and he's spoken very clearly about his desire to improve Uber's reputation and continue to build trust. He's brought in a new COO, and a new chief legal counsel with a great track record. My job is to make sure that standard is met here, and that I'm holding our Canada team to the same values. People have always loved Uber's product, but they haven't always felt a connection with the way our business has been run. That's going to change – that already is changing – and that's my job here in Canada.

Your competitor, Lyft, came to the Greater Toronto Area late last year. How is it affecting your market share?

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We're not really focused on that. For us, it's ultimately about how our business is doing: Are we focusing on riders and drivers, and are we working on that real competitor, which is personal car ownership. We're proud of how reliable we are. We're seeing a record number of ride requests every week.

How are conversations going with governments such as British Columbia, where Uber doesn't operate – and do you expect to get approvals to operate there this year?

It's really up to the local regulator there and the government and the population there to make it happen. We've been asked to provide input, last week, about the legislative process. We are on the sidelines, because we don't operate in B.C., but we're crossing our fingers that we'll be there and we'll do everything we can.

Bloomberg reported last week that Uber has a tool that lets it remotely block company records from police raids, including in 2015 in Montreal. Why does it employ a tool like this?

Uber has a responsibility, as does any company in 2018, to rigorously protect and secure the data and privacy of its information. That requires us to have tools that protect data. As a clear example, we have the ability to lock down a laptop, because if that laptop gets stolen, I need to call someone and we need to be able to turn off access to that computer.

Any company needs to make sure they have data integrity policies, and we're no different. Our policy on this is extremely clear. We will co-operate and meet the requirements of every city, jurisdiction and regulator that we meet with and work with. And if we receive legal, law-enforcement requests for data from a relevant authority, we will comply with that request.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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