Former taxi drivers turn to milk delivery and gain new lease of life with family dinners and their health now their biggest focus.
Being a successful taxi driver comes with an array of challenges. From expensive car repairs to spending minimal time at home, having a strong mental state of mind is needed when sitting around for hours on end, trying to make a living.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the demand for taxis dried up instantly, and left lots of self-employed drivers feeling vulnerable.
However, for Gary Smith and his friend Neil Fleming, things took a life-changing turn after securing a job at Kerr’s Family Dairy.
Working up the ranks within months, the duo are now employed as managers of the Dundee-based dairy’s new Aberdeen depot, with Gary was initially offered a job by company director Kelvin Kerr Jnr, who he met at the school gates.
Launching in March just as lockdown commenced, the milk delivery firm is now dropping off goods to more then 5,000 customers across the north-east.
The first staff member to start at the depot based at Bridge of Don’s Murcar Commercial Park, 48-year-old Gary said the move has completely transformed his life for the better.
Living in Bridge of Don with his wife and daughter Morven, the dad of two said that his health has benefited massively from the move, having lost two stone since starting at the company.
From working 70-hour weeks and sitting in a car almost every day, Gary is delighted to have a new challenge which is also helping him get healthy.
He said: “I worked as a taxi driver for 17 years and I floated between the airport and the city centre. I went from dealing with people coming into the city for business and their holidays, to abusive drunk people on a Saturday night who would spill their food all over the car. It was a lot of working with people filled with alcohol and a lot of weekend work – you never had a weekend off.
“I was working around 70 hours a week. You’re out night and day. When you’re sitting on a rank you’re not making money and the overheads on a taxi are through the roof. If you have to pay taxi companies or the airport, it can become expensive. By the time you’ve leased your car, paid for fuel, it’s not until after that you can make your own money.
“It is a lot of sitting about and it wasn’t good for my health, my lower back became weak. I’ve just had an MRI scan and I have no muscle in my lower back. That’s 17 years of sitting in a car.
“I’m enjoying the different challenge at Kerr’s. From sitting in a taxi and being asked ‘are you working late tonight driver?’ to now using my brain and being more active, it is amazing. I have lost over two stone and I’ve dropped a waist size just with delivering milk. I am over the moon. I feel better within myself and, although I’m busy, it gives me excitement. My body feels so much better – I feel fantastic.”
Getting to spend quality time with his kids now is one of the highlights of hanging up his taxi ID.
He said: “Coming away I see more of my wife, more of my family and I’m not having to worry about what hassle your next customer is going to give you. I have a 16-year-old called Luke who stays with my ex-wife, he’s been isolating so I haven’t got to see him as much just now, and my seven-year-old daughter Morven who stays with my wife and I. Because I’ve been working throughout Covid-19 and have been seeing different people I haven’t managed to see Luke much apart from at distance. I see more of my daughter as I’m going home every day and night. It is good being at home on a Friday and Saturday night getting to enjoy a gin.”
Initially delivering milk on the front line working as a key worker, Gary was one of the main individuals behind the recruitment for the Aberdeen depot, turning to the taxi community where he knew there was no work to help support as many drivers as he could.
“To start off with I was delivering the milk when Covid-10 first hit, now I look after the depot and the drivers, and everything else behind the scenes. During March, April and May, Neil and I were out delivering and training staff on the rounds so we were front-line.
If I didn’t have this job throughout Covid-19, I’d be close to bankruptcy.” Gary Smith
“We have a canvassing team who have done a lot of work in getting us to many customers’ doors, but it has also been word of mouth in gaining new customers, with people telling their neighbours about us.”
His first recruit was Neil Fleming, who he now manages the depot with, ensuring the delivery staff have all they need for their daily runs.
“I did a lot of the recruiting. It was all former taxi drivers who I knew were struggling when Covid-19 first hit. There’s even a guy who works in oil and gas helping us out. My daughter is in the same class at Kelvin’s kids Hallie and Addison so we had met a few times and we got talking about my previous jobs in working at Royal Mail since 1988. He mentioned his new warehouse/depot so we met for a coffee and everything has just snowballed from there,” said Gary.
“I got Neil involved and then we’d take one or two guys, add a new route and take on two more. There’s seven, including myself, who used to work as taxi drivers now working here. If I didn’t have this job throughout Covid-19, I’d be close to bankruptcy.
“I’m looking forward to building for the future. We’re keen to offer our services to new areas, too, and we’re in the process of getting a refrigerated vehicle to do drop-off to shops and offices. Milk sales went through the roof during lockdown and there’s some people who are using lots of it, so when the offices go back we want to be able to supply them as well. We’re really focused on customer care.”
Also relishing his new role and the benefits it has brought to his home life is Neil Fleming.
The 42-year-old from Aberdeen has worked for the firm since the start of lockdown after being a taxi driver for 14 years and says the best part about working at the company is getting to eat dinner with his two young kids Piper, three and Ethan, nine.
Neil said: “I was working 10-hour days six or seven days a week – when you’re self employed you’ve always got your car to pay for, your radio and repairs, time at home costs you money.
“Now getting a steady wage it is a lot different. When you get up in the morning you’re not thinking ‘I better get out right now and get making some money’. I spend a lot more time at home now and I get to spend more time with my children.
“At Kerr’s we can work every day if we wanted, but it could be an hour, or ten hours. Gary and I have trained up a lot of staff to do the milk runs so we mainly work in the depot and make sure everything is OK for the team going out at nighttime. Usually it is four or five days. Sometimes we’re in during the day and then a bit later on in the evening, too.
“I worked the late shift when I was a taxi driver and I was never there at tea time to see my kids or have dinner with them. Now I can also pick my kids up from school as well as drop them off, and we eat meals together now. We don’t work weekends and most weeks we finish on a Friday morning and then we’re back in Sunday evening. I would never have had a weekend off when taxiing.
“I go to the football so now I can get to enjoy the game instead of rushing off. My little boy plays football, too, so I get to take him to his games.”
Having sat in a car for 14 years day in day out, Neil says working on the delivery side of the business was challenging on his body initially as he put it through its paces to meet the ever-increasing demand of customers.
“Being a taxi driver you become quite lazy as you’re sitting in your car for 10-plus hours a day. It was a bit of a shock to the system when I then had to go and deliver to more than 300 doors. It takes its toll on your body to begin with.
“Before I was a taxi driver myself and Gary worked for Royal Mail so we certainly know the streets. I’ve been able to use this expertise in the area when delivering milk.
“To be honest I hadn’t really thought about being a taxi driver but a few weeks before lockdown Gary mentioned he’d spoken to Kelvin who had said he was interested in taking on some staff in Aberdeen. When lockdown kicked in, the taxi work disappeared and I was thrown into the deep end of milk delivery. It really was perfect timing.”
With 10 vans now in operation smashing the company’s six-van target for the year, Neil is looking forward to progressing with the firm and growing the 15-strong workforce to give others who need a job, the chance to find one which is well-balanced between work and family life.
He added: “It has been crazy. When Gary first mentioned Kerr’s to me he told me there was a couple of milk vans, I didn’t realise just how busy and popular it would be and so quickly. Lockdown helped greatly as more people were ordering and I’m hopeful people will keep their orders going when they go back to work. We have 15 staff and 10 vans in operation. The aim was to have six vans by the end of the year. The wholesale side of the business is away to kick off soon, too, so we’re hoping that is going to be huge. It means there will be more jobs as well.
“Most of the people we work with, we know them because they were taxi drivers. There was no work for taxis so they were more than happy to come across. I think a few didn’t realise how physical it was on your body having been sitting in their car so long, but a few have lost a great amount of weight. They can actually enjoy their time at home now.
“If it hadn’t have been for this lockdown I would never have ended up here. I absolutely love my job – I’ve gained something out of this coronavirus pandemic.”