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Bill Yuhnke was 14 when he took a job pumping gas for Yellow Cab of Buffalo. He never dreamed that 20 years later he would own the cab company. Yuhnke, who grew up on the city’s West Side, worked for a handful of local radio stations and also served in the U.S. Army Reserves before he returned to the cab business.

Yuhnke launched Liberty Cab in 1987 with only a couple of vehicles. In May 2003 he bought Yellow Cab. Today Yuhnke is 61, and as president of Liberty and Yellow cab companies he oversees a fleet of 140 vehicles, 200 drivers and about 20 employees, some of whom man the computer-aided dispatch service.

Throughout his 35 years in the cab business Yuhnke repeatedly has shown his commitment to the community. “You can’t outgive God,” said the civic-minded businessman who gives free cab rides to cash-strapped voters, blood donors, prom-goers and drivers too drunk to operate a motor vehicle.

In 2004, Yuhnke was named small-fleet operator of the year by Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.

People Talk: You’re sitting on top of cab mountain.

Bill Yuhnke: I’ve had offers to sell quite a few times. I didn’t, and not because of the financial offer. The last one was so outrageously high that people told me I need my head examined. The sticking point was my drivers and staff. The buyer was so large, he didn’t need my staff.

PT: How did you choose the name Liberty Cab?

BY: I woke up in the middle of the night with two names in particular. One was Lincoln, and the other was Liberty Cab. I didn’t want to be known as a cab company that services one particular area, like South Buffalo Taxi, Airport Taxi, Kenmore Cab.

PT: Describe your management style.

BY: I’ve always opened the door. My ex-wife has even worked here. We started the business together, and we can still work together and be civil. A lot of marriages could not end that way. I always say my funeral will be a very interesting one; I’ve been married four times.

PT: How long do your drivers stay with you?

BY: I have drivers who have been with me for 25 years. The average driver working full time here can make $200, $250 a day.

PT: What have you done to fight crime against cabbies?

BY: Right now we know in real time where our cars are at all times. We have a trouble button, which means the whole [computer dispatch] screen goes dark and the rest of the fleet is alerted that one of our drivers is in some type of trouble. All available cars proceed to that location. We call it the Liberty SWAT Team.

PT: What types of people come out to drive cabs?

BY: You’d be surprised at the people. We have lawyers, medical students, engineers. I’ve had ministers behind the wheel. The public likes women drivers. They seem to be more helpful.

PT: You have a diverse work force. How does that impact your operations?

BY: I’ve had to educate some of my middle managers about some employees’ religious beliefs. At noon, a number of our Muslim drivers who practice Islam call out of service to go to mosque, and they’re out for a couple of hours praying. During their Ramadan, they pray every three hours. One time, an employee was kneeling at my door praying, and some of my staff were wondering what I did to him.

PT: How strong is your faith?

BY: I consider myself a Christian. Even with the success of Liberty Cab I consider myself lucky, but I’m actually blessed. I remember the days I was struggling to make payroll. I’m going to say that if you just work hard and you keep giving, it comes back.

PT: What kind of a kid were you?

BY: I never skipped school. I had a paper route. My mom was really strict. She would never charge room and board as long as I deposited half of my earnings a week. I bought my own clothes at 12, 13. I was a delivery boy for a supermarket. I was a maintenance man on weekends.

PT: Your free-ride program for intoxicated drivers on New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day has drawn much attention. Would you consider expanding it to other holidays?

BY: With any program you’ll get a little bit of abuse as far as the usage goes, which kind of upsets me. We actually had people calling us up on Dyngus Day to ask what free rides we were giving out. The intent was to get the drunk driver off the street, and it has worked. Our busiest day was St. Patrick’s Day. We also get a lot of referrals from local police departments. A lot of times drivers are given a choice by police: either call a cab or get arrested.

PT: And now you are developing a fleet of wheelchair taxis?

BY: It’s fairly new. It offers the disabled community the same rates as regular taxis. I now have two in my fleet, but under a federal grant we will get six more. We were awarded $187,761 from the federal government, and I’ll put in $47,000. It gives our wheelchair community the opportunity to go to the Sabres games or out to dinner on Mother’s Day.

PT: Don’t you also have a program for seniors?

BY: It’s a gift card that helps those with elderly parents to ensure their transportation needs are met. Money designated for cab service is placed on a gift card, and the children can track the account online.

PT: You are the P.T. Barnum of cab promotion.

BY: We are looking with WBBZ-TV to do a spinoff of “Taxicab Confessions,” a TV show where passengers are filmed while talking to a cabbie. You’ve got to find the right driver to get the people to talk.

PT: Let’s say I want to take a cab to New York. How much would it cost?

BY: We’ve done that. The fare was around $1,000.

PT: Are any of your cabs shabby?

BY: In the City of Buffalo, cabs cannot be more than 10 years old. I’ll put my cabs against anybody’s.

PT: What do you do for fun?

BY: Just recently, my wife and I – she goes away every summer, and I try to find things to keep me busy – bought a boat, a 30-foot cabin cruiser. We’ll call it Liberty. That’s a side of me that most people won’t see. My plan is to bring my staff and employees on the boat.

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com