People | The Big Questions

Tom White of Uber on growing the company across markets and borders

Partnership echoes 'build global, live local' mantra

by Jane Kitagawa

Contributing Writer

Name: Tom White
Title: General Manager at Uber (Rides)
URL: https://www.uber.com/jp/en/
DoB: Jan. 18, 1988
Hometown: Perth and Fremantle, Australia
Years in Japan: 1


Boasting a fast-track career trajectory with U.S. e-hailing service Uber Technologies Inc., General Manager Tom White of Uber (Rides), Japan is having the ride of his life.

The company is currently making news due to SoftBank Group Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. supposedly contemplating whether to invest $1 billion or more into Uber’s self-driving vehicle unit. However, in Japan, where peer-to-peer e-hailing is banned and regulations prevent nonprofessional drivers from providing paid transport services, White is instead finding success in cab hailing, working with local taxi companies.

A strategic partnership between Uber Japan and Japan’s largest taxi company Daiichi Koutsu Sangyo Co. Ltd. is the company’s most recent deal. Contracts with Osaka’s Milight Taxi, Nagoya’s Fuji Taxi Group, Sendai’s Chuo Taxi, Naricho Taxi in Aomori and Nishijo Taxi in Koriyama, Fukushima, have all been inked since White joined Uber Japan in February 2018. Uber also partnered with taxi companies from Hyogo Prefecture running on Awaji Island, as well as the Awaji District Administration Office to operate services there. With the firm presently operating a hired-car hailing service in Tokyo, White expects cab-hailing operations to be launched in this city by the end of this year.

“The taxi industry (here) is fascinating,” began White, speaking about market differences between Australia, Vietnam and Japan, all countries where Uber has taken him. Positing that each of his roles at Uber was more complex than the previous one, White said Uber was launching operations in Australia when he joined — “It was very small … the laws that governed the Australian taxi industry, for example, were envisaged before the iPhone.” In Vietnam, White had to navigate a very different competitive landscape. Uber Japan is no less challenging, said White, but also offers many opportunities.

“It’s such a big, exciting market to work within,” enthused White. “Obviously, the burden is on us to adapt to the market and not expect that the market adapts itself to us. Uber also needs to better understand local customs, traditions … and ways of doing business. We talk about building globally, but acting and living locally in Japan is probably the most significant embodiment of the need to do that. So our new strategy (embracing the use of taxis at Uber Japan) reflects that attitude,” he commented, mentioning that cash payment is an area Uber Japan is investigating.

“The profile of a typical taxi driver in Japan is not an everyday Uber driver partner you might see in another market. Smartphone penetration among taxi drivers in Japan is relatively low,” he said, providing a typical profile of someone who has been driving taxis for 30 years and deriving 90 percent of his or her income from hailed rides. “That’s required us to think differently about how we build our team, the types of people we should be hiring to work constructively with Japanese taxi companies and help drivers understand how to use the Uber app.”

Adamant that Japan’s taxi companies manage fleets well and have developed strong relationships with their drivers, White sees humility as essential to his relationship with Japan. “I tried to learn as much as I could before I got here and have been exposed to various parts of Japanese culture from reading and consuming media over the years, but it’s the depth, complexity and nuances of Japanese culture that have been perhaps the most surprising,” White observed. “I guess the fact that almost every day I learn something new tells me this is going to be a long-term journey of discovery,” he said.

White’s job requires him to remain focused and synthesize large amounts of information; a typical day consists of meetings encompassing matters from tech to marketing. Working for a 21st-century tech company in the world’s “second-largest taxi market” is a change from his former days working as a Liberal Party adviser for the Western Australian government. White, however, said he wouldn’t want it any other way. “I always knew I wanted to do something in the private sector. I didn’t want to lock myself onto a track where I would be involved in the machinations of politics for the rest of my life.”

While White said political skills such as being able to communicate effectively, understanding the interests of others and how to influence them positively have been useful at Uber, his public policy experience was perhaps the most practical. “It has become a critical issue for Uber over the past four years. I first came to see Uber through a public policy lens because that was my world. … I got to know the team and then started to learn more about the technology,” he said.

Uber’s future in Japan looks to span more than taxi services. Uber Eats, which is already in Japan; a freight business that’s growing in the U.S.; and autonomous technology are all areas that Uber Technologies is involved in.

The company also shared its vision for flying cars at a summit with industry figures and government authorities in Japan. “Japan’s on our short list of five markets that we may run commercial test flights in by 2023. Any thorough discussion about Uber’s future has to include the fact that the business is becoming a platform rather than just a way for someone to use a vehicle to get from A to B via road in the conventional way,” White concluded with a smile.


A leap from politics to the private sector

Tom White joined Uber in January 2015. Initially responsible for the Perth market, his role expanded and by early 2016 he was managing operations in South Australia. White was soon promoted to Uber’s head of cities, Australia and New Zealand, jointly responsible for operations and growth in various markets. In 2017, White moved to Ho Chi Minh City as general manager of Uber Vietnam, overseeing business development and growth, as well as operations during a period of market regulatory reform. White relocated to Japan early last year for his current role. Before joining Uber, White worked in politics and public policy for the minister of energy and education in Western Australia and was federal president of the Young Liberal Movement for a year. White holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Western Australia. As a child, he lived in Fremantle and Bangkok. His hobbies include exercising and listening to podcasts.

The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.

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