News World Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick plays with fire
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Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick plays with fire

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Uber founder Travis Kalanick Travis' ambition has led to risk-taking that could put his company on the brink of implosion. Photo: Getty
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Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, visited Apple’s headquarters in early 2015 to meet with Timothy Cook, who runs the iPhone maker. It was a session that Mr Kalanick was dreading.

For months, Mr Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had been secretly identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased – a fraud detection manoeuvre that violated Apple’s privacy guidelines.

But Apple was onto the deception, and when Mr Kalanick arrived at the mid-afternoon meeting sporting his favourite pair of bright red sneakers and hot-pink socks, Mr Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr Cook said in his calm, Southern tone. Stop the trickery, Mr Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store.

For Mr Kalanick, the moment was fraught with tension. If Uber’s app was yanked from the App Store, it would lose access to millions of iPhone customers – essentially destroying the ride-hailing company’s business. So Mr Kalanick acceded.

In a quest to build Uber into the world’s dominant ride-hailing entity, Mr Kalanick has openly disregarded many rules and norms, backing down only when caught or cornered. He has flouted transportation and safety regulations, bucked against entrenched competitors and capitalised on legal loopholes and grey areas to gain a business advantage. In the process, Mr Kalanick has helped create a new transportation industry, with Uber spreading to more than 70 countries and gaining a valuation of nearly $70 billion, and its business continues to grow.

But the previously unreported encounter with Mr Cook showed how Mr Kalanick was also responsible for risk-taking that pushed Uber beyond the pale, sometimes to the very brink of implosion.

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Photo: Getty

Crossing that line was not a one-off for Mr Kalanick. According to interviews with more than 50 current and former Uber employees, investors and others with whom the executive had personal relationships, Mr Kalanick, 40, is driven to the point that he must win at whatever he puts his mind to and at whatever cost – a trait that has now plunged Uber into its most sustained set of crises since its founding in 2009.

“Travis’s biggest strength is that he will run through a wall to accomplish his goals,” said Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire investor who has mentored Mr Kalanick. “Travis’s biggest weakness is that he will run through a wall to accomplish his goals. That’s the best way to describe him.”

A blindness to boundaries is not uncommon for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. But in Mr Kalanick, that led to a pattern of repeatedly going too far at Uber, including the duplicity with Apple, sabotaging competitors and allowing the company to use a secret tool called Greyball to trick some law enforcement agencies.

That quality also extended to his personal life, where Mr Kalanick mixes with celebrities like Jay Z and businessmen including President Donald Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn. But it has alienated some Uber executives, employees and advisers. Mr Kalanick, with salt-and-pepper hair, a fast-paced walk and an iPhone practically embedded in his hand, is described by friends as more at ease with data and numbers (some consider him a math savant) than with people.

Uber is grappling with the fallout. For the last few months, the company has been reeling from allegations of a machismo-fueled workplace where managers routinely overstepped verbally, physically and sometimes sexually with employees. Mr Kalanick compounded that image by engaging in a shouting match with an Uber driver in February, an incident recorded by the driver and then leaked online.

Mr Kalanick now has a private driver.

The damage has been extensive. Uber’s detractors have started a grass-roots campaign with the hashtag #deleteUber. Executives have streamed out. Some Uber investors have openly criticised the company.

Mr Kalanick’s leadership is at a precarious point. While Uber is financed by a who’s who of investors including Goldman Sachs and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, Mr Kalanick controls the majority of the company’s voting shares with a small handful of other close friends, and has stacked Uber’s board of directors with many who are invested in his success. Yet board members have concluded that he must change his management style, and are pressuring him to do so.

He has publicly apologised for some of his behaviour, and for the first time has said he needs management help. He is interviewing candidates for a chief operating officer, even as some employees question whether a new addition will make any difference. He has also been working with senior managers to reset some of the company’s stated values. Results of an internal investigation into Uber’s workplace culture are expected next month.

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