8 entrepreneurs and their cars for success
Growing Business gathered a high-flying, fast-driving bunch of business owners together to talk wheels and how what they drive ties in with commercial success
Entrepreneurs are travelling further, and for longer, to meet clients – the government estimates the average UK business car journey time has risen by nearly a third over the past 15 years.
But although cars provide a more convenient and comfortable experience than a packed train en route to a meeting, the question of which car to drive is more complex than simply selecting a mechanism to take you from A to B.
An entrepreneur’s vehicle can be a significant personal status symbol – an immediate, gleaming sign of success that can be paraded to nods of appreciation from other drivers. What’s more, once you’ve pulled into a client’s car park, your vehicle’s role doesn’t end when you turn off the engine. Cars, just as much as clothes, hairstyles or accents, provoke a strong, if sometimes subconscious, judgement of the owner by others.
Making sure that your car provides an accurate snapshot of your business – preferably professional, reliable and of high quality – can be a challenge if your vehicle is overly ostentatious or, worse, looks like you should make an urgent telephone call to your local scrap heap. Throw in the additional need for travel outside working hours, and it’s apparent that your choice of car will be one of the most important decisions you make.
We asked nine entrepreneurs to talk about their cars. While we spoke to a couple of unashamed ‘petrol heads’, it became clear that even those who weren’t huge car fans cared about what they drove.
The client-facing vehicle
Name: Ben Allan
Car: Honda S2000
Ben Allan, founder of high-growth marketing agency TILT, feels his car, a Honda S2000, is an accurate reflection of his business.
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“The image it gives off is understated, but it’s a class act,” he says of the two-seater. “That’s how we present ourselves as a business. We’re a professional company, but without being over-the-top and pretentious.”
The sleek design, not to mention the fact that the speed dial can leap from zero to 60mph in just six seconds, guarantees Allan’s car receives admiring glances from clients. But the Southampton-based entrepreneur is careful not to brazenly flaunt his success.
“It would be detrimental to turn up in a huge luxury car,” he insists. “Some clients might think we were making lots of money and try to beat us down on rates.
“At the same time, you don’t want to turn up in a clapped out old banger. We try to project an image that’s quite classy and sophisticated. It’s perfect for the stage we’re at. We’re a young business and the car is young and dynamic, too. And it reflects well on our growth cycle.”
Allan uses the car regularly to visit potential clients to aid the relentless battle for new business in a notoriously competitive industry. He confirms that he sees the car as a personal status symbol, but concedes that client-wowing style has come at the price of comfort.
The Honda is dispensed for lengthy journeys in favour of a company car that’s kinder on the driver’s body, while the fact that the S2000 has just two seats can throw up practicality issues when visiting clients.
However, Allan is unrepentant over his choice, claiming the car is an excellent vehicle in its own right.
“It’s underrated in a way I like,” he says. “It’s a superb performance car and is certainly much better than all the ‘hairdresser’ girls’ sports cars out there.”
The dream machine
Name: Mark Roy
Company: The ReAD Group
Focus: Marketing data
Car: Aston Martin DB9
Some entrepreneurs use their high-end cars as little more than mobile billboards of their company’s success. For Mark Roy, however, his Aston Martin DB9 is the fulfilment of a personal dream.
Despite his marketing data firm, The ReAD Group, being a mere three miles away from his Kent home, Roy relishes every corner and gear change the journey affords.
“I use the DB9 all the time,” explains Roy, who is chief executive officer of the group. “You can’t just wave goodbye to it each morning. The journey to work includes a 600-metre dual carriageway where I like to put the roof down and pretend I’m on the Autobahn.”
The DB9 is Roy’s fourth Aston Martin, the first being an “extravagant purchase” on his 40th birthday. But his love of the most quintessentially British of cars has deeper roots. “From the age of six, I played with James Bond dinky car toys,” he recalls.
“From that point, Aston Martin has been the pinnacle of cars for me.”
Having spent several years building the Group to a £13m turnover business, Roy found himself in a position to upgrade his car from a Renault Laguna to the Aston Martin. He feels that the tangible success of his entrepreneurialism has proved inspirational to his staff at the group. While impressed members often stand admiringly around the DB9 when Roy visits his local golf club, he’s keen to remind others of his Laguna-driving days, to highlight the toil of growing the business from a £25,000 start-up in 1991.
When asked what his dream car is, Roy’s answer is obvious. “I’m driving it,” he says. “Aston Martin is the archetypal car. Certain cars suit certain people. Porsches are for people with beer bellies and small penises, while Ferraris are for those with nothing better to do with their time.”
Roy’s glee with his car is evident when interacting with clients. He admits to happily removing the car’s roof to provide passengers with a journey sprinkled with glamour. “Success breeds success, and the car provides clients with the comfort that they are dealing with a solid company,” he adds.
The speed freak
Name: Ross Williams
Focus: Design agency
Car: TVR Tuscan
Ross Williams has always had a soft spot for high-performance cars – especially if they happened to be travelling at face-stretchingly fast speeds.
As a boy, the managing director of leading design agency Rawnet adorned his bedroom walls with posters of the original TVR Tuscan, later having the sports car staring out at him from his computer’s screensaver.
So, having forged a successful business career – Williams is also chief executive of dating agency Global Personals – his wheels of choice came as no shock.
“I love the sheer, unadulterated styling of the car,” he enthuses. “I could drive around in a Ford Mondeo which would show that we’re sensible, but in our industry you can show off, without being too poncey. I take it to Brands Hatch in wet conditions when there’s no driver traction. On the track, you really see the raw, animal side of it – it’s got quite an aggressive personality.”
Williams’ love of speed – the £45,800 TVR Tuscan can notch up 180mph – isn’t restricted to cars. He was on a RAF bursary at university and admits to hankering after a private helicopter.
“I’ve back-seated with the RAF in a Tornado F3, but it doesn’t compare to getting the perfect line on a race track,” he says. “The sense of speed is much better, there’s no traction control or electrics, so if you balls it up, it’s your fault.”
Williams is keen to temper his affection for rapidly moving machinery with humility, stressing the work of others that has allowed him to enjoy the trappings of success.
Despite the growling pace of the TVR, Williams insists that he is a careful driver, pointing out that his ambassadorial role for his 30-employee strong business would be damaged by a glut of speeding tickets.
The car has proved a practical tool in luring clients, with Williams often taking existing and potential business partners to track-racing days. And with “five-figure” deals often following, Williams can justify the £200-a-head cost.
The entrepreneur has also met a number of business contacts through various TVR car clubs, with his vehicle providing a “great conversation starter”.
Although Williams’ dream garage would also include an Aston Martin DB9 and a Lamborghini Murcielago, the TVR Tuscan will always retain a certain allure. “I like the exclusivity of it,” he says. “When I see another one, I get a wave from the other driver. There isn’t the snobbery you get with other performance cars.”
The green wiz
Name: Keith Johnston
Focus: Electric cars
“I think that anyone who drives an expensive, polluting car around London is an idiot.” With comments like this, it’s clear where Keith Johnston stands on green motoring issues. “I think it’s going to become increasingly socially unacceptable, like smoking has, to drive a polluting car,” he continues.
Johnston, as he’ll be the first to admit, has a vested interest in environmentally friendly vehicles. He’s the managing director of GoinGreen, provider of the UK’s best-selling electric car, the G-Wiz.
However, the fact that Johnston drives a G-Wiz himself is, he says, not just a sign of solidarity with his business’ product. The entrepreneur insists that electric cars not only slow climate change, they offer business users an eye-catching financial incentive.
“The car pays for itself in under 12 months,” he explains. “Electric cars are exempt from the congestion charge in London, which is worth over £6,000 a year alone.” Johnston would like to see the whole of central London become an emission-free zone. More radically, he feels that drivers of polluting cars need to be “hunted down, shamed and financially penalised in order to change their behaviour”.
However, while GoinGreen practices what it preaches – none of the business’ staff drive polluting cars without good reason – Johnston admits to previously owning a Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. The change in vehicle could not be starker – the £7,000 G-Wiz can reach a sedate top speed of 40mph.
“I enjoyed the thrill of driving a Porsche,” he concedes. “Nowadays, I would find it too polluting, but I do miss the driving pleasure you get from an exciting sports car.
“I spent the first 30 years of my life aspiring to one, but like many dreams, once you’ve attained them, it’s easy to move on.”
The G-Wiz has changed Johnston’s image on the road radically. From being “cool”, his car is now seen as “caring” – “a more appropriate symbol for our times”, according to Johnston. The car works on a marketing level, too, with Johnston stopped several times a week by drivers keen to know more about the unorthodox-looking vehicle.
“In the G-Wiz, I always get let out onto main roads by people with smiles on their faces. In the Porsche, I’d have to wait a long time for that to happen!”
The petrol head
Name: Russell Townsend
Focus: Design agency
Car: Range Rover Vogue
You get the feeling that Russell Townsend could hold a never-ending conversation on the subject of cars.
The managing director of design agency Clusta is a self-confessed car fanatic. His vehicles straddle business-friendly and unadulterated personal pleasure.
For meetings, Townsend has a Range Rover Vogue. He also has a 1971 Porsche 911 for weekends.
“Basically, I just love cars,” he admits. “The Porsche is a classic. It’s beautiful. Something I’ve wanted since I was a kid.
“As soon as I discovered I could afford it, I bought one.”
Although he used the Porsche as an everyday car for some time, he eventually sacrificed its style for the comfort of the Range Rover.
“I don’t want to get to the end of a journey tired for a pitch or presentation,” he explains. “The Range Rover is an easy car to drive and it’s comfortable.”
The larger vehicle has proved practical business-wise, giving Townsend the space to carry samples to clients.
Townsend has been savvy with his purchases. Due to the ‘classic’ nature of the car, his Porsche is worth more now than when he purchased it five years ago. “Not only are the classic cars a depreciable asset, I can also put them in a SIPS pension,” he says.
“They are very pleasurable, but not frivolous. I’ll never lose money on a classic car. If I bought a new Ferrari, I’d lose £30,000 in value as soon as I’d driven it off the forecourt. That would sicken me.”
The escape hatch
Name: Susan Rose
Focus: Retail strategy
Car: Alfa-Romeo 147
Susan Rose has forged a career on being busy. As head of Tesco-owned dunnhumby, she helped develop and launch the Tesco Clubcard. She then founded 5one with her husband Stephen in 2001 and has responsibility for client strategy across the UK, Europe and the US with customers including Asda, Boots and Tesco.
With regular international travel and a host of blue chip clients, not to mention a family including three children, time is understandably at a premium for Rose.
She finds that her car provides a welcome space to reflect, as well as helping her maintain a semblance of work-life balance.
“Being in my car is one of the only times I’m by myself – it’s great downtime,” she says. “My clients are mainly in international retail, so if I go into Sainsbury’s and see something good, I’ll mull it over in the car and try to figure out if it’ll work in Norway or not.
“I’ll then just sit in the car park and send the idea to someone on the Blackberry.”
Rose only takes one long car-based business journey a week. However, when she does get the chance to get behind the wheel, she’s determined to enjoy it.
“It sounds bizarre, but I really enjoy driving,” she explains. “It helps me clear my mind and think. It’s also the only time it’s legal for me to sing!”
Rose’s choice of the Alfa Romeo 147 was simple – she thought the car looked stylish, it performed well, and at £13,000 it cost just half of the outlay on her previous car, a BMW 328i.
“Clients don’t like it if you pull up in a Porsche, but they also don’t want you in a tatty old car,” she says. “The Alfa is a good balance – it’s individual, but it doesn’t look like I’m raking in the money.
“I think during the 1980s, it was more expected to be flash, but that’s changed now.”
The careful owner
Name: David Evans
Company: The Grass Roots Group
Focus: Business consultancy
Car: Lexus LS430
Having started the Grass Roots Group in 1980 with three employees and transformed it into an international, £315m-turnover company, few would begrudge David Evans a few automotive luxuries.
However, although you may expect his garage to be bumper-to-bumper with Porsches, Aston Martins and Ferraris, Evans has stayed loyal to the same maker for the past 10 years – Lexus.
Evans fully admits that Lexus isn’t the most glamorous brand in the world, but hasn’t considered switching once since taking a test drive a decade ago.
“Everything was effortless, which you need when your brain is on something else,” he says. “Lexus is like us – we help large corporations make improvements and each new Lexus has new refinements, – even if you don’t see them.
“It doesn’t force you to be like it, it moulds to you. It’s boringly reliable – I’ve never had one that’s had more than a light bulb go out. It’s not the sexiest car by a long stretch, but you’re sure you’re going to get there and it’ll be in comfort.”
The desire for comfort is high up on the list of Evans’ car requirements, a quality embodied by Lexus along with the eerie silence of the drive. It’s economical too – Evans states that if he had a Mercedes he would only drive 2,000 miles a year, compared to the 18,000 miles he currently undertakes.
Evans is on his fourth Lexus, the LS430. His wife is similarly loyal to the brand, owning a 4×4 hybrid version – a driving experience Evans likens to a “milk float with style”.
“My loyalty is based on experience,” he says. “I know if I had a problem they would sort it as quick as lightning.
“People would never admit to it, but you can be too flash. I had a friend, who is the managing director of a large corporation, who had the head of his ad agency turn up in a Ferrari and park it in a disabled space. That type of thing doesn’t endear you to the client.”
The multi-purpose man
Name: Noel Warner
Company: Inc Direct
Focus: Direct marketing
Car: Mitsubishi Animal pick-up
For Noel Warner, work and play go very much in hand.
“I work hard during the week and then play hard at the weekend,” he says. This lifestyle is powered by the same vehicle – the huge Mitsubishi Animal pick-up truck.
After tiring of his Seat Leon Cupra R, Warner, managing director of direct mail company Inc Direct, felt that weekend activities with his family should supersede business considerations over which car to go for. He plumped for the Animal and set about turning it into his ideal vehicle. Over £4,000 was spent on bolt-on extras, such as a chrome kit over the payload and spotlights.
Screens are in the headrests so that Warner’s three children can watch DVDs, while PlayStation 2 consoles are also installed.
The Animal can accommodate jet skis and wetsuits when the Warners make their regular trips from their Aylesbury home to indulge their hobby.
“Sometimes we go camping or just go to the local lake at Reading and go jet skiing there,” he says. “It’s very practical – you can throw everything in the back and you can go off-road in it.”
Since he bought the Animal a year ago, Warner has clocked up 45,000 miles, a considerable chunk of which is taken up by his 100-mile round trip to work every day.
As a 2.5 Turbo diesel, the Animal is more economical than other 4x4s, although Warner admits to being “annoyed” about rising fuel costs. Private mileages are put through the business, but Warner sees it as a justifiable luxury.
For such a personal indulgence, the Animal performs well as a client-facing vehicle.
“It’s a lovely car, but it isn’t rubbing people’s noses in it,” he says. “At work, there can be a bit of resentment if the boss turns up in a Ferrari, but we’re not like that here – we do have nice cars, but we’re not flash.
“The Animal says that we’re fun guys to work with and we don’t take life too seriously.”