Addison Lee: John Griffin

Back in 1975, John Griffin got his hands on a car and some second hand radio equipment resulting in the formation of minicab firm Addison Lee. Today, the business encompasses pretty much any service on wheels – private hire, as well as a chauffeur, coach and courier service. The Addison Lee group has a combined annual turnover of £180m making it Europe’s largest cab company by far. With 20 cars added to the fleet each week, and 20,000 bookings taken each day, the closest competitor would need to grow five fold to even come close. The secret to this success? It’s all about the technology, says John.

“About 15 years ago I decided to invest heavily in technology,” says John. “At that time, minicab businesses all seemed to stop at about 250 cars and we were the same. We couldn’t get past that ceiling because the mechanics of taking the bookings took too long. Today we’re massively ahead of the competition because of the technology we’ve put in place. We spend £2m a year on it and none of that has come at the expense of profit. We spend what we spend because we have the cash to do it.”

The company employs 24 full time developers who are constantly honing and maintaining the system, enhancing the uses of the sophisticated GPS technology for both cost and environmental efficiency. But despite a trophy cabinet packed full of green awards, including the Diamond status awarded by co2 reduction scheme London Green500 in 2009, you won’t hear John waxing lyrical on climate change.

Addison Lee has reduced its carbon emissions by nearly 40% since 2002 despite growing its fleet significantly. It may have given the company significant credibility among environmental groups but for John, it all comes down to bottom line. “I’m not going to give you any bullshit. It’s a wonderful achievement, but what’s the motivating factor for me? Commercial. Costs have come down, profits have gone up.”

Family affair

Two families have been in the driving seat at Addison Lee since its early years. John ran into financial difficulties during his first year of business so had to sell half the company. The partnership was a match made in hell. “I sold to a guy I just could not get on with,” says John. “I just sacked him – told him I wasn’t going to work with him.” The original buyer sold his shares to Lenny Foster, who worked with John until his death in 1992. Foster’s son Daryl carried on at the firm however, and is the current CEO. The remainder of the senior management team is made up of John’s sons Liam and Kieran.

“It’s not really a question of keeping in the family,” insists John. “All the company’s main growth is as a result of Liam who’s my MD. He’s extremely talented and has really pushed the business – he’s the only businessman I’ve met that I would place ahead of me. I’m just shit lucky I have a son that’s such a major talent.”

Much of the company’s success undoubtedly lies with its corporate accounts. At present Addison Lee has roughly 16,000 account customers accounting for 50% of overall revenue. The company’s marketing department likes to boast that it counts half of all FTSE 100 firms among its customers, but John is loath to brag about the status of his clients. “We service everybody. I like to think that whoever you are, we have an obligation to supply you with the best service we can.

“In the past, I’ve had certain ‘big’ customers make demands from me because large companies think they can. I don’t play that game. I tell them to stuff it. I’ve done just that with ITN and Disney. I’ve given it to them, exactly these words: stick it up your arse. I’m that bloke.” 

Bullying corporate clients aren’t John’s only bugbear. As one can imagine, there’s not much love at Addison Lee HQ for the lowly Hackney Carriage driver either. “Get in a black cab tomorrow and you’ll share your seat with your suitcase. Nobody will open the door for you or help you with your luggage. Customer service is a big secret of our success and it’s really not hard.” It’s all about attention to detail according to John. Drivers wear a shirt and tie, keep the radio turned off and don’t speak unless spoken to.

Investment opposition

With the exception of the early equity deal, John has remained resistant to outside investment over the past thirty years. Addison Lee is a business that “pays its bills”. If John can’t afford it, it doesn’t get bought. “Everything you see, from the desk to the carpet is all paid for. We even own the building outright, which is why when the recession came we were prepared.” That’s no mean feat considering the company occupies the best part of a whole street in Euston, complete with its own garage where all the vehicles are serviced in-house, and space for the company’s 600 office staff. Addison Lee even owns its own sales lot where it sells the cabs after running them for three years.

He runs a tight ship and prides himself on the businesses aversion to “squandering”. John’s distaste for credit even extends outside the office – he lives in the same house he paid for in cash back in 1979. “My biggest ambition in life was always to own a house without a mortgage, and I’ve had that for thirty years. People ask why we’ve not taken credit to reinvest in faster growth but this is not an overnight business.

“You can’t suddenly double your turnover in a day. You need drivers, then more jobs. It’s a slow process. For the foreseeable future this is us. I don’t want to float and have to deal with all the board meetings. We make decisions here. Things get done.”

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