He's the minicab mogul courted by politicians. John Griffin, plain-speaking boss of Addison Lee, has seen his business scoop awards while prospering in a recession. He talks about what drives him, why the customer is king and giving youth a chance
The founder of Addison Lee, Europe's largest minicab fleet, is a straight-talking Londoner whose home truths probably rub some people up the wrong way. London's taxi drivers, for example, whose vehicles John Griffin
describes as "massively polluting, expensive boneshakers". They've lost the plot, he claims, turning his ire on the drivers. "I look at them and think, 'if that's what we're competing with, bring it on'. It's time they woke up and started doing customer service courses. The taxi trade is worried; it should be."
But at least you know where you stand with Griffin. He doesn't pretend to be something he's not. He's generous rather than verbose. And he's not as bullish as some would have you believe. In fact, one of the first things he says, pointing to a dinner invitation on his desk from David Cameron, is that "people who would never speak to me are suddenly inviting me to places". He may be the millionaire chairman of a privately owned family business, but much like everyone else, he wants to be well received. "It's nice to be liked," he says. "I want you to walk out of here and say, 'that John Griffin, what a good bloke'. That's important in life. Nobody wants to be an arse."
No wonder the politicians are courting Griffin. Last year was a good one for Addison Lee. Exceptional even, considering the UK was in recession. It won a clutch of gongs, including a Green500 Diamond award. The organisation's Dr Stuart Ballinger says it was the only business to win "the pinnacle of our awards" because it had reduced its CO2 emissions significantly (by 17 per cent between 2006 and 2008) and shown great leadership.
"Addison Lee hasn't buried its head in the sand, but has looked
at ways of mitigating its impact as a transport company," says Ballinger. "It's looked at fleets, driver training, energy consumption, a green procurement strategy. The verified savings for Addison Lee are more than 8,000 tonnes of CO2 per year-that manifested itself into £185,000 per year cost savings." But most impressive of all is the figure that Griffin shows me on his computer screen: £88,948,737. "This is what the account business billed in 2009," he explains. "We did slightly more than that in cash but the driver keeps the cash, so we don't count that. That's a big number, in this town, for taxis."
Especially when Addison Lee is up against 2,300 other licensed private-hire operators in the capital, some 21,000 licensed taxis and rising fuel costs. Cameron's pursuit is timely. Griffin says he's ready to step up. "I have an instinct for business, which has served me well," he says. "Politicians don't run the country, businessmen do and I feel we have a duty to put our two bobs-worth in. I've looked at the future and it's a Tory government. But I think I have the qualities that are going to be useful to any government."
He knows his stuff, admits Chris Lee, a manager at minicab firm Interline in Harrow, north-west London. And it's not just about being a "tough cookie". He says Addison Lee has reached what he calls "a critical mass" in the industry by putting good cars on the road with well-trained drivers. The company has the advantage, he continues, of being able to invest "when pretty much everyone else had to batten the hatches because of the recession".
But he reckons Addison Lee really stole a march on its competitors back in 1976 when, just one year after starting up, Griffin took the initiative and lobbied for the minicab industry to be licensed. "There's this thing in business where you have to make a decision. He assumed that licensing would come, and to some extent was a force behind it happening," says Lee. "If you get there first, you can shout it from the rooftops."
There's no shortage of people willing to take a pop, though. Online, unimpressed customers and irritated cyclists chatter about Addison Lee's drivers—poor knowledge of English, aggressive or risky driving, and over-reliance on GPS are among the common complaints. Driving in the M4 bus lane when they're not meant to be is the taxi drivers' current bugbear.
Griffin's not concerned by the latter. Quite the opposite: "I feel complimented that I bother them," he says. "The more they're
bothered, the more successful I will be." But if a customer's got a beef with Addison Lee then that's different.
All of Griffin's drivers are required to sit an NVQ level 2 training course and the company says it has its own driver training to ensure that standards are constantly monitored and improved. He is proud that 99.3 per cent of all bookings turn up on time; his motto is "who cares wins"; he credits a three per cent rise in bookings last year (when generally trade was down) to good service; and "you have to be good at your job" to work at Addison Lee.
If someone wants to get in touch with the chairman, he takes the calls. Which reveals something about his leadership style. In Griffin's mind, no businessman should ask his PA to "find out who's calling". That irks him. "They [his employees] are trained not to ask who's calling?" I doubt this is just rhetoric. Griffin doesn't have a "swanky office with a chandelier and a secretary" (he has a modest office within the call centre) because he likes to keep in touch with the staff and what's happening in the firm. When you've had a "chequered start" like he did, he says, "you prioritise differently".
The series producer of television programme The Secret Millionaire (on which Griffin appeared last year) says the businessman's background helped him understand the territory he was entering. "John was a dream to work with," says Caroline Ross-Pirie. "He had insight into those communities because of where he came from." There was no sentimentality, she continues. His objective was to get the projects he chose on TV so that viewers could understand the bigger picture. "It wasn't [about] just bringing tears to people's eyes," she says. "That stuff interested him least."
Ross-Pirie believes that giving back and making things better for people is what genuinely motivates Griffin. "He's an enormously committed philanthropist," she says.
Griffin has not built his wealth by being wildly speculative but by running an efficient and responsible business. So in the context of the financial meltdown, he reasons, his firm, and by extension his employees aren't vulnerable. "All these millionaires with property are looking at their balance sheets and this is not a good time for them. I don't have a racehorse, a helicopter, or a boat. But I've got paid bills and we're not in the pockets of the banks."
His employees are encouraged to aim high. Don't believe anyone who claims there's a recipe for success, he says. Anyone can achieve what he has with courage and desire, and that's the message he wants youngsters to understand. "There's nothing special about me. Successful businesspeople pretend that somehow they have this special quality without which you're not going to make it. I'm against that. Luck plays a part in everything we do. We must never think that because we're successful we can look down at people."
Griffin prefers to open doors. He uses the word opportunity a lot. He points to the Samuel Lithgow Youth Centre opposite his north London office and explains how he hopes to engage youngsters there. Addison Lee is providing computers and some IT wizards to try to spot technically minded kids. Griffin calls it education by stealth. "There'll be a DJ school so we'll get them on the decks and when the kids have taken to it, we'll show them the IT program that makes it happen. Suddenly, you've got a kid interested. People have an aptitude, a bent, but it's only brought about by opportunity".
Griffin is a champion of good parenting. What matters most to him? His sons. Why did he start his own business? The birth of his first child convinced him to get his "arse into gear". He says: "I can't tell you how driven I was. I was like the white tornado. I was frightening."
Today, Addison Lee is a family affair. Both his sons are directors, as is his nephew. His chief executive is the son of his original partner, who died in 1992. He describes his own role these days as that of figurehead, and if necessary, "the loony with the axe".
Dr Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, thinks Addison Lee is a stand-out business. He was on the judging panel last year for the National Business Awards when the company won the business innovation of the year prize and recalls: "We were looking for a major shift in the way a business operated. Addison Lee had innovated in the way in which it delivered its service to the customer, a technical innovation that enabled it to allocate its drivers to particular jobs in real-time and reduce its carbon footprint, and it worked to design, deliver and add benefit to individual employees' jobs as well as the customer."
It's not just "green" initiatives on which Addison Lee has taken leadership. Griffin has also given the go-ahead to reinvest profits in new technology and its vehicles. He says the decision to own all company vehicles has been his best: "It enabled us to standardise the fleet and offer more consistent customer service."
It's a strong example of how to build a brand and perform well, says Gary Davies, professor of corporate reputation at Manchester Business School. Every sector has a public reputation, he says, and the minicab industry is "overall negative". But Addison Lee has turned people's low expectations to its advantage. Davies explains: "If an employee delivers something which is superior to the customer's expectation, because the employee believes in his heart of hearts that it is the reality, then that positive view transmits to the customer. The result is a significant sales increase."
Griffin says his firm takes 20,000 bookings a day when it's busy.
Service, he argues, is remembered long after price is forgotten. Which is why he's so relaxed about his competition. "Even if I half-trot I'm overtaking them. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And that's what I am."