Minicab monarch: John Griffin

John Griffin is the man behind Addison Lee, an acquisitive, multi-million pound minicab business which is taking on the might of London's black taxi drivers.

GB meets the man who ‘came from zero’.

A large television, fastened to the wall behind the desk where John Griffin sits, is tuned to a 24-hour satellite news channel. The sound is off but a smartly dressed woman reports on share price movements around the globe.

Griffin is airing his own views on global finance. ‘What has not been spoken about is that banks persuaded people to take out 125 per cent of the values of their properties as a mortgage,’ he declares. ‘That is a criminal act against people who were tempted to take them out.’

His desk is a mass of papers. A signed black and white photograph of Mohammad Ali, glistening with sweat as he dances in the ring, leans against a wall to the left of the television. Awards and certificates abound in Griffin’s glass-walled office for Addison Lee, the London-based minicab firm he founded in Battersea 35 years ago.

People carriers

Griffin is proud of what he has achieved. ‘Since 1975,’ he says, reaching for a calculator and then pausing to consider the arithmetic before rapidly tapping the buttons. ‘In that time, we’ve carried about 200 million passengers.’

Nowadays Griffin receives Christmas cards from David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party who is odds-on to become Britain’s prime minister come the General Election, and Boris Johnson, the foppish Mayor of London. ‘Signed by hand,’ notes Griffin, opening up Boris’ card. ‘Not just printed or done by his staff.’

‘Addison Lee is the largest minicab firm in London’

Addison Lee is the largest provider of minicabs in London. There are 600 staff at the head office in Euston (Griffin has bought the building) and annual revenue stands at around £180 million. The company has a fleet of 2,500 vehicles, including its motorcycles, vans and executive cars. Says Griffin: ‘Overall, 45 per cent of our work is from customer accounts and 55 per cent is cash. We were 3 per cent up on the previous calendar year which, in a market that is down more than 20 per cent, shows we’ve done very well.’

It’s a self-owned, family business. ‘We’re not bogged down by board meetings,’ explains Griffin. ‘We’re a private company and I am the chairman. My CEO is Daryl Foster, the son of my original partner. The managing director is Liam, my son, and the sales and marketing director is my other son, Kieran. Our IT director is Peter Ingram, my nephew. We have our business meetings in the pub.’

Smart operator

That off-the-cuff approach shouldn’t be confused with a lack of professionalism. If anything, Griffin’s business epiphany was to realise he could be a success by focusing on customer service and promoting a professional attitude from his drivers and the controllers who field customer calls. In other words, doing the exact opposite to the competition.

‘What I tried to do is put myself in the position of the passenger. So I didn’t tell customers lies about what time the minicab was arriving. People will never forgive you lies, but they’ll always forgive you the truth, as difficult as it might be to hear,’ he says.

The office of a minicab operator generally tells you everything you need to know about the industry: cheap signs with revolving lights, controllers sitting behind plastic screens that run from the counter to the ceiling and drivers who get uppity when a passenger isn’t sure of the exact route. It’s a small scale, unambitious, frequently grubby line of business, and it was far worse when Griffin started back in the 1970s.

‘There was a lot of criminal input into the industry but it didn’t find me,’ recalls Griffin. ‘Funnily enough, I lived in North London and worked in South London, so I never really came across their radar. I was never drinking in their local pub or in their area. I was this mystery man and nobody bothered me to be honest with you. There were one or two instances, but I just kept on working – it was nothing that was too frightening.’

Griffin preferred to think big, striving to put Addison Lee on an altogether different track. In an internal newsletter for Addison Lee staff, a memorandum from a Quality Assessor at the company states: ‘A lot of drivers are currently wearing scarves and hats in cars. This isn’t allowed.’

The fact the vehicles are branded and owned by the firm as opposed to the drivers also shows how Addison Lee is miles apart from other minicab firms. He explains: ‘We decided to supply the cars six or seven years ago. It’s given us an identity and what it means is that the driver doesn’t have to worry about servicing the vehicle.

‘Everybody said it was the wrong decision except me but it’s been one of our most important and successful moves. Since we acquired the vehicles, we’ve quadrupled turnover.’

From little acorns

Griffin graduated from the school of hard knocks. ‘I’m reasonably unique in that I started with nothing and nothing is a small number,’ he says. ‘Some of the most successful companies have had family support. I had zero.’

After being struck down by a rare form of tuberculosis at the age of 15, Griffin was in hospital for a year and left school without passing a single exam. ‘I had no qualifications and no money, so that was a good start,’ he quips, noting that he doesn’t attribute his success to being a man with a point to prove after his illness. ‘I was happy that I had recovered and I got on with it.’

Leaving school without a qualification wasn’t that unusual back in the 1960s. Landing a job working on the Beatles Christmas shows and as a runner on the Michael Caine classic The Italian Job is slightly less run of the mill. ‘I got the work through some people I knew,’ says Griffin, casually.

From songs and celluloid he changed direction to profit and loss, ‘bluffing it’ to become an understudy for an accountancy firm. That also careered to an abrupt halt when his father’s small civil engineering business hit the skids. ‘He went for the big one and it didn’t work,’ recalls Griffin of his father. ‘I had to look for a [better paying] job and it wasn’t unusual in those days for people to get into minicabbing.’

So at 27 Griffin was driving a cab and trying to turn around the fortunes of his father’s company. Like many before him, he envisaged cabbing as a stop-gap measure. As time passed, he realised there was an opportunity to build a business and make himself a decent living. ‘It was a slog,’ he reflects. ‘I didn’t have anybody mentoring me, or anything I could describe as a great help to me learning the business. I had to do it the hard way.’

No love lost

Such is Griffin’s animosity towards banks, you suspect part of him relished seeing the shameful disasters that befell the industry over the past 18 months. For him, banks slowed down his progress in the early days. ‘To borrow money, you had to prove you didn’t need it, which is always a tricky one,’ he says, going on to acknowledge that a delivery-based company, by its nature, is going to be slow to develop. ‘It’s not like in the building trade where you can win one big contract and make it. This business is about jobs and drivers.’

After a couple of years, Griffin brought in a business partner, selling half the company for £6,000. ‘[Lenny Foster] wasn’t flush but nevertheless I got on with him, and I felt that at least we had some kind of support. There was some money to help us move forwards, albeit in no great leaps and bounds.’

As his experience grew from running the business, he gained a greater understanding about how the banks functioned. ‘There were quirks in the system. So the manager of Barclays in Westbourne Grove only had the authority to give a maximum of £5,000, whereas down the road in Notting Hill there was a bank manger who had the authority to offer £25,000 on his own initiative.’

To steal the crown

In the world of London cabbies, the taxi driver reigns supreme. Only after passing The Knowledge, whereby a person learns some 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, is a green badge awarded by the Public Carriage Office. Over the decades, these kings of the road have seen minicabs as inferior imposters, a ragbag bunch of amateurs who should never be trusted.

‘I started with nothing and that’s a small number’

Griffin, clearly a man who likes a battle, is trying to invert the industry’s status quo. ‘The image of the black taxi driver as a cheeky chappie is no longer relevant. I’d be happier if the taxi driver got out of the cab to help with luggage and bags and if they were slightly less casual in their dress. I don’t think shorts and flip-flops are acceptable.’

The two-and-a-half years of riding a motorbike, learning the streets and studying maps that go into earning a green badge aren’t enough for Griffin. ‘They need retraining,’ he insists. ‘Taxi drivers should understand the damage an individual driver can do by refusing a fare. That’s damaging to the industry. They are far too independent.’

Griffin’s focus goes beyond improved customer service. He would like to see New York-style legislation in place that restricts taxi drivers to picking up fares off the street. That would open up a massive share of the corporate accounts market in the capital for minicab operators like Addison Lee. ‘The more [black cabs] dedicate themselves to doing corporate work, the less taxis there are for the general public,’ he reasons.

With five acquisitions in the same number of years, adding £30 million of sales to the business, and a huge investment in IT, it’s understandable that Griffin, who is proud to have his family working alongside him each day, wants to keep thinking big.

As things stands, there’s plenty of open road left for him and his sons: ‘There are seven to eight million people within the M25 and around 40,000 minicabs. We have 2,500 vehicles. It’s a small market share compared to the industry.’

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

Related Topics

Female founders