Please activate cookies in order to turn autoplay off

Minicab mogul has tight grip on wheel

Addison Lee founder John Griffin doesn't like his drivers to speak unless spoken to - but has plenty to say about business himself

John Griffin, founder of Addison Lee

John Griffin, founder and chairman of minicab company Addison Lee, London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

John Griffin, founder of Addison Lee, the largest minicab firm in Britain, is firing a driver. "That bloke ... short-tempered ... don't need him," he says, after the hapless man has left. He had, it later emerges, taken a wrong turn and then argued with a female passenger when she asked him to turn around.

Griffin has built Addison Lee up from a single car in 1979 to a fleet of 2,500 vehicles criss-crossing London and revenues this year of £180m. A former minicab driver with a gravelly voice, tinted specs and a Michael Caine accent, he didn't get where he is today, he suggests, by tolerating bad customer service.

"There is now a full understanding of the value of service," he says. "You and I, when we ordered a three-piece suite, that three-piece suite would come on a Tuesday, at a time best known to them, and sod you. Today I want to know what time they are delivering my three-piece suite and I demand to know, and I want the mobile phone number of the driver's mate who is sitting there scratching his arse instead of phoning me and telling me what time they are going to be there, you understand? We are no longer prepared to put up with stuff we used to put up with. We have been to America; we have seen how it is done."

Warming to his theme, he fires a shot at the black cab industry. "I think the black taxis would love to have me on their team, because really they have lost the plot. For example, last week I came from Newcastle with a case, two cases, and I had to throw them in the back with me, and the driver never got out of the cab, he didn't help me, he was badly dressed, he had flip-flops on, you know, he wasn't professionally presented, he didn't act professionally.

"There is a positive side to this recession, which is that companies that don't understand those issues will collapse and are collapsing. And the best example would be Woolworths, who lost the plot and thought that their reputation would carry them through, that the British public would support them. Now the black taxi is in danger of becoming Woolworths part two, because they think that the good old cheeky chappie sitting at the front there, wisecracking while he drives across town is endeared to you to the point where you will use him no matter what. That is no longer the case. He is now up against it and the minicab industry is licensed and there are proper alternatives."

Griffin, 67, likes to talk. It is not hard to imagine him behind the wheel, putting the world to rights, although part of the week-long training programme for Addison Lee drivers involves impressing upon you the rule that you don't speak unless you are spoken to. "I wouldn't personally want to engage in a conversation with a minicab driver. I might occasionally say how has your day been, but on balance I probably wouldn't," he says. Drivers are made to wear shirts and ties, supplied by the company, and two patrolmen ride the streets making sure that cars are clean and the dress rules adhered to.

Wandering around his office, he has a view on pretty much everything. A courier walks in, voices squawking from his two-way radio. "Turn it down a bit alright?" In the office that produces a magazine for the back of the cabs ("A right riveting read") he complains about the heating to a bemused manager. "Listen, make sure it is not too hot in here. You know what it is like with girls, they want it so hot. They've got to wear jumpers. People become lethargic. If they are cold tell them to run about a bit."

Addison Lee's offices take up an entire block in a back street close to London's Euston station. Griffin has a glass office on the same floor as the telephone bookers. "I am in the firmament, this is where the goose lays the eggs." There is a constant background chatter as jobs are booked in front of banks of computer terminals and a digital display on the wall shows the number of cars despatched that day. By 11am it has reached 4,100. Half an hour later almost another 1,000 orders have been taken. The firm has its own garage on the same block where it services the vehicles. It buys 20 a week and runs them for three years.

The key to expansion has been investment in technology, Griffin says. Software, developed in-house, allocates jobs according to the nearest driver. Years of data from driving on London's roads has been merged with the GPS system to work out times to a destination and the best routes. The information is downloaded by drivers and effectively replaces the 'knowledge' that all of London's black-cab drivers must have. Jobs are even found for cabs on the way home, so they are not empty. Griffin shows off an environmental award for the system's efficiency. He says the recession hit the firm at the beginning of the year, but business has improved in the second half.

Raised in a basement flat in Kilburn, Griffin left school with no qualifications, due to a bout of TB he contracted by drinking from a pail after he had milked a cow on a school trip. He bluffed his way into an accountancy job but when his father's roads and sewers business ran into trouble he quit to help out, doing cab work on the side to make more cash.

He wound up driving full-time, but decided to start his own firm after his first son was born, convinced that he could do better than the companies he had worked for. "The great thing about this business is you don't need expertise to know what it is like to sit around waiting for a taxi being told lies and bullshit."

Roughly half of the Addison Lee business is corporate accounts. It also owns a coach division. "I was a driver and I have never forgotten how badly I was treated by the companies I worked for – when you walked into the office it was like a piece of dirt walked in. I turn that around and I introduce the driver to my staff here as their employer because without him, we haven't got a job."

"You have to admire what he has done," says one industry rival. "Everyone respects John. He can be a bit arrogant and a bit aggressive. He is a bullish character and some people don't like that. But it is a very impressive operation and he has worked very hard. He is a tough cookie."

Griffin chose the brand because one of the men he worked with lived in a squat in Addison Gardens, which always sounded quite "honkytonk". It also helped put him near the top of alphabetical listings. His two sons now work in the business, Liam as managing director and Kieran as sales director. His nephew is IT director. He toys with the idea of expanding outside London, but says there is still a lot more business to go for in the capital first.

Griffin will appear on the Channel 4 show Secret Millionaire on Christmas Eve but lives modestly in the same house in Potters Bar that he bought in 1979. So what has he spent his cash on? "I have got a Bentley continental, a couple of menopausals. I was told when I got to 40 I would buy a red sports car. I bought three. Do it in style," he says. "My sons live in bigger houses than me and I like that and my job now is to pass the baton on to them.

"One of the things recession does is it clears out the crap, it is a colonic irrigation of the economy. There are people who survive in business because times are good. They won't survive now, and the people who have run a tight ship, who have paid their bills, who haven't overspent or squandered or indulged, those people now jump to the front of the queue, and I am there. Everything you see is paid for," he says, gesturing around the office. "We don't finance stuff. If we can't afford it, we don't buy it. I don't owe anybody anything. It is part of my philosophy and the reason is when you come from nothing you always worry that if you owe money and things go wrong, you could go back to where you started.It is quite a good discipline."


Your IP address will be logged

Addison Lee founder keeping a tight grip on the wheel

This article appeared on p7 of the Business news & features section of the Observer on Sunday 20 December 2009. It was published on guardian.co.uk at 00.05 GMT on Sunday 20 December 2009.

Our selection of best buys

Lender Initial rate
Yorkshire BS 3.59% More
ING 3.68% More
First Direct 2.58% More
Name BT Rate BT Period
Virgin Credit Card 0% 16 mths More
NatWest Platinum 0% 15 mths More
Barclaycard Platinum 0% Until 01/01/2011 More
Provider Typical APR
Sainsbury's Personal Loan 8.0% More
Provider AER
LLOYDS TSB BANK PLC 3.04% More
ALLIANCE & LEICESTER 3.00% More
PRINCIPALITY BS 2.85% More

Free P&P at the Guardian bookshop

Guardian Jobs

UK

Browse senior executive jobs

USA

Browse senior executive jobs

  • Loading jobs...

jobs by Indeed job search