Telling the truth about SME life today

Addison Lee chairman: “We never lease or rent”

Griffin set up Addison Lee not because he wanted to make piles of money, not because he was itching to run his own business, but because he didn’t want his children to be ashamed of him.

"I was training to be an accountant but I was forced to give up my apprenticeship to help my father, who ran a roads and sewers business," he explains. "He’d bitten off more than he could chew with one particular contract. I tried to rescue what I could of his company and ploughed all my money into it. I was broke so I started minicabbing to make some cash. For hard workers, it’s a lucrative job. After seven years, I bought a house, I was comfortable but I didn’t think my children would be proud of me."

He started up Addison Lee (so called because he wanted a name beginning with A, for listing purposes) in 1975, knowing he could do a better job than the incumbents. "The industry was so badly run. They told lies. They’d tell you a car was on its way when it wasn’t," he says. "They were bloody useless. I thought, ‘I can’t do worse’."

But it was a tough start. London was inundated with minicab firms and Griffin simply didn’t have deep enough pockets to make his mark. So he put an advert for a business partner in the Jewish Chronicle and sold half the company to Lenny Foster for £6,000.

Griffin’s background in accountancy meant he grew the business slowly and sensibly. "I’d learnt the basics," he says. "I knew not to spend more than I saved. I knew what profit meant. And," he adds with a cheeky grin, "I knew how to make two plus two equal five."

He says the company has never parted with a penny on marketing ("Take one of the best restaurants in London, like Le Gavroche," he says. "Have you ever seen an advert for it?") and has never relied on private equity funding or bank loans, choosing instead to reinvest profits back into the business. The company has funded everything itself, from its four acquisitions (Redwing Coaches, bought six years ago for £4.5m, was the biggest) to the company’s offices in Euston, London.

"We don’t lease or rent," he explains. "We own the building. We own all the equipment, all the desks and all the vehicles." Addison Lee also encourages all account clients to pay by direct debit: “We give our sales rep a discount if they sign up a new customer with a direct debit account,” he says. “72 per cent of our customers now pay automatically, within 30 days. It helps our cash flow no end.”

Read the full interview with John Griffin in the October issue of Real Business. Subscribe for free here.

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