How to crack the taxi trade? Go green
greentomatocars’ co-founder Johnny Goldstone on getting a loan from James Murdoch and his eco-friendly USP
“Electric cars are the biggest nonsense in the history of time” Addison Lee boss John Griffin told us back in February. I put this to Jonny Goldstone, MD of greentomatocars on the other end of the line.
I suspect that Goldstone, with a taxi business with the USP of using eco-friendly electric-hybrid Toyota Priuses, might have something to say about that.
Indeed, he does: “This view probably replaces his view that global warming isn’t happening! It’s not a huge surprise. His entire personality is about being opinionated and controversial!”
“We think they are going to be a big part of the future in the near future and if he doesn’t embrace it that’s fine. It gives us even more of an opportunity to take up the space and be the pioneering and dynamic private hire taxi firm.”
Goldstone and his co-founder Tom Packenham have already made huge waves in the market. greentomatocars already operates a 300 strong fleet of Priuses, turning over £8m this year and realising 30% growth year-on-year.
Having founded the company seven years ago, the taxi firm has valuable contracts from the likes of Sky (more on that later), Heathrow Airport, NBC, numerous big law firms and they also picked up the slack when LOGOG ran out of BMWs to ferry the IOC around two weeks ago.
But Goldstone and Packenham were not always in the business of making the world a greener place. They started out as lawyers but admit they quickly discovered it really wasn’t for them. They decided they wanted to make the world a better place.
“We started at an exciting time, it was only seven years ago but environmental businesses were thin on the ground. They weren’t particularly fashionable; perceived as being either poor quality or expensive and having the stigma of being ‘tree hugging and sandal wearing.’”
So the pair set off to create a business that was commercially viable and good for the environment. It was Packenham’s mum who had the eureka moment and suggested they get into taxis. They set out to create a business with well-trained staff, good customer service, competitive pricing and with a fun and dynamic brand. greentomatocars was born.
“We were disappointed when LOCOG decided to go with the BMWs that we all saw driving around”
Why Green Tomato? “We didn’t spend a fortune on a branding consultant,” laughs Goldstone. “It was a happy accident – we needed a name to put up a temporary holding page (which was never meant to stick). A friend suggested Fried Green Tomatoes, after the film.
“We decided to use greentomatocars temporarily but it stuck – it fits the brand and culture of the company really well and it’s easy to represent graphically.”
Whilst researching the business both co-founders drove for rival firms, Addison Lee and a now defunct company Blueback, in order to understand the business better and get an understanding of what it is like to be a driver.
I wonder if Griffin knows about their clandestine undercover work?
“We have never hidden the fact,” laughs Goldstone. “I doubt he’s particularly interested as Addison Lee sees itself as being in an elevated position. There is them, a huge chasm, then lots of smaller companies. Nobody has succeeded in bringing a brand to challenge them – it is a great market opportunity for us.”
Having discovered the Toyota Prius, the small self-funded team had to dig deep to buy a small fleet of five cars. “The bank said ‘great idea – come back when you’re successful!’” They spent money on computer equipment and dispatch software and that was it.
“It took around £100,000 to get us off the ground,” says Goldstone. “We did it in a lean way, not paying ourselves and putting in the hours.”
And then James Murdoch came along and (for once) saved the day.
“There was a real serendipitous moment. James Murdoch’s chauffeur was off sick and James had happened to read an article about us. He asked his secretary to book us and was fascinated by what we were up to.
“Sky ended up giving us a loan which we worked off by driving the company – it really took us under its wing and put its money where its mouth was. The money allowed us to add ten cars to the fleet.”
It was a real turning point for the company which now had the capacity to service big clients and its first big name on the list. The rest is history. The company now has 45 employees (not including drivers), and its 300 cars make roughly 350,000 trips per year.
“Drivers come to us as they see us as the company to drive for”
But what is it like working with electric vehicles I wonder. Are they temperamental? Do they actually cost a lot to maintain? In my mind they would be a nightmare.
“No! They are brilliant,” he insists. “Many things in the green space are generally more efficient in terms of fuel and cost of running. In terms of servicing and maintenance they are 100% reliable. They have never let us down and we have covered some 15 million miles now.”
“The cars are slightly more expensive but when you are paying for many of them over a long period there isn’t an addition cost and we haven’t had to pass any ‘environmental’ cost to our customers.”
Goldstone maintains that greentomatocars is significantly cheaper than the big taxi operators and although local mini cabs might beat them in price, they certainly don’t beat them in terms of customer service and overall experience.
It can’t hurt that using the car service adds a big tick next to many blue chip company’s CSR requirements.
“There are some companies that wouldn’t use us if we weren’t as green as we are. We are by far the biggest green-car company. It would be disingenuous to say the green element isn’t a big part of why many companies chose us.
“But there are many companies that chose us because of the service – it’s a bonus for them that we are green.”
I wonder if it was a consideration for LOCOG. The Olympic organisation team crawled to greentomatocars, tail between the legs at the final hour.
“We were disappointed when LOCOG decided to go with the BMWs that we all saw driving around. It was a missed opportunity to offer the contract to a local and green company (given it was supposed to be the greenest Olympics yet).
“They came to us relatively late and asked if we could supplement what they already had. We were able to help of course because all of our normal summer business had been scared off coming to London!”
So what’s next for the company I wonder? Its fleet of Priuses are ubiquitous on London’s streets and with an Olympic contract under its belt – more big name clients will surely roll in.
“We have ambitious growth plans and as far as we are concerned, there is a huge gap in the market which we will continue to fill. There are customers out there that aren’t receiving what they need and we will continue to grow the fleet. Drivers come to us as they see us as the company to drive for.”
Goldstone doesn’t shy away from technology either. greentomatocars became the first taxi company in Europe to offer free Wi-Fi. The brand also has the biggest following on Twitter of any of its rivals (2,515 followers) and it has recently started promoting its iPhone app (Android to follow next year).
“We are currently running a campaign to get people to use our app. We sent out a group of people dressed as polar bears offering a 20% discount when they book using the app. We have started #Ilovepolarbears and have promised to adopt a polar bear for every 5,000 bookings made via the app.”
“We are looking to adopt our first as we speak – hopefully we’ll have a five-a-side team of polar bears in no time,” he chuckles.