Addison Lee’s CEO speaks to BBT about dealing with Uber, Brexit fall-out and teched-up travel
Stepping into the offices of Addison Lee in central London, I find a hive of activity – a huge screen showing thousands of Addison Lee drivers dotted around London, rolling news reports, traffic monitors and call centre employees keeping the 40-year-old ground transport company on the road.
At the back, in a glass-fronted office, is chief executive Andy Boland, who is quick to point out the difference between Addison Lee and other start-up providers that compete with traditional suppliers such as his.
“One of the things that sets us apart is our drivers are self-employed. We engage, vet and train them to ensure our customers receive a professional service,” explains Boland. “The Uber ‘gig economy’ is different – they have 25,000 drivers in London working roughly ten hours a week. It’s casual and uses technology to sell labour, whereas we are a professional private hire firm with all the standard things you’d expect.”
It’s difficult to have a conversation around this sector without mentioning San Francisco-based Uber. And after conquering the leisure market it aims to do the same with corporate travel.
It has already launched Uber for Business and signed deals with business travel giants Concur and Egencia. A recent study showed Uber and rival Lyft have overtaken taxi and car rental as the most popular ground transportation providers for business travellers in the US.
However, Boland believes new players entering the sector are a positive sign and show ground transport is still an immature market. “Uber has come in and changed the industry, and that poses an incredible opportunity and challenge for our company.”
There are two basic rules of business to gain competitive advantage: you either compete on price or compete on differentiation, and Addison Lee has chosen the latter when it comes to the battle against Uber, with a move towards premium, high-end services.
This was underlined when it acquired executive car provider Tristar this summer, in a reported £30 million deal. Boland says: “We’re the biggest player in exec travel in Europe. You’ve got large-scale standard cars, executive travel and, increasingly, technology-enabled travel as the mainstays of our UK business.”
Two sides to the story
“There are two main parts to our business,” says Boland. “One is the B2B corporate side and that has stayed relatively stable due to consistency of service – customers know our drivers are trained and vetted, and meet all the duty-of-care requirements and a standard that is keeping buyers happy.
“We also have the consumer side, which definitely took a hit when Uber entered the market, but we are starting to put that part of the business back into growth.”
As a company that serves 70 per cent of the FTSE 100 with 15,000 B2B customers, the UK’s vote to leave the European Union is an important issue for Boland, with the company already witnessing a short-term impact from Brexit.
“The area of uncertainty for us is in the financial services sector and what happens with location of activities for the big investment banks,” he says. “But I do think as a business we benefit from a really diverse customer base. Our largest customer is only 1.5 per cent of revenue.”
But why would buyers choose his firm over cheaper rivals, especially when cost is still a priority for most travel buyers?
“We are very focused on the business travel side as it’s our core market,” says Boland. “We are investing substantially and understand the market better than others do. And when you add that focus of investment and management effort with the core duty-of-care requirements, it gives us an advantage.”
One major area of growth and investment for Addison Lee is in technology. “Our input has gone from £3 million to £12 million in the past few years, and that’s something we need in order to penetrate international and local markets,” says Boland.
In August last year, Addison Lee launched an API (application programming interface) giving companies the chance to integrate the booking function into any website or application. The Open API service allows any partner or affiliate to integrate services, such as booking cars, upfront journey time quotes and price quotes.
“We are now able to integrate our API with our customers’ online booking tools and travel management companies [TMCs], so I see four channels in the booking process – telephone, web, app and integration into TMCs and online booking tools.”
He feels it’s this channel, in particular, that is for the global traveller. “If you’re going to Frankfurt from Heathrow and booked over the phone, we’d be able to capture you from pick-up to the airport, but we’re missing the other legs of the trip, so offering a global capability served up digitally allows expansion.”
Boland adds that another area buyers want to see improvement on is global and pan-European solutions. “Customers want global reach and capability, delivered through channels that are integrated with other booking tools – and that’s what we are starting to deliver.”