Driving Transactions
Thursday, July 18, 2024

Paul Webb and Mark Bursa
With nearly 260,000 private-hire and chauffeur cars presently serving the United Kingdom, Professional Driver magazine certainly has a lot of ground to cover; fortunately, Publisher Paul Webb and Editor Mark Bursa have more than 20 years of experience working together and “know how to get things done.” Ever since The Chauffeur was rebranded as Professional Driver in May 2009, they have been crucial in bringing the country’s luxury ground transportation operators a monthly magazine—as well as events such as ProDriver Live (which will be rechristened as Congress London in July) and the annual black-tie QSi Awards, which recognizes the best of the best across the Atlantic.

Chauffeur Driven recently spoke to Webb and Bursa about how their magazine influences the U.K. industry, how British licensing and vehicle preferences compare to their American counterparts, and, of course, how operators in Great Britain are affected by TNCs.

Chauffeur Driven: What are the most important issues for your readers?

Mark Bursa: In the past three years, every issue has at least one story on Uber, which came in with all this technology and all this money and basically challenged the status quo. Its biggest impact has been on the black cabs in London; it’s established in quite a lot of cities around the U.K. but it’s less of a major player in those places. How you cope with it, how you compete with it, and how you use the technology are all part of that issue, as is the role of legislation. Uber is trying to change things, taxi operators are trying to not change things, and legislators are trying to appease everybody—and aren’t necessarily doing a good job of it, especially in London, which is almost half of our market.

Legislators don’t necessarily make the right kind of rules for our operators. The regulators in London have made a bit of a mess of things in the past few months, and they keep coming up with rules that are unworkable and will cause a lot of problems. There were some changes in the way you could actually operate, which legislators have now backed down on; they’re now going ahead with plans to force every private-hire or chauffeur car in London to be a plug-in vehicle. This is pretty dangerous stuff because there aren’t many plug-in vehicles on the market; five years down the line, there still won’t be. And there’s nowhere to plug them in to.

Because of Uber, the private-hire industry is now being focused on; whereas, in terms of pollution—which is what this is all about—this is a pretty clean industry. We’re getting too much of a kicking from regulators for no real reason. There’s one trade association, and they do sit on the Transport for London Board, but it probably hasn’t got that powerful of a voice because of its structure. So taxi drivers want one thing while private-hire operators and chauffeurs want something else: They might sometimes agree but the industry doesn’t speak as one voice. I think you just have to keep the pressure on and maybe get the manufacturers to put the pressure on, too, because if manufacturers can’t or won’t supply the cars, then maybe there’s a chance to get the rules changed.

CD: How do your events benefit the industry?

Paul Webb: The QSi Awards, we knew, were something operators had been clamoring for. We had a very good event with a very good attendance, we had a full house of sponsorships, and we had very good-quality winners from all over the country our first year—and each subsequent year raised the bar a little bit each time. We knew also that there wasn’t a social event for people in the private-hire industry, so we made it a black-tie dinner so they could come and have a party. It just gives them something they can look forward to and is theirs. These guys spend a lot of time sitting in their cars outside a black-tie dinner waiting for someone to roll out holding a trophy; now they get a chance to do that.

We went to an event recently where there were quite a few chauffeur companies exhibiting. Two or three of them had their QSi trophies on their stand, or they had taken the logo and put it on their displays. We see people use the QSi logo as a Twitter avatar if they’ve won an award, they’ll put it on their website, they put it everywhere. It’s really gratifying that it’s become a mark of trust, a real quality standard in the industry.

CD: What major changes have affected how Professional Driver has evolved with the industry? MB: Consolidation. The industry’s gotten more professional and we’re seeing substantial consolidation, so the bigger fleets are getting bigger and smaller operators are going out of the market—there’s still room for small operators because there are plenty of extremely good ones. I think the market has become more professional over time and it’s harnessing technology better. We have a very large operator Veezu, which is run by a very sharp guy from the insurance industry, who’s buying up big operators. By the end of this year, he will be the biggest operator in the country—he may have 10,000 vehicles in his fleet across five or six cities. So we’re starting to see some serious players emerge, and I think it’s good for bringing higher standards and levels of consistency in, and it’s good for the customer.

Rather than us adapting, we’ve adapted the market. Last year, we produced the first-ever top 100 league table, which ranked all the U.K. private-hire, taxi, and chauffeur companies by fleet size. Everyone knew about Addison Lee, who was No. 1 in that ranking, but no one knew, for example, Amber Cars in Leeds had 965 vehicles in its fleet. We’ve made everybody aware that there are large companies all around the U.K.: London always gets all the focus, but Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham have similar operations and some of them are large-scale operations running effective and very profitable businesses.

PW: Our awards also reflect that because so many of our winners are non-London companies because London doesn’t have a monopoly on quality and innovation. We think there’s a very good standard of operational companies all around the U.K. in sometimes out-of-the-way places: Recognizing them made readers realize that this isn’t just a London magazine, because a lot of companies getting profiled are from Newcastle or Carlisle—more than 400 kilometers from London.

CD: What are the most commonly used vehicles?

MB: The most common chauffeur car is the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Right now, there’s a little window of opportunity for other manufacturers to chip away at that, but Mercedes is still the default brand for chauffeuring people. It just has that slight extra cachet over other brands; having said that, in the past few years, we’ve seen some gains from the likes of BMW, Jaguar, and Volvo because they’ve pushed a little harder into the market. Mercedes just has that advantage, what we call “The Hoover Scenario”—everybody calls a vacuum a Hoover. When people say, “I want a Mercedes,” what they’re actually asking for is that level of service from a chauffeur car.

The en vogue car which everybody’s asking for now is the new Range Rover longwheel base. After Ramadan’s finished, Arabs fly to the U.K. in the thousands to celebrate, and all the requests are for Range Rovers. Some guys were literally trying to find 60 or 70 Range Rovers to accommodate them. It’s similar to the way Americans like SUVs. Land Rover sells about 100 of those over here and they were gone within the first two months. They actually won our Chauffeur Car of the Year award this year, beating out the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in our independent group of judges.

PW: In the private-hire world, the hottest car, especially in London, has been the Toyota Prius. There are 12,500 Priuses in service in London, which is largely because it’s the default car for an Uber driver but also because there are big fleets like Green Tomato Cars, Addison Lee, and GLH operating several hundred Priuses in London. Because it’s a hybrid, it ticks the box marked “eco compliance” for corporate clients. A lot of people insist on having a hybrid car—and are demanding a Prius the same way they ask for a Mercedes. Of all the private-hire vehicles in London, probably a quarter to a third of them are either a Prius or a Ford Galaxy.

Corporate clients—big-city banks, global multinationals—with an environmental policy often requires that to use a car, it must be a sub-100 grams of CO2 car. The eco-chauffeur has become a big thing in the past 10 years. And there are companies like Green Tomato Cars, which is a green service that’s run Priuses from the start.

Outside London, it’s slightly different. There’s not the same demand for eco-cars, so you find lots of people will buy Skoda cars because they’re cheap—they’re essentially a subsidiary of Volkswagen that makes basic but roomy and practical diesel cars. So those are very successful, too, in this market. The manufacturer doesn’t know how good they are, to be honest: They just sort of pile them high and sell them cheap.

CD: How are chauffeurs and vehicles regulated, licensed, and insured?

MB: There are 348 licensing authorities so wherever you are, if you’re licensed in London, you can take somebody from London to Liverpool, for example, but you then couldn’t wait for a journey back from Liverpool to London from another client. Those rules were formed when everyone was using two-way radios to keep a cap on people floating around. With the technology now, everyone wants those rules scrapped, they want one U.K. license so you can basically go and work everywhere. There’s a little bit of fear about that because they think everybody is going to come to London, which is a little bit unfounded—it would eat more than the profit to come all the way from Newcastle to London.

When you go through an authority, you pay a fee, you get licensed, and your car then gets licensed—that’s a different fee and a different license, which is checked over by the local authorities. The basic license checks are your background check, your CRV, they’ll make sure there’s nothing that means you shouldn’t be driving people around. Some administer very small topographical tests on where you live. And then your car gets licensed and has checks every six months, and off you go starting to apply your trade. You do have to have what we call Hire & Reward Insurance that covers you for the liability of having passengers in your car. And you’re talking about standard rate versus something like a Hire & Reward Insurance between £1,500 and £2,000—so compared to what you guys pay in the States, it’s quite cheap.

CD: How would you compare the U.S. and U.K. markets?

MB: I think the key difference is the States were always seen as having a safety-net aspect to it. In places like New York, taxis have a medallion system, and your medallions are worth money. If you wanted to retire or sell your business, it has value because that medallion’s worth $800,000 or $1 million. Over here, we haven’t got that at all—the value of the average one-man or two-man chauffeur business is actually zero because all your clients are free to go wherever they want to go, they’re not tied into your business at all. And your badge is not worth anything because it’s nontransferable.

One thing Americans are helped by is that you have quite well-organized trade associations. Our main trade bodies are kind of run like a members’ club and aren’t really as strong of a political lobbying group as you might find in other industries. You get regional taxi bodies and they’re very local—they tend to be in just a town. They mainly argue with the council about licensing issues, and that’s really what their function is. Effectively, Professional Driver is that sort of unifying trade association function, almost. We’re the only thing out there that talks about the issues to everybody.

There is a London association representing the industry’s rights but it has its limits. It’s not a national association run from a central office with plenty of resources, membership benefits, or lobbying power. We don’t really have that because the industry itself is fragmented. You have these different little trade bodies but they’re arguing with each other. We’ve been asked loads of times, even recently, “Why don’t you guys set up an association?” As much as I like the concept of it, I’m not necessarily sure I should manage that. I’m not sure I can do it properly.

CD: How does the U.K. compare to the overall European market?

PW: We’re a more sophisticated market than most of Europe. There’s chauffeured services in all these countries but I think they tend to be much less well-organized than what we have here.

MB: The U.S. and the U.K. markets are very similar in the way they operate and, to a certain extent, the way they’re governed. The process of hiring the car, paying the driver, and how that driver’s regulated are pretty much the same. If you go to France, Germany, or Italy, it seems to be a lot more random there: In some cases, the cities own all the licenses so you tend to be working for the city—I know that’s often the case for Germany, you actually work for the city of Dusseldorf as a cab driver.

CD: Is there regulatory unity amongst the major European cities?

MB: There’s not even regulatory unity between two towns in the same county in England! So, no, you’re not going to get anything like that. The only place where there’s a sensible regulatory function with an area that is big and unified is Greater London, where the PCO (Public Carriage Office) regulations are in Central London and promote one set of rules, and that’s really the way it should go—the problem is that they try to change them when the system has worked very well in London. It’s allowed operators to build up a presence and operate throughout the capital without burdensome different rules, boroughs, and districts. You don’t get that if you go to Birmingham or Manchester or slightly smaller cities—you might have four or five different regulatory sets of rules to comply with.

CD: Why do you think being a chauffeur is looked upon as more of a ­profession in the U.K. than it is in the U.S.?

PW: I actually was a chauffeur for eight years. You can eke out a good living as a small operator, you meet really great people because you’re carrying incredibly influential and famous people around, and it’s seen as a smarter profession than being sort of “just” a cab driver—the cars are nicer, you tend to be nicer, the customers tend to be nicer, it has that perception of being a “nicer” thing to be in.

The people who go on to make real money out of it are those who set them up as really good businesses. And they run a business on the basis of how they would like to be treated, so their levels of service are impeccable, and that’s why people pay that premium. The company I used to be involved in, I think of the 750 clients they had then, probably still 650 or 700 of them are still clients—why would they change? They know who runs it. They’ve known him for years, he knows all their little nuances, and they won’t worry about who’s driving them home at night. There’s that confidential aspect to it, which is why you can search as hard as you like but you’ll never find a tell-all book written by a working chauffeur over here because that would be the end of them—literally overnight, he would be out of a job.

CD: How have TNCs impacted the U.K. chauffeured car industry?

MB: It’s had an enormous impact on black taxis because effectively Uber has come into London, and lots of people signed up to be drivers. It has created a new sort of market, which is a cheap car service for people who’ve gone for a night out and want to get home to the suburbs for the price of another round of drinks. Uber is also coming into other cities and I think it’s a little difficult to have the same impact on New Castle or Liverpool as it has in London because it’s harder to find people to come on board. It tends to attract drivers who are already working for another taxi firm. Taxis haven’t given particularly good service and they’re very expensive: If you want to get a taxi from Heathrow Airport into Central London, it’s £70, £80; you can get an Uber car for half of that. The taxis try to justify the fact that they have The Knowledge; therefore, they’ve driven around London on a moped, they know exactly where every street is, they can find their way in traffic, they have a wheelchair-accessible vehicle—all these things that don’t cut much ice with customers who just want cheaper service. What Uber has effectively done is create a race to the bottom with a lower price and lower cost of operation.

The big-fleet taxis and private hire have been less impacted because their main business is corporate. Uber won’t get that corporate work, all that work will go to Addison Lee or Brunel or Tristar or another reliable company. So the business-focused chauffeurs have not been that impacted by it.

PW: There’s a great quote from the boss of Addison Lee who summed up the Uber scenario: “We’re a mini cab company with an app; Uber is just an app company and they’ve got no cars.” And he’s dead-right. That’s the standpoint of a lot of these companies: Uber has no drivers they can call their own; we’ve got cars and drivers and the infrastructure—and actually developing an app doesn’t cost that much money, really, so we’ll develop an app and get it out to our customers to keep them loyal to us.

The good thing is, it kicked the industry in the backside in terms of technology and actually, from their point of view, has probably pulled the service levels up. The rates have gone up, so in some ways it has had some positive effects, as well as obviously havocking the market as far as the instant-booking scenario—that’s really where they felt the pinch more than anybody else. Now, it’s the rise of the aggregator more than the app companies. They seem to be a lot more acceptable to the existing business because it’s really, “We’re trying to give you more work, we’re going to go out and market for this business, and pass it back to you guys after taking a small cut.” It’s not what Uber is doing: Instead, it’s working with a trade to make an easy platform.

CD: What does the future for Professional Driver look like?

MB: With Congress London, we’re putting on an event that people can enjoy without all of the commercial pressures and will want to come back to: Using last year’s feedback from ProDriver Live, it will be purely conferences for one day. We’d like to do some more events, too, so we can move them around the country, maybe explore some smaller events with similar content because some of the issues are the same wherever you go: It’s easier for us to transport an event than it is to just put one on and expect everyone to travel. We’ll go to them, and then we can discuss their local issues, because London has a totally different set of issues to, say, Liverpool or Manchester or Birmingham, so we can then focus specifically on bringing them right down to brass tacks.

We also were invited to a sort of governmental subcommittee on the private-hire industry last year, so that was very interesting. It was at the house of Parliament, I had a morning there talking with government ministers and so on about the future of the industry. It’s nice that we get recognized: We want to have a higher profile in that side of things, that’s something we’re looking to do. And to continue to put these sort of niche products out there: Security chauffeuring is one area we’re looking at, and so are careers. There are diversifications around what we do anyway and to add to our existing mix.

PW: It’s a continued mission. The great thing is, the industry changes every single day. The way Mark and I run the business is that we are very quick to adapt to what will aid these guys, and give those supply companies who are looking to talk to them a platform so they can talk to them. Because there is no real trade association over here, we are seen as real sort of hub and mouthpiece for the sector, and we probably go a little above and beyond sometimes. [CD0416]