Chauffeur profile - Farooq Saleem, Cabot Global
It’s been a hectic 12 months for Cabot Global. The London chauffeur operator has been involved in a major takeover, a strengthening of ties with a major client and expansion into a new city. And founder Farooq Saleem (pictured) is not stopping there.
The London chauffeur industry is changing. The big players are getting bigger, and leading operators are becoming recognised brand names. Farooq is determined that his company comes through these changes as one of the big players. “In London you’ve got four or five big companies, and we’re nicely positioned in there,” he says.
Cabot has come a long way since Farooq set up the company with two partners in 1996 as Cabot Cars. “Before that I was a chauffeur myself,” he says. “I decided to set up on my own and slowly build it up.” The Cabot name came from the original base of the company – close to Cabot Square in London’s docklands business district. The company is still based near the new financial area in Limehouse, and with easy access to the City.
The big change came three and a half years ago. The original partners went their separate ways, and Rizwan Hussain, now Cabot’s operations director, came on board as a business partner. Then last year came the deal that moved Cabot – now renamed Cabot Global, into the premier league.
In one of the biggest chauffeur industry mergers, Cabot took control of London-based Sovereign Executive Cars. The takeover doubled Cabot’s fleet to more than 350 cars and, inevitably, bringing the two businesses together proved to be a challenge. “When you get two companies coming together, there are always going to be some issues. But we’ve addressed those issues and now we’re left with the cream of both companies,” says Farooq.
Sovereign managing director Mark Hughes and financial controller Sue Kite have stayed with the enlarged business, as well as several other staff. The combined businesses have now moved into Cabot’s head office and full integration is just about complete. “Whilst there were many similarities between the two businesses, there were also a number of differences in the way they operated. What we’ve tried to do since last year is to change both businesses - for the better - and to bring consistency across the board.”
The car fleet is mainly divided between BMW and Mercedes-Benz. “We are BMW’s largest client in the UK, and we’ve got around 140 vehicles on order this year,” says Farooq. The Cabot fleet is probably 90:10 in favour of BMW, and comprises 730d SEs and 520d SE saloons. Clients needing larger capacity have the option of Mercedes-Benz Viano MPVs.
The Mercedes fleet is mainly E-class and S-class models, plus the Vianos. Farooq has yet to try out the E300 Bluetec Hybrid, but welcomes the move toward greener cars. “It’s about time that Mercedes and BMW, the two largest suppliers to our industry, supplied a proper hybrid. A Toyota Prius is good, but it’s a standard saloon, not an executive car.”
Inevitably there has been demand from some corporate clients for Cabot to supply hybrids, so therefore the fleet contains a small number of Prius. “If the client says it has to be a hybrid then we can supply what they want – although it is not strictly the market we operate in. A lot of the time, customers requesting a standard car are simply upgraded to a Mercedes or BMW at the same price and we are very aware that the majority of our clients are looking for the space, comfort and luxury that our vehicles provide.”
Farooq doesn’t see Cabot moving into the general private hire sector inhabited by the likes of Greentomato or Climatecars – or Addison Lee. Rivals have launched lower-cost subsidiaries, such as Brunel’s Brucars operation, but he doesn’t want to take Cabot down that route. “Ours is a very niche market – executive chauffeur drive – and that is what we want to concentrate on”
“We’re winning a lot of new business. Mark Hughes heads up our sales and marketing operation and our growth plan is very ambitious this year. Our target is to take our fleet to 500 vehicles by next year,” says Farooq. And he doesn’t rule out further acquisitions, saying “If there’s a deal to be had, we could do it. A lot of companies have disappeared and I think there will be more casualties. The clients and drivers are getting more demanding, prices aren’t going up but costs are – fuel, insurance etc. In the future there will be just a handful of large chauffeur companies and I see Cabot Global as one of them.”
Cabot is focusing on two main client bases: the city financial sector – banks, insurance companies and other major corporate clients, and airline business. Through its exclusive partnership with Etihad to supply chauffeur cars to their business-class and first-class customers and its strong reputation as a quality provider to London based corporates, both markets are growing. Currently the corporate sector is around 60% of Cabot’s business, with airlines accounting for the majority of the remaining 40%.
“We’re seeing a lot of growth with our airline business, especially with our new economy service,” says Farooq. This was launched earlier in the year, and arriving or departing economy travellers can now select a paid-for service which is competitively priced against a London black cab – and a lot more comfortable.
The economy service opens up Etihad’s complete customer base as potential Cabot clients – and with six flights a day in and out of Heathrow, each carrying up to 290 passengers, the size of the opportunity is significant.
Cabot has developed an online booking service for the airline, called e-Chauffeur, which is integrated into the Etihad website. This allows them to choose vehicle type and standard of service, including people-carriers for larger groups. This technology will gradually be rolled out across all of Cabot’s online operations, allowing corporate clients to make secure and simple bookings online. “A fully integrated booking tool with iPhone, iPad and Android capability will be launching this year,” says Farooq. “The client and the controller will have the ability to track the car.”
In addition to Etihad, Cabot also serves the smaller Oman Air – and has the ability to offer its chauffeur service and booking option to other airlines.
Cabot operates in the knowledge that when a Cabot car is carrying an Etihad passenger, the company is representing the airline. “We’re the first and last point of contact the customer has,” says Farooq. He’s keen to grow the airline business and says he is in talks with an unspecified airline about providing a global chauffeur service – utilising overseas partner companies in other countries.
However, he is against setting up subsidiaries: “At the moment we have too much happening here in the UK to look at operations in other cities. Cabot has just gone live in Manchester, creating a second base for the company and the amount of business we’re already doing in Manchester justifies this move. Etihad has a growing presence and a lot of our other clients are also based there providing a wealth of opportunity to expand the operation further.”
Etihad’s presence is significant as the Abu Dhabi national airline sponsors Manchester City football club and owns the naming rights to the club’s ground. It operates twice-daily flights from Manchester to and from the Gulf state, with onward connections to many parts of Asia. “The Manchester City link means a lot of Etihad’s focus is on Manchester – and this is good exposure for Cabot.”
Farooq is going to keep a close eye on the Manchester operation. “I’m a very hands-on chief executive,” he says. “You have to be in this business. There’s not a day that I don’t come to the office, and I want to know everything that’s going on.”
Farooq hopes the Law Commission’s review of the taxi and private hire sector will streamline the multitude of licensing authorities, preferably along London PCO lines. But he doubts this will be easy to achieve. “It’s going to be a tall order for them to get other areas converted to PCO-style licensing. Once they’ve started it and got the ball rolling it will be fine. We’d like it – it would get rid of all the less reputable operators, and the larger, more established companies would benefit, as will the clients. That’s what’s happened in London.”
The secret of Cabot’s success is simple, says Farooq: “Service, service, service. It’s the vehicles, the chauffeurs, the people that take the calls and the systems. We run a no-nonsense policy at Cabot. My targets to my management team are very strict. I know how hard it’s been to build this business. The chauffeurs that come to Cabot know they can’t get away with things they can at other companies. Our chauffeurs are our ambassadors, and our vehicles are kept in pristine condition.”
Attention to detail is important too – like Cabot-branded water bottles, tissues in the back of the car, copies of the Financial Times in the seat back pockets and even umbrellas in the boot. “It all costs money but it gives added value to the client and we know they appreciate it,” says Farooq.
Another critical area is driver training. New drivers are trained in driving discipline and customer handling skills. Cabot is a recognised training school, registered for NVQ and with RoSPA. Training is carried out in-house and monitored by an outside agency. Each driver has a refresher course every three months.
Drivers are also given varied rosters – so they are not doing the same journeys repeatedly - and increasingly, long-range journeys are being requested. As an example a journey to Birmingham or Bristol for two passengers in a chauffeur car represents better value than first-class rail travel with taxis at either end of the journey. “All this is important and helps us retain drivers. Our driver turnover is very low” says Farooq. “We’ve got drivers who’ve been with us for 12 or 14 years.”
“Overall, we work hard, but we’re doing well,” he says. “And it’s a challenge every day.”
Another extension of the business is Cabot Prestige In an effort to bring the same consistent service into speciality areas – such as weddings and other prestige events, a fleet of 12 cars – all white, super-luxury models including Rolls-Royce Phantom, Bentley Flying Spur, Range Rover and Mercedes S-class is used for this business.
“It’s going really well. Whenever a business customer has a wedding or a special event to attend, he can ask us to cater for that too,” says Farooq. “It’s a separate business in itself as weddings and special events are a massive market.” Although wedding cars don’t need to be licensed, all Cabot Prestige cars are licensed, giving extra peace of mind”.
Launched in June 2012, Farooq sees Cabot Prestige as a helpful addition to the core business and something that can be offered to existing clients who need that extra something for special occasions.