Jon Dow, Club Class Chauffeurs

Business management is a science – but it’s also an art. For a business to be successful, most management experts agree that you need systems and processes – but the really successful organisations are those that apply the rules with flair and adaptability.

Jon Dow certainly embodies that approach. As the ebullient, enthusiastic boss of Kent-based Club Class Chauffeurs, he applies a systematic management approach to his business that wouldn’t seem out of place in a major multinational. Business buzzwords are chucked into the mix as he explains his business philosophy and outlines his ambitions for the firm he bought nearly 20 years ago.

PD website chauffeur profile club class Jon Dow

But the talk of continuous improvement and customer charters is not idle jargon. For Jon, it’s a sign of the growing professionalism that’s increasingly important in the chauffeuring sector. The devil’s in the detail, and that philosophy is applied rigorously at Club Class. 

When a client signs up, Jon’s team captures every bit of information about what the client wants – so that when the driver turns up, the client gets exactly what was agreed. “We realised that often after you win some business there’s a drop in expectations because you haven’t realised what the client has asked for.” So every customer is asked to provide feedback – they’re emailed with a feedback form, and around one in four sends a reply – a pretty good hit rate.

“We find that 99% say everything’s great – but when there’s a drop, we have a continuous improvement team and act on areas where something’s gone wrong. Jon runs a very open management style – everybody is encouraged to come up with ideas to make the business better. “It’s far better in a recession to have 30 brains thinking about the business than one,” he says. “I don’t know everything – and if the business is successful we all benefit.”

The feedback from both drivers and customers has been used to create a 15-point “Ambassador customer care” document that is used by all drivers. “We tell our drivers to take the top five items from the document and implement them – for example asking a client if he’s like the radio on, and if so, which station. Or making sure the front passenger seat is fully forward if the client is travelling in the back. Simple stuff, but often overlooked.

A major customer survey was recently carried out – comparing what the customers thought Club Class delivered with what the Club Class staff thought they were delivering. And while the gap in perception was reassuringly small, it did highlight some areas for improvement. “We weren’t all operating to the same standard,” he says. Some cars were cleaner than others. Some drivers were smarter than others. Some didn’t use the right name boards at airports. 

“We thought – let’s write a standard. Let’s define what ‘clean’ means. Let’s define the safety standards for the car, and what we should provide – bottled water, tissues and so on.” The standard was based on what the drivers said – so everyone wears a suit, though there’s no corporate branding. Visible tattoos and piercings are out. “We didn’t go down the route of a uniform, because some of our drivers bring their own style to the job – one driver wears immaculate salmon pink shirts and ties – and that’s great.” Clean, by the way, means “showroom condition”, naturally.

The path to this systematic approach wasn’t the result of a business management degree. Jon bought the business in 2000, and his approach has been dictated by how the business, formerly owned by his father, could be improved. The biggest problem was the structure – most jobs were sub-contracted out, so effectively the company wasn’t in control of its customers. “You couldn’t guarantee the level of service in the way you can with employees,” he says.

PD website chauffeur profile club class Volvo fleet

First decision was to insist that drivers all wore collar and tie. “One sub-contractor said he didn’t want to, and told me that as a self-employed businessman he could do as he pleased,” says Jon. “I told him that I was a self-employed businessman too, and if he wanted to work for Club Class, he’d better wear the tie. Needless to say, he left!”

Getting rid of recalcitrant sub-contractors didn’t solve the problem. So Jon decided that Club Class would buy its own fleet and employ its drivers, giving them all the perks of employment, such as paid holidays. “That way we could control what we were doing. It’s much more expensive, but you fund it by being efficient.”

That efficiency comes from scheduling – building the driver’s day around round-trips that start and finish at his home, with as little dead mileage as possible. “We price-structure our market to passenger-miles only. So we can service clients throughout the UK – we have clients as far afield as Exeter and Edinburgh.”

Currently Club Class turns over around £2 million a year – but Jon has ambitions to grow that massively – his target is £10m by 2020. Driver requirements are based on a simple formula – each £5,000 a month of turnover means another driver. So a five-fold increase in turnover could see the fleet rising its current level of 25 cars to 125 cars or beyond, putting Club Class firmly into the big league. Growth will come from the M4-M40 corridor as well as the south coast and the M11 to Stansted and Cambridge.

Most of Club Class’s jobs involve trips to Heathrow and Gatwick – and around 50% of jobs originate on the south coast. Club Class HQ is in Hailsham, just outside Eastbourne. But the company has some other serious accounts. Club Class is one of only three approved car services that can access the RAF’s main transport airfield, Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. And the company provides most of the ground transportation for London-based travel firm Trafalgar Tours. 

Recently, Club Class has expanded, buying a company called Bridges in Cheltenham that offers similar airport-based chauffeur services. This is run by a husband-and-wife team, whi are being retained for two years to run the business. It’s quietly being rebranded to Club Class, and the business model is slowly being brought into line – at present, many of the drivers are self-employed sub-contractors, but Jon says he will be recruiting employed drivers in the future.

The acquisition is going well, as the basic philosophy was compatible. “We’ve brought some of our best practices to them, but they’ve been doing some things we haven’t done – and we’ve adopted them.” And the deal has brought some big clients to the table – such as GCHQ in Cheltenham.

But an earlier acquisition wasn’t such a happy experience. “We bought a taxi company in 2003 in Haselmere that did airport transfers,” says Jon. “We were attracted by the geographical location – 40 miles from Heathrow and 40 miles from Gatwick. But after three years we sold it because the taxi business was such a lot of hassle. The offices were on the rank at the station, but the drivers weren’t the sort of people we could work with. It’s a different mentality. We now have a policy where we don’t employ ex-taxi drivers.”

Not that there’s a shortage of drivers. Jon recently advertised 5 vacancies, and of the 45 applicants, 10 were interviewed. “We recruited five – and that’s the first time we’ve advertised for several years. In the past people have come to us, having read about us or been recommended.”

PD website chauffeur profile club class Dow and team

Jon tends to recruit former police or military drivers, he says, though not exclusively. Jon gets the senior chauffeurs in the business to do the interviews – they know what they’re looking for.

One area where Jon does outsource is in management – five freelance experts are retained, and take part in monthly strategic meetings. These include a management consultant who helps develop personal skills, including Jon’s own; a PR person, a marketing expert, an IT guru and a human resources specialist. “I’m far better of paying someone exceptional for 10 hours a month than employing someone average full time,” he says. They’re not cheap – but it’s still cheaper than five salaries.

Telesales prospecting is done on a daily basis from the Hailsham office. Often leads for new clients come from the drivers – if a Club Class driver spots a scruffy driver at Heathrow who’s picking up clients from a major corporate client, he’ll feed the info back to head office – and that client will be prospected and offered Club Class’s service. 

“The drivers are the eyes and ears of the business – they listen to the clients, and find out if a client’s company is expanding, or being taken over.” Around 95% of Club Class’s business is corporate account work – so the monthly numbers are pretty predictable.

A lot of Jon’s time is spent with clients – visiting existing clients to make sure they’re happy. And all the financial accounts are monitored by Jon personally – not that he’s from a finance background – when the recession hit in 2008, he went and got an accountancy qualification so he could keep on top of things. The devil in the detail, again.

PD website chauffeur profile club class Volvo grilles

Volvo hits the spot

Club Class currently operates 25 cars – mainly Volvo S80 and V70 models, with a few Mercedes-Benz Viano and Ford Galaxy MPVs. But the Cheltenham acquisition will add a further 15-20 cars over the next year, says Jon. A further five drivers will be recruited in Cheltenham before the year end.

All the cars are silver, with black leather, and some of the cars are ex-Tristar Worldwide. Jon has bought one car through the Volvo Chauffeur Programme, and has ordered two more S80s through the scheme. He prefers outright purchase rather than lease or contract hire. “It’s much cheaper to buy, even factoring in depreciation,” he says. Cars are kept to three years old, including the ex-Tristar cars that are bought when 6-12 months old, with between 20,000 and 40,000 miles on the clock.

“I just love the Volvos,” says Jon. “They’re the perfect vehicle for this market. They provide safety, reliability and comfort – which are our core values. It’s better value and a better car.” He’s happy to buy used – recent purchases of V70 and S80 cars – all D3 SE auto trim – have cost between £13,000 and £16,000 for cars around eight months old. Though a recent price drop on S80 to just over £20,000 via the chauffeur programme has made buying new more attractive, as new vehicles provide an extra nine months’ work.

The fleet has winter tyres though Jon is considering a couple of XC70 and XC90s to cope with snowy winters. He’s also dabbled with the D2 version of the S80 – simply because the tax saving that they offer is significant – and goes straight on the bottom line.