Chauffeur Profile – Kevin Willis, Chirton Grange
Sometimes, things are not as they seem. Chirton Grange’s stylised country house logo looks suitably upmarket, and its smart offices in Rochester, Kent, suggests that this is a genteel, local operator, maybe specialising in weddings and ferrying local dignitaries.
Far from it. And while the name gives the right impression, its origins are rather less salubrious. “Chirton Grange is where I grew up,” says Kevin Willis, the company’s genial Geordie founder. “It’s one of the roughest council estates in the north-east!”
Professional Driver met Kevin at last year’s inaugural QSi Awards dinner, where Chirton Grange was a shortlisted company, but didn’t win a prize on the night. However, we were so impressed with his generous spirit and positive attitude that we had to investigate further.
And clearly Chirton Grange is not your typical local operator. In fact it’s hardly a local operator at all. “We’ve been trading for 15 years, but if I get four jobs a year in Kent, it’s a lot” says Kevin. “We’ve got one couple who were one of our fist clients, and they still use us to take them to the airport for their holidays twice a year! We live here, but we don’t want to compete with local taxi firms.”
Instead Chirton Grange specialises in transporting wealthy and sometimes famous clients, mainly in Central London. Ninety-five percent of Chirton Grange’s work is in London, even though the company is licensed by Medway County Council. “We’ve never had a problem with it. Medway Council allows cross-border trading. I don’t think anybody knows how it work – but I have checked and we’re not breaking any rules. The only downside is we have to pay the congestion charge as we’re not PCO-licensed.”
Kevin is disappointed with delays to implementing the Law Commission’s proposed changes to the Private Hire and Taxi rules. “It needs to happen and it needs to happen quickly,” he says.
Not that boundaries affect Kevin’s business. A typical job goes like this – a lot of work comes from the British Council, and last month he took a delegation from Libya to various universities over the course of a week, driving from Heathrow to Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle and back to London via Leicester. He stays in the same hotel as the delegation, and is available when they need him. “I’ve worked with these people for seven years and got to know them well,” he says.
Work tends to come in waves. “Ten years ago, it was all Russians, then a lot of Iraqis, now Libyans,” he says. There’s less work than before, but it’s still a significant contract.
This is a long way from Kevin’s previous work – as a kitchen fitter. I was approached by a local guy who ran a chauffeur company – who asked me if I was interested in becoming a chauffeur. He worked for a couple of firms before coming to the conclusion that he could earn more working for himself. “My mother-in-law financed me a V-class, and I set up on my own. Went through the phone book and called every chauffeur company I could find.”
One conversation was with a man who ran the transport procurement at the British Council – and somehow Kevin’s name got on to the files there. Some time later, he was approached out of the blue, and started giving out work. “We offered a very high standard of work, so we kept getting jobs. Then they tendered the contract, and I thought we’d lose it, as the final three was us, Addison Lee and West One Cars!”
But a personal service was what was required, and against all the odds, Chirton Grange won the contract. “It helped that we were already working for them, but I’d like to think my pitch was better than Addison Lee’s!” Kevin jokes. And he’s an admirer of John Griffin. “I’ve always said chauffeuring will make you a good living buy it’ll not make you a multi-millionaire. He’s proved that wrong.”
Kevin’s wife Nicola joined the business six years ago and runs the back office – including handling emails from all around the world at all times of the night and day. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done to her!” he says. But the couple work well. “We’re always talking but we’re not on top of each other.” Kevin admits he doesn’t enjoy the admin, and would rather be out on the road, leaving Nicola to handle bookings and books at Chirton Grange’s smart office in the Innovation Centre, just by Rocheter airport. “I’m useless in the office and Nicola’s brilliant. I just get in the way!”
Currently Chirton Grange has three leased cars – two Vianos and a VW Caravelle – Kevin drives one of them full time. “It’s what I love to do and it’s what I’m good at. Take that away from me and I wouldn’t want to do this,” he says. He’s on the lookout for another driver, as one of his long-term drivers has done what Kevin did, and set up on his own.
As well as the Government contracts, Chirton Grange does a lot of work for Visit Britain, which has offices around the world. This has generated one lucrative stream of business - transporting foreign TV crews around, work that reached a peak between the Royal Wedding in 2011 and the 2012 London Olympics.
“We have TV crews making programmes about the Battle of Britain, or Stonehenge, or whatever. The Caravelle is used for this – it gets a bit of a battering carrying film gear, but is well equipped specially for this work, including wi-fi so the crews can upload images on the road, and even a GoPro dash camera that can be used to provide speeded-up “on the road” footage for the film makers.
A lot of the work is around London, but we’ve been to Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. Kevin even features in one Australian TV show – a light-hearted show that involved Kevin taking part in a “man v food” eating competition – in Glasgow. Deep-fried food was involved, including the legendary Mars Bar. “I was physically sick afterwards and didn’t eat for two days, but I’m always prepared to do what the client wants – as long as it’s legal. We don’t say no!”
But this dedication pays off. One Australian TV crew employed two Chirton Grange cars for two weeks, travelling all over the UK. “We even got a credit on the closing titles of the show,” he says.
Kevin’s even appeared on a Russian TV show talking about football! This job came from the Visit Britain Moscow office – the TV show wanted a typical British family to talk about Boxing Day football. So the crew was picked up at the airport, and taken to Kevin’s house. “We got paid for the job, but not for my time. But we’ve now got a good relationship with the Moscow Visit Britain office – and the TV crew is covering the premiership, so who knows what else it might lead to.”
Kevin is keen to grow – but not to any vast size. “Another couple of cars maybe. We’re thinking of buying two Mercedes-Benz E-Class Hybrids. The fuel consumption is amazing.” Kevin’s owned fleet has majored on Viano, but he has had plenty of demand for E-Class work, which is put out to sub-contractors.
“We don’t do any sub-contract work ourselves, but we actually sub-contract out more work that we put through our own drivers. So we could easily have two E-Classes with our drivers in them. The problem is finding drivers that are good enough. I don’t want our clients telling us they don’t like a driver.”
If a really big job comes up, Chirton Grange can handle it. “We had 17 Vianos on one job a couple of years ago,” Kevin says. He has a nucleus of drivers who he calls on a weekly basis, and others who are in the loop if needed.
Kevin has one final admission. They might earn him a living, but he doesn’t like cars, or know anything about them. “I’m certainly not a petrolhead!” he laughs. “In fact I hate cars with a passion. If I could take a horse and cart I would. I don’t know the first thing about 0-60 times and I can’t tell if it’s a current model or not. I love driving and I love meeting people, but I don’t understand how people get excited about cars!”