Chauffeur Profile – Transdev
We’ve followed the Greentomato Cars story from its early days. We joined the story when the company was just a couple of years old, and still run by its two young entrepreneurial founders.
Jonny Goldstone and Tom Pakenham had set out to revolutionise the London private hire market with a snappily branded, eco-friendly car service. And they soon found they were on to a winner. By 2011, Greentomato Cars had attracted the attentions of massive multinational transport provider Transdev, and Tom and Jonny traded their shares for corporate life.
Perhaps surprisingly, they’re both still involved. Tom is business and innovations director, while Jonny has relocated to Washington DC, where he’s overseeing the US launch of the Greentomato Cars brand.
But driving the rapidly expanding company is a man with plenty of experience of running a very large private hire fleet. Mike Tobin (pictured) joined in 2013 from arch-rival Addison Lee – and he already has designs on turning Greentomato Cars into a similar-sized giant.
Indeed, growth is well on its way. When we last visited Greentomato Cars in the summer of 2012, it had around 250 cars. Now that figure has doubled, and continues to grow.
“We own 550 Prius, and about 90% of them are on the road at the moment,” says Mike. He’s still convinced that Prius is the right car for the job. “They hold their money well, they don’t go wrong, and it has become the go-to car for private hire in London.”
Prius Plus was considered, but rejected on the grounds that it’s not really a seven-seater, and on launch, it carried a £5,000 price premium over the standard Prius.
Greentomato Cars isn’t Transdev’s only private hire acquisition. Respected chauffeur operator Trident Niven was bought in December 2012. “It’s got a long history, and operates a mainly E-Class and S-Class fleet.”
Mike Tobin is in charge of both businesses, though they are marketed separately. Indeed, the separation works in the two brands’ favour. It allows Greentomato Cars to remain the eco-friendly flagship, focused on corporate accounts where environmental compliance is an essential element of the business.
Meanwhile Trident Niven remains a more traditional high-end chauffeur operation, though not without innovations of its own. Principal among these is Black Car – an intermediate service which uses a rather unusual choice of vehicle – the Volkswagen CC “four-door coupe” – to provide a discreet service that’s priced at a similar level to Greentomato Cars – catering for clients that specifically don’t want a branded Toyota Prius picking them up.
“The ethos of the Black Car service is business class without the price tag,” says Mike. “It’s a very similar standard rate to the Prius. Greentomato Cars is a fantastic brand, but there’s a sector of the market that it doesn’t serve, because some customers want a more executive car.” Originally, Greentomato Cars tried to offer an executive service, using biodiesel-fuelled Citroen C6s, though this service was discontinued when Black Car launched.
Around 100 VW CCs are currently in service. The choice of the CC was almost accidental, says Mike. Having decided to base the service around a fleet of standard VW Passat saloons, the art department accidentally sourced photographs of what was then called the Passat CC and based its promo material on this car.
A six-week trial was held between the 25 regular saloons and 25 CCs, and customers liked the CC – so the cars were ordered. “We did extensive market research, and even the customers that were six-foot-plus didn’t have a problem with the rear headroom or legroom,” says Mike.
Black Car is sticking with Volkswagen – an MPV fleet is being added, using a fleet of VW Sharans. Black Car comes under the Trident Niven umbrella but doesn’t have Trident Niven branding – it is marketed as a separate service – effectively a third brand option.
Greentomato Cars has meanwhile dabbled with all-electric cars. A trial using Renault Fluences was held in 2011-12, while a deal to use a fleet of 50 Chinese-made battery-electric BYD F3 MPVs fell through last year following concerns about infrastructure and support. Some of those cars are now in service with London electric taxi start-up Thriev.
Now, Greentomato Cars has added a Tesla S to its fleet, joining the ranks of companies that are becoming converted to the US-built electric supercar.
At the moment, Greentomato Cars runs the Tesla as part of its regular fleet, substituting it for a standard Toyota Prius hybrid for selected customers – or sometimes just for random jobs. And it’s priced at the same level as a Prius – a free upgrade, essentially. “Part of the justification for the spend is marketing, and partly it’s to understand the technology. So far it’s been faultless, it gets people talking and people love it,” says Mike.
The car has a dedicated driver and travels around 100 miles a day – well within its range. And Greentomato Cars uses Tesla’s own free-to-use superchargers in London to charge it up – so running costs are minimised.
More Teslas will be added, but at a £70,000 price point, don’t expect the car to become as commonplace as the Prius. “Maybe three or four, but we won’t be running 50 Teslas,” says Mike. But more affordable models are around the corner, and once Tesla’s smaller and more affordable electric car comes out, Mike can see Greentomato switching to an all-electric fleet. “We’re talking to Toyota about their fuel cell vehicle too, and we’re one of the first in line to road test that,” he adds.
Currently, Transdev’s car services are headquartered alongside London’s Western Avenue – directly across the road from the massive West London Audi showroom. A busy suite of offices house controllers, account executives and customer service staff. But already this is becoming stretched, and bigger premises next door are already being eyed. Fleet maintenance, meanwhile, remains at the original offices at nearby Isleworth.
The vibe is a lot more corporate, though many of the unique features of the original concept remain – with jolly corporate messages keeping the staff on message, and a “wall of frame” in the rest area, highlighting employees who have gone the extra mile.
The customer base remains corporate – a sales team at head office targets key clients – banks, large corporates and media companies among them.
A lot of technology is deployed at HQ – including a bespoke operating system that Greentomato Cars commissioned. This allows an impressive dispatch time in London of 11 minutes on average. Around 40% of jobs are “ASAP” jobs rather than advance bookings.
While Greentomato Cars concentrates on business account work, private cash jobs do make up around 50% of its work – largely because it keeps the fleet moving in the evening, when there’s less B2B work.
Because of the corporate focus, Uber hasn’t had too much impact on Transdev’s operations. “Up until last December, when they launched Uber X, the Prius service, there wasn’t much impact at all,” says Mike. This changed when Uber X started offering free rides in January, offering start bonuses to new drivers. “It made the driver market very turbulent,” he says. “It will suit some people, but not the PA whose boss is flying off to a meeting, and absolutely has to have a reliable pre-booked car.”
However, Greentomato Cars has shied away from offering bonuses to new drivers – in fact the model hasn’t changed, with drivers renting cars from Greentomato Cars – no double-shifting; the driver takes his car home. And that’s a better deal than the sort of private rental agreement that a self-employed driver working for Uber can get.
Also, Uber has been less of a game-changer in London than in other cities, Mike believes, partly because Uber’s technology is no real advance over that already in place with the likes of Greentomato Cars and Addison Lee – where you can track a car and know it’s going to turn up.
With Transdev behind it, Greentomato Cars now has reach beyond London. The US operation, which is run by Jonny Goldstone, now has 30 Toyota Prius Plus cars, which have completed a combined 600,000 miles since starting.
Greentomato Cars is also operating in France, with a new operation in Paris, Transdev’s home city. So far that operation hasn’t been beset by the same problems that Uber experienced, with local taxi firms protesting violently against the service.
Further expansion will be carefully managed. Transdev won’t pick fights with local authorities over operating regulations in the way that Uber does. “Look at how Transdev operates, and it won’t ride rough-shod over regulations,” says Mike. “We’d rather work with authorities and make our business model comply.”
The Greentomato Cars brand is young and exciting, but the London mothership still has a lot of room for growth. “We’re very much customer-led, and London is a very unique city for private hire– there’s nothing like it in the UK in terms of size and demand, so it’s a very buoyant market,” he says.
“It’s a case of trying to find other cities where you can replicate the conditions for your business model, or if you can’t replicate, deciding what you can do. I’d never rule out expansion into other cities, but what are the returns?”
“I’ve been in the industry for 18 years and it’s a very exciting time, when you look at the sort of investment companies that are getting involved. The industry has got a little bit sexy – people think there’s money to be made.”
“There’s so much we can do in London, and there’s not a clear message that expanding into other UK cities is going to bring us value.”
Could Greentomato Cars get to Addison Lee size? “We want to grow, but we want to retain our customers. We want to build something that people want to use. I want us to have the best drivers and offer the best experience to our passengers. So it’s never a case of wanting to be big for the sake of it. We’re happy to be the second-biggest,” says Mike.