Operator Profile – Park Executive
How do you get a new business off the ground? First, identify your market. That’s the secret of Park Executive’s success, believes founder Kevin Potts.
The Sunderland-based chauffeur firm only started in 2012, but has built a strong business by providing a service that was lacking in the area – a business-oriented executive chauffeur serving the thriving local business community and specialising in airport runs and city centre pick-ups.
So rapid has been the growth that Park Executive won Gold in the 2014 Professional Driver QSi Awards in the Chauffeur Company (1-10 vehicles) category, as well as Silver in the New-start business category.
The name derives from the company’s location – it’s based on the sprawling Doxford International Business Park, just off the main A19 that links Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, and just across the road from Nissan’s massive car factory.
“This is an amazing business park – Nike, Barclays, Berghaus, Arriva, Liebherr and many others are all based here – and we work for almost all of them,” says Kevin.
The impetus for the start-up was Kevin’s own experiences in his previous job, working for the ill-fated Co-op Bank. He’d used car services, but nothing seemed to hit the spot. “You could either call a taxi, which meant you didn’t know what you were going to get – it’s Russian roulette! Or you could get a chauffeur vehicle, where you could be sure of the standard, but at what cost?”
Kevin’s formula was staggeringly simple: “Why couldn’t you have that executive service, but at the price of a taxi? So that’s what we did, and it’s been a success – we’re turning over more than £25,000 a month.”
The hardest message to get over is the fact that the price is the same as a taxi – Park runs an all-Mercedes fleet of E-Class saloons and estates, including an E300 BlueTec Hybrid, and a Viano. And while these are more expensive than typical taxis, the running costs are pretty similar. “You can get a Mercedes E-Class new for £28,000 – not a lot more than the cost of a Mondeo,” says Kevin.
“When people book us, they know what the car’s going to look like, what the driver’s going to look like, and there’s no visible branding on the vehicles, which business clients like. We represent companies the way companies would want to be represented. We charge the same price as a taxi, but there will be always someone trying to undercut you. But it’s not all about price. It’s the balance between price and quality.”
The cars are not for personal use of the drivers – drivers are self-employed and come to work in their own cars. This means Park Executive has developed a lucrative weekend sideline as a provider of wedding cars. “With a business client base, the cars aren’t used much at the weekend,” says Kevin. “This means we can undercut people on weekend weddings.
Drivers are recruited from emergency services – retired policemen, and even serving firemen, whose job allows them free days to work, and also allows those on different shift patterns to share a car. “We learned the hard way – when we started we recruited existing taxi drivers, but they didn’t get what we were doing,” Kevin says.
Drivers are trained to go in to offices and introduce themselves to reception staff, so they become known and trusted at clients’ offices. “It’s the PAs and receptionists you have to impress – and having a good chinwag with the staff stops other companies coming in and poaching work.”
Indeed, this results in Park getting calls from friendly receptionists if a predatory rival turns up in the business park.
Kevin also checks up on the drivers – even visiting clients offices in person to make sure standards are being delivered. “When you’re a family business it’s easy to monitor standards than big companies,” he says. “It must be very difficult to monitor 200 drivers.”
We want to concentrate on the business market. We don’t do any advertising – just a bit of stuff on Facebook. Kevin admits to struggling to understand social media and search engine optimisation – his son Scott gets involved with this aspect, as well as helping Kevin run the business. Both father and son still drive every day. “We don’t have to go cold-calling any more,” says Scott. “Things are just growing naturally, and we rely on word-of-mouth.”
The fleet currently stands at seven company-owned vehicles, with two or three extra owner-drivers who get regular outsourced jobs.
All cars are fitted with chip and pin card readers, so clients don’t have to entrust their credit cards to the driver while he phones the payment over. And all cars have wi-fi. Kevin reckons only 15% of clients use the wi-fi, but for the other 85% the facility will grow – and more people are asking for it.
The principal destination is Newcastle Airport – Park’s fleet makes hundreds of trips each week from Sunderland to the airport, situated north of Newcastle, claiming an average of 41 airport or mainline railway staiton transfers per day. A constant gripe is parking facilities – Kevin resents having to pay drop-off charges, and would prefer the airport to offer annual licenses to operators that regularly use the airport.
Standards are always maintained – no matter who the client is. “Snoop Dogg wanted to book us when he was playing a concert in Newcastle. But his agent asked if he could smoke in the car – we said no – so he cancelled the booking.” Why? Apart from the fact it’s illegal, the next passenger in the car might be a regular client, who doesn’t want to travel in a car that stinks of whatever the rapper might have been smoking.
“Did we do the right thing? Yes. We would have loved to have looked after him, but we maintained our standards,” says Kevin. Scott adds: “It proves we treat everyone equally. Everyone likes what we do.” Indeed, rather than Snoop Dogg’s baccy, wacky or otherwise, Park Executive cars all have a specific scent – it’s all part of the brand.
Where next? A V-Class is on order – though supply shortages mean discounts are hard to find. But a move into electric vehicles is also on the cards. A Tesla is “too expensive” for us, but the new Nissan e-NV200 looks like a good option, allowing Park to offer a green taxi service, priced below the executive service thanks to the low running costs of the electric MPVs. Nissan’s strong local links in Sunderland will be a big help, too.
Kevin believes the Park Executive brand is open enough to allow the company to expand geographically. “It’s not tied to any place – I don’t like company names that are,” he says. So while the name derives from the Doxford business park – the name could refer to any Park, he says. So that might open the door to expansion elsewhere in the region, and beyond.
Park Executive is still a young company – but its track record suggests it’s not going to move slowly…