operator profiles

David Burke (left) and Andrew Matthews

Operator Profile - Alpha Executive Cars

Out in the fens, something is stirring. Bury St Edmunds is a pleasant town in East Anglia, but even here there is a vibrant business community, and that inevitably generates demand for car services.

When David Burke decided to set up Alpha Executive Cars his aim was private hire, but with high standards. It was good – and netted him a couple of gongs at last year’s Professional Driver QSi Awards. But now he’s taking the business to the next level – changing the entire focus from private hire to out-and-out chauffeuring.

New cars are joining the fleet, including a pair of Mercedes-Benz V-Class MPVs and probably an S-Class limousine, which will replace a trusty Volvo S80. Alpha’s smart Ford Galaxy will be retained, as the company grows from two cars to four.

It’s not going to be that difficult a transition. Meeting David and driver Andrew Matthews outside their base gives an impression that this is a company that means business. Both men are immaculately turned out, and the Galaxy is loaded well beyond the spec of an Addison Lee car, with tan leather interior. Newspapers and water bottles are present and correct for the next client. Attention to detail is such that the men’s silk ties match the car seats!

Like many operators, David came to the industry as a second career – he previously spent 12 years as a project manager for DIY store group B&Q. The job involved a lot of driving. “I found myself enjoying the driving more than the job,” he says. So three years ago, he decided it was time for a major life change, and decided to set up as a car service.

“I was very naïve – I set up a website and expected the phone to start ringing as soon as you go live,” he says. “Then you realise you need to pick up the phone to get work.” So he started ringing other operators to see what was available. “For the first year, that was what it was all about.”

From the start, in April 2013, David set out to focus on offering an MPV service so as to complement, rather than compete with existing operators.

After a while, the work started to grow. “I was making £10,000 a month and struggling to get the work covered,” says David. “So we started building relations with local chauffeurs. It has always stood us in good stead. The view round here is we’re not in competition – everyone works for the common good. It’s old-school, with deals done on a handshake.”

PD website Profile Alpha Exec 2 800

Indeed, year-on-year growth has been impressive, with 43% revenue growth against a target of 25% from year 1 to year 2. For year 2 to year 3, growth was more than 50% against a revenue increase target of 35%.

In addition, Alpha Executive made a small acquisition in April. “Nick Davey is a close friend of mine, and runs a one-man chauffeur firm up the road. We became his main alternative, but at the age of 60, he wants to retire. “We’ve agreed to buy the company, and he’ll drive on until August,” says David. “The business turns over around £80,000 a year, and that’s without pushing. But the extra business secures Andrew’s and my future.”

Andrew joined form a Cambridge operator, oddly enough also called Alpha, and an introduction came from a mutual friend called John Thornton – who recommended Andrew to David. “I wanted a long-distance chauffeur, and Andrew wanted to do that kind of work rather than local taxi runs,” David says.

Andrew worked as a vehicle technician at a Land-Rover dealer for 10 years, and had working in a couple of businesses as a driver before teaming up with David. He’s based in Cambridge, and that opens up a bigger potential market for Alpha Executive, says David. “They are different markets,” says David.

John Thornton is also coming on board – he’ll be doing a bit of driving, and the Galaxy will become his “ride” for the next year or so - but his skills are in sales and marketing, and he’ll be there mainly to help grow the business. “He’ll go out and scale us up as we grow,” says David.

Now the task is to turn the business from a good quality private hire operation to a full-on chauffeur company. “I hate settling for second best, or anything shoddy, and I won’t have it for my clients,” says David. “You’ve got to be different these days, adds Andrew. “If you don’t do that, you’ll get forgotten.”

Meanwhile Alpha is also growing via building its network of like-minded operators. Alliances have been struck with other similar-sized chauffeur firms in Hertford and Great Dunmow, Essex – close to Stansted airport. This has good links with the popular executive terminals at Stansted, but working for these means a significant raising of the game – and a Mercedes-only fleet.

A fourth driver is joining the ranks – Andy Warner is a trained close protection driver who brings a lot of new skills to Alpha’s portfolio, especially in order to serve the sort of clients who use private jets. When he comes on board, John will move to a full-time sales job. Local market demands dictate he’ll probably be getting an S-Class. “I’d prefer another V-Class, but some clients don’t want a van,” says David.

Both David and Andrew will stick with the V-Class. “It’s so flexible,” says David. “You can have facing seats and it just adds to the experience.” The new V-Classes are being acquired on lease purchase – contract hire is impossible due to the mileages.

“To get to the chauffeur level it’s been about tunnel vision on standards. The website will be redesigned to reflect the more up-market image, when the V-Classes arrive next month.

David is enjoying the job – and still enjoying the driving. “There’s something great about being at Heathrow airport at 6am when you’ve dropped off your client and you’re watching the sun come up with a coffee in your hand. I don’t want to lose that.”

Andrew adds “We want to do the good jobs – the airport runs, not the kebab trips.” And he key to making it work is filling the dead legs – getting a return trip from Gatwick to East Anglia within a reasonable time. He’s finding Blacklane as a useful way to find jobs to do within the waiting times, as it has high standards and provides good quality clients.

Social media is a way of making things happen, too. “Very few chauffeurs talk to other chauffeurs. We do – we have a good relationship with Near & Far of Fakenham – we met at the QSi Awards, which is such a great chance to network,” says David, and other operators such as Drive Alive in March. Alpha Executive is well followed on Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus – and has even had some positive tweet action from Dragon’s Den star Theo Paphitis – who has nearly half a million followers.

With so much going on, there will be plenty more to tweet about and “like” for this fast-