Operator Profile - Airport Lynx
Beyond Cambridge, the landscape flattens as you head toward the fenlands. Pretty villages dot the landscape, and you might wonder there’s anything but agriculture in this bucolic environment.
But Cambridge is a seat of learning, and these days, it’s not all about the classics. Far from it – the city supports a growing number of very high-tech businesses at the cutting edge of computer science. Scotland may have Silicon Glen – out here, they’ve got Silicon Fen.
These businesses are operating on an international scale, and that means they need to travel. Stansted airport is just up the road, but it can’t match the amount of destinations available through Heathrow. And it’s that demand for travel that Steve Russell has built his business around. “It’s the second-busiest area in the UK for airport travel,” he says. “Only central London has a bigger demand for business travel.”
“I’ve always been involved in logistics – my father had a transport company, and it’s amazing how similar it is to running a private hire company,” he says. But after 10 years of working for the family firm, Steve decided he wanted a change of career, so he went back to college. This decision set him on his current path – though that wasn’t the plan.
“I went to study business and law, and I started driving a taxi in order to pay my way through college,” he laughs. From there he ended up working for a chauffeur company, but when the owner started to become unreliable on payments, Steve decided to set up on his own.
“I spent £500 on a Vauxhall Astra and set up Cambridge Airport Cars,” he says, “and we’ve gradually built up from there. That was 2006 – the business celebrates 10 years next year. Airport Lynx was a competitor back then, and became available about five years ago. It had been running since 1998, and had a lot of valuable customers, including a raft of self-employed local businessmen and consultants. “The acquisition trebled our size overnight,” says Steve.
The 80-mile trip from Cambridge to Heathrow is the main route for Steve’s 25-strong fleet. Two-thirds of the fleet is company-owned with the balance being owner-drivers. “Business is picking up at the moment, so we’re likely to grow with owner-drivers,” Steve says. “It’s easier for drivers to get finance on new cars now.”
The fleet is mainly Mercedes E-Class, with a smattering of Audi A6s. A Mercedes-Benz S-Class is also available t provide a VIP service. There are also a number of MPVs on the fleet, including Ford Galaxys and Mercedes-Benz Vianos.
In addition, a couple of 12-16 seat minibuses are kept on strength too, including a new executive Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Cambridge generates a lot of group travel, for example from foreign language schools.
“The business changes throughout the year,” says Steve. “Businesses don’t travel so much in the summer months, but then the summer schools and language schools increase- so we actually get busier in the summer.
There’s very little cash and credit card work – about 30% of the business, with the balance being account work. “We have experimented with local work too, with a Toyota Prius, as a lot of corporate clients want us to provide local work too. It’s not easy for us to do that the way we’re structured – we’re not geared up to providing a car in 10 minutes,” he says.
As an airport specialist, Steve is constantly refining the service. “We hadn’t considered the customer’s problem finding the driver at the terminal,” he says. “So now we have a system where all our drivers always wait at the same place – and we tell the customer that’s where they’ll be on the confirmation email.”
Drivers all have distinctive red ties, and use tablets with the Airport Lynx logo on the screen and the customer’s name rather than a tatty board. “You have to listen to what people want,” he says.
Steve is keen that Airport Lynx focuses on its end-users as customers – something that doesn’t always happen with traditional taxi firms. “For a lot of firms, the money is just coming from the driver’s rental fees – so their customers are effectively their drivers. That’s something we’re keen to get away from.”
This has led to the company-owned fleet, and also the establishment of the company’s own service garage at its head office, where it can carry out its own service and maintenance work on the fleet.
These days Steve has taken himself off the road and has handed over much of the admin across to his staff. “I’m having to find a new role for myself in the business, setting the standards and the direction,” he says. “People need to know what to expect – as long as you know what the standard is, you can make a choice. It’s like McDonalds – it’s not the best restaurant in the world, but you know what you’re going to get.”
He admits to missing being behind the wheel. “I miss the chats with the customers,” he says. “There’s so much going on in Cambridge, with new off-the-wall ideas. And these people are in the back of the car, and they often give me free business advice. In fact they’re paying me!”
As small companies become successful, they end up being snapped up by bigger operators, and that means Airport Lynx has to handle them differently. “We can do that for the companies that want systems with passwords and cost codings. And we can still offer a personal service – for example we have an old lady who uses us to visit her relatives and writes us letters to make the bookings!”
Technology has helped. Steve has since April been using Sherlock, the system developed in-house by Addison Lee’s Haulmont business. “We spent a long time researching it as our previous system wasn’t really working for us. We just had to bite the bullet and change – and it’s working well for us.”
It’s allowed the drivers to move away from texting “POB” – the customer can see the Google map on the windscreen-mounted tablet. Everything is GPS-enabled, and prices are fixed. It’s the opposite of Uber and its surge pricing. “If you quote a price, that’s what it should be,” says Steve.
The trick is to keep looking at things, and refining everything,” Steve concludes. “The important thing is not losing customers – they have come to you, and you’ve got to keep hold of them.”