Simon Kelner: The driving force behind a great London institution

Kelner's view


It's a safe bet that you didn't pay much attention to the National Luxury and Lifestyle Awards last weekend. No, me neither. And you may not have heard of John Griffin, the recipient of a special award as Entrepreneur of the Year. But if you live in London, he's a constant presence in your life.

Cross any road from Hackney to Hounslow, and it's a safe bet you'll see his influence on life in the capital. Go to any sporting and cultural venue and there, outside, will be the visible evidence of his omnipresence. The same is true at airports and train stations. He's as much part of our dynamic landscape as the big red London bus. For Mr Griffin is the founder of Addison Lee cars, of which there are almost 3,000 in the capital, undertaking 20,000 journeys every day.

Do you remember the old days? We had to phone up a local mini-cab firm, haggle over the price, and then we'd be told that the car would be with us within 10 minutes. After 20 minutes, we'd call up again. "The traffic's bad," we'd be told. "He'll be with you in a couple of minutes." Another 10 minutes would pass. Another call. "He's in your street. He's just looking for the house number." Eventually, some 40 minutes after your first call, a rather shabby looking car of indeterminate make with furry dice in the front, Bob Marley on the radio, and a smell of old dog everywhere would arrive.

It's fair to say that John Griffin, who left school without qualifications, saw a gap in the market. And in 1975, he formed the company whose black people carriers are coming to an address near you at this very moment. And now there are no more phone calls, no more dingy offices. You can order a car by using an app, and you get a text message when your car's about to arrive.

I know there are many other companies who operate in precisely the same way, but, by being first, John Griffin has turned his firm into more of a phenomenon. And now it's not enough just to see his cars everywhere. Through my letter box yesterday came a free glossy magazine called Add Lib, a very upmarket product which contains helpful information on "hip" places to go in the capital. You'd struggle to see that this is, in fact, a piece of Addison Lee promotional material, apart from, right at the front, a column by John Griffin himself.

But Mr Griffin does not concern himself with matters like the congestion charge or the price of petrol, or even travel matters in general. We are treated to his opinions on weightier matters, like the retirement age and phone hacking. As you might imagine for someone who is a poster boy for the entrepreneurial spirit, he has some interesting views.

He made a counter-intuitive point about the News of the World scandal, one that I haven't seen rehearsed elsewhere. What if, in the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone, a journalist had uncovered details which had led to Milly's rescue? "Would he not be a national hero instead of facing a prison sentence?" wrote Mr Griffin.

Visionary, entrepreneur, commentator. John Griffin sounds like a man you would quite like to have in the back of your cab.

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