Straight-talking Addison Lee founder is no back seat passenger

John Griffin’s greatest skill, is ‘making money’ but the minicab millionaire places importance on family, too

‘The worst company I have ever come across’: John Griffin, chairman of Irish TV, on Carlyle, the company that bought Addison Lee, the cab company he founded. photograph: dave meehan

‘The worst company I have ever come across’: John Griffin, chairman of Irish TV, on Carlyle, the company that bought Addison Lee, the cab company he founded. photograph: dave meehan

 

Minicab millionaire John Griffin is showing off his new iPhone 6, which he acquired earlier this week. He has an “IT guy”, who sorted it out for him, but he’s clearly excited to be ahead of the masses with the next big thing. He doesn’t seem to mind the tales of the device bending in the pockets of hipster jeans, probably because, at 72, tight jeans are unlikely to become his thing. In any case, he still has his much-thumbed, handwritten diary to back everything up, should accidental phone bending ever occur in his well-cut suit.

London-based Griffin is in Dublin to hold a few business meetings and to address a dinner organised by the Irish International Business Network, where he says he spoke about the role his Irish parents played in his success.

“I wanted to make them proud. I never did anything that brought police to the door,” he says, thankful that his Kerry father and Mayo mother lived long enough to see him become a wealthy minicab king in the English capital.

Both parents died in the 1980s, but by then Griffin already had a Rolls-Royce, the fruit of his labour at Addison Lee – the minicab company he founded in 1975 and sold to private-equity group Carlyle last year for £300 million.

Griffin was born in London, but moved home to Mayo with his mother when he was a toddler, before heading back to London with her to join his emigrant father when he was nine.

Cockney-accented, he has lived there ever since, passing through periods of playing down his Irishness (“I can remember being glad that Patrick [his middle name] wasn’t my first name”) before embracing it as a positive.

Now, he successfully plays both hands, becoming involved in the British establishment to the point of donating to the Conservative party and being awarded the freedom of London City, while also being honoured as London Kerry Person of the Year.

‘Walk the walk’

Griffin has developed a taste for Irish investments since cashing out of minicabs and is almost giddy with enthusiasm about the backing he has provided for Irish TV, the diaspora-focused television channel that streams on irishtv.com.

He has publicly committed £15 million to the project, the invention of Mayo husband and wife Mairéad Ní Mhaoilchiaráin and Pierce O’Reilly, but has so far had to hand over no more than £2.5 million.

The rest is there if and when it is needed – all part of Griffin’s strategy of making others believe he, and by extension Irish TV, can “talk the talk and walk the walk”.

His 1984 Roller played a similar role in encouraging perceptions among drivers at Addison Lee. “They needed to know I could pay them at the end of the week.”

In all, Griffin spent almost 40 years at Addison Lee, finally stepping aside as chairman earlier this year. The company was born out of a mixture of drive and necessity, with the birth of his two sons convincing him that he could do a better job in the minicab business than the companies for which he had worked in the past.

The Addison in the name came from an associate who lived in Addison Gardens and remarked that people seemed to think his address sounded posh, while also helping to push the company to the top of alphabetical telephone listings. Lee was Griffin’s own addition, along with the company’s one car.

By the time the business was sold to Carlyle, it had 4,500 cars and carried more than 10 million people each year, as well as making one million deliveries through its courier business. All of this from a man who didn’t pass his 11-plus and has no other qualifications to his credit.

The lack of letters after his name is largely bad luck, with Griffin being forced out of education for 18 months as a teenager after catching brucellosis from milking a cow and drinking the milk on a school trip to Devon.

A foray into accountancy was also cut short when his father’s civil engineering business ran into trouble and Griffin stepped in, taking casual minicab shifts to help things along and thus starting on a new path.

‘Education is like a gymnasium’

Within this school-of-life approach, Griffin still sought academic knowledge. He became a big fan of his local library when he was about 19, borrowing dense educational texts with obscure titles to satisfy his “unfulfilled educational bent”.

“I used to sit with a dictionary. I did it for quite a long time,” he says of the psychiatry and other texts he imbibed. His favourite subject was law, which is probably lucky given the future peppered with legal actions that lay ahead, including a messy one involving his brother and an inheritance dispute.

“It never was about the money,” is Griffin’s summation of the matter, which resulted in his paying out £15,000 after losing in court.

Substantially more cash will be at stake next week, when Griffin expects to hear the result of his appeal of an earlier decision to refuse Addison Lee drivers permission to drive in London’s bus lanes, something black cabs are allowed to do.

The dispute dates back to 2012, when Griffin became frustrated with what he perceived as an anti-competitive situation and authorised his drivers to use the bus lanes, promising to pay any fines that resulted. The fines ended up amounting to £600,000 and will fall due along with legal costs if Griffin loses – Carlyle made sure he retained liability when it finalised the buyout deal.

The signs are not particularly good, with an adviser to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg finding this week that allowing black cabs to use London bus lanes to the exclusion of others does not constitute illegal state aid.

Griffin is understandably reticent on the whole matter now, in contrast to his high-publicity approach of two years ago, which came on the back of similarly controversial comments about cyclists, who also happen to be able to use bus lanes.

“They leap on to a vehicle which offers them no protection except a padded plastic hat,” Griffin wrote in his company’s magazine, before urging cyclists to “get trained and pay up”.

Public enemy

No 1 Retirement from active management at Addison Lee, where his son Liam remains as managing director, has not lessened Griffin’s antipathy for black cabs, which, at least until the arrival of mobile taxi apps, represented public enemy

No 1 for the London minicab industry. He has just given £1 million to pay for the installation of sensors to measure air quality in London schools because he wants to prove the levels of pollution in areas heavily populated by black cabs.

If cabbies are heading Griffin’s list of baddies, his old pals in Carlyle probably come a close second. It’s safe to say his relationship, as chairman, with his corporate overlords after the buyout did not exactly blossom.

“The worst company I have ever come across,” is only the start of Griffin’s descriptions of the US group (an active investor in Ireland), even as he acknowledges that he should perhaps curb his words because his son still runs Addison Lee, and because it emerged this week that Carlyle is about to flip it on, reportedly seeking a sale price of £600 million (or even £800m according to some), at least double the price paid less than two years ago.

Griffin says that he was under the impression that, because he had spent 38 years building a company whose competitor was less than 10 per cent of its size, his opinions might count with its new owners.

“The truth is they didn’t give a shit.”

In his diary, Griffin has a handwritten list of what he sees as all the positive changes he brought to the taxi industry during his reign, and he is disappointed that Carlyle has not added to this.

And, as for the proposed sale valuation, which would presumably have been affected by the launch of Uber and Hailo on the market: “It completely loses me.”

Happily, Griffin received his Carlyle payout in cash, sharing £150 million with his sons for the half of the company they sold. The other half was pocketed by the family of Griffin’s partner, with the arrangement dating back to Griffin being forced in the early days of the business to sell 50 per cent of it for £6,000 or see it fall to dust.

He has “paid off a lot of mortgages” in the 18 months since pay day, spending by his own reckoning between £12 million and £14 million on similarly philanthropic acts. He has also looked after his family, with his two sons living in large homes on a golf course they own, and his wife, from whom he separated many years ago, receiving £1 million on her birthday last year.

“My main thing since is Irish TV,” says Griffin of his new business interests (“I predict it will be worth £100 million in about two years”), but he is particularly pleased with a £2 million stake he took in the Royal Mint Gardens development in London. It was a Nama sale, and Griffin reckons his stake is now worth at least £30 million.

Thrills are also being provided by a “gold mine” in Brazil, which he admits has not yet been particularly productive. “I like the excitement of that,” he says, amused at the idea of telling people he owns an actual gold mine.

Legacy

And then there is legacy. Some £10 million of Griffin’s cash is going to build a new wing at the Northwick Park Hospital in London, all following a chance meeting with one of the doctors there.

Griffin seems to enjoy jumping in after chance encounters, as displayed in his appearance in Channel 4’s Secret Millionaire a few years ago. He receives many requests for cash and will often make donations to causes based on emotional decisions, such as the €500 he gave to a half-marathon on Achill Island because the lady asking had the same name as his mother.

He describes a simple strategy for weeding the good causes from the bad: “I have a bin,” he says, back to his business-like self.

Griffin’s greatest skill, he says, is “making money” and he believes this should be celebrated rather than vilified. He also has a softness to him, however, glowing when his two sons and five grandsons are mentioned, and repeatedly stressing the importance of showing love to family members so that you can receive love in return.

Griffin’s parents taught him “honesty, respect and not to be ahead of myself”, he says, but he is still regretful that his proud Kerryman father struggled to demonstrate his affection.

“I’ve never had a quarrel with my sons,” he says. “Nothing is more important than my friendship with them.” CV Name: John Griffin Age: 72 Position: Founder and former chairman of London minicab company, Addison Lee Family: Two sons

Interests: Plays a lot of golf and has a jet-ski and a quad bike.

Something you might expect: He likes fancy cars.

Something that might surprise: He got into fresh seaweed long before it was cool with supermodels and has large quantities of dilsk shipped from Mayo to London every year.