Future Proof: ECL and John Markham
The executive transport company is growing again after surviving a ‘dire’ recession
Katie and John Markham of ECL. The family-run executive transport company is now entering a new phase through marketing and social media skills
“It started off as a glamorous enterprise, stretch limousines being used for the likes of debs, weddings and parties,” recalls John Markham, co-founder of ECL, a family-run executive transport company based near Dublin Airport.
Yet the company has evolved in the last couple of decades, and new technologies have been embraced and services expanded despite a hard hit from the recession. And now it is entering a new phase as Markham’s daughter Katie brings her marketing and social media skills to the business.
“When the business is growing at say 20 per cent per year you are kind of preoccupied with just staying on top of things, trying to keep the service right. And there is another part of you thinking ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t try and fix it’ – I’m happy that we are growing at a satisfactory rate, and that our big winner is word of mouth,” says Markham.
Clearly it’s not broken, but young blood will create new energy and fresh ideas and a new website is on the cards.
Things started when John’s brother Martin brought home a couple of stretch Cadillacs after a time in the US. At the time Markham was running a dispatch service in Dublin. Martin operated out of his offices until they got their first big break.
“We approached Aer Rianta, as it was at the time, and we got a desk. We set ourselves up as a chauffeur-drive desk in the arrivals hall in Dublin Airport, and really that’s where the business started. I became involved at that point, and later on I sold out of my dispatch courier company and concentrated on the chauffeur-drive business.”
A year later another brother, Brendan, came home from London, and became involved in the company.
“It was not much of a thing to start off with, but then, when we took the desk in the arrivals hall, we had various meetings with Aer Rianta. One of the statistics they had that really caught our eye was that, of the people flying into the airport, 20 per cent, one in five, had no idea how they were getting out of the airport. I’m sure that that statistic probably still holds.
“When you’re dealing with millions of passengers, 20 per cent is quite a number of people. Effectively, we were on Grafton Street, as it were, for our type of business. We built a business from that desk. We were sending out mailshots and faxes to companies, and it bore fruit, though it still took two years.”
ECL had that desk in the arrivals hall from 1993 to 1999. The tourism industry was picking up, Continental (now United) started to fly into Dublin, and the Markhams were approached with a contract to take crews to and from their hotels.Two other airlines – American Airlines and Etihad Airways – followed. Those contracts stand today, and ECL has also picked up Delta Air Lines in recent years.
In 1999 the Markhams bought a yard just down the road from the airport. Ten years later the recession hit, and nearly cleaned them out.
“We thought we were going to ride it out but, of course, we didn’t. From about October 2009 for about three years or so, we were very quiet. We didn’t lose any customers but the phone wasn’t ringing, the emails weren’t coming in and you can’t make that happen.
‘We were lucky’
“What saved us was a couple of things, including the fact that we did a lot of the driving ourselves. The work that was coming in, we were covering a lot of it ourselves to try and keep wages and outgoings down.
“And we were lucky. There was still a hard core of business there with the airline crews every day. I can tell you, on a lot of the days that was the only reason we had for getting out of bed. The business completely fell off a cliff basically.”
Aside from taking over the driving themselves, the brothers decided to add a car wash to the yard and open it to the public. All three rolled up their sleeves to make it work.
“For about three years it was very dicey.We were close to the edge but we did manage somehow to keep it going. You couldn’t overstate how bad it was. It was dire, and then, like somebody flicked a switch, it was all back on again.”
The Europa League final coming to Dublin in 2011 lifted the cloud for ECL and kicked everything back in to action. Now, on top of airline crew pick-ups and a chauffeur-driven service, their fleet also provides half-day tours around Dublin, full-day tours of Wicklow, and transport for groups of guests going to sporting event or nights out.
Not a bad outcome for a company that started by bringing a couple of Caddies home from the States to live out the American dream.