Going the extra mile

The founder of Climate Cars, Nicko Williamson, has always had a one-track mind. It was the entrepreneurial way, or the highway

Going the extra mile

There aren’t many 14-year-old boys who are happy to do extra-curricular reading. Getting them to delve into the works of Joyce, Shakespeare and Orwell, as directed by the reading list, is usually tall enough a task. For them to squirrel themselves away in their dorm room devouring a business biography would leave many a tutor scratching their head in bewilderment. 

But Nicko Williamson had a unique drive. From a young age, he knew that he wanted to start his own business. Reading Richard Branson’s autobiography Losing My Virginity just confirmed it. Williamson said he was “totally blown away” by Old Beardy’s musings. “The excitement of starting multiple businesses and the sense of achievement that I drew from Branson’s book really inspired me to go and do it myself,” he says.

Aside from his clear interest in business and start-ups, there were other clues to Williamson’s budding entrepreneurialism. “I think I’ve always been a bit challenging,” he admits. “I always asked ‘why’. That’s a good thing now, of course, but not so good when you’re a child and people are trying to drum information into you. Being questioning and curious can wind teachers up a little bit.” 

Aside from business, there was another subject that fascinated the precocious Marlborough School student: history. So while he waited to be struck by the lightning bolt of genius as to what his first entrepreneurial venture would be, Williamson headed to Bristol University to read modern history. “I spent my time there searching for this elusive idea about what I would do when I left,” he says.

Eventually, the eureka moment came in Williamson’s last year at Bristol. On the journey from university to his parents’ home on the other side of Bath he would drive past a garage that converted cars to run on greener LPG fuel. “I started thinking about the growth of the environmental agenda and which sectors I could apply greener fuels to. I thought the taxi sector might be an ideal place to start.”

This is when the first idea for Climate Cars was born. He still had a few months of intense study to complete before he graduated, so juggled his course and sketching out plans for his start-up. “I was writing my dissertation on slavery in Florida, but also writing a business plan for Climate Cars,” he recalls. 

Upon finishing his degree, Williamson continued to tinker with the business plan. A major flaw was that his original idea of running the cars on gas was completely unviable. “Buying cars and converting them to run on alternative fuel is not what vehicle funders want you to do,” he explains. “They want you to buy standard vehicles so that if they go bust they can reclaim the cars and get their money back.” 

An obvious alternative to running regular cars on alternative fuel was to buy cleaner, greener cars from the off. “Hybrid cars were very much coming to the fore at that moment in time, and, as it turns out, the emissions were lower [on them] than they would have been on the converted cars,” he says. 

The basic premise for Climate Cars was very simple: it was taking the existing high-end minicab offering, but with a significant reduction in emissions. “Our biggest competitor is Addison Lee,” says Williamson. “It’s that model of providing a very slick, fantastic service at a very competitive cost. But with the environmental bit, too. Our emissions are less than half of that of black cabs.”

Right from the outset, Williamson was very clear about his target market: he was after the large corporates. The banks, the magic-circle law firms and big ad agencies were all on the hit list. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, with the rising prevalence of the CSR agenda. “One of the big things I was aware of when I was starting Climate Cars was that many big businesses were making noises about cutting their emissions, so this was a key selling point for us.”

And Williamson wasn’t the only one convinced by the business’s viability: he also had investors hooked too, raising £200,000 from friends and family in 2007 and a further £300,000 from business angels the following year. He also secured credit lines with a number of vehicle funders. This meant the cash he’d raised could be used to foot the bill for start-up costs and fund the initial losses, and the cars would be purchased on credit. 

“It was a very capital-intense business to start with,” says the entrepreneur. The company began trading with five cars, and now has a fleet of more than 150. Turnover has grown just as quickly, too, going from revenues of £255,000 in the first year to £2.7m in the year to March 2012. 

Unlike lots of founders who struggle as the business grows in size and complexity, Williamson says that it has got easier as the company has grown larger. “One of the issues I had early on was developing a good team,” he admits. “I hired a few of the wrong people early on, which was difficult. But we now have an excellent team, with a really good operations director, as well as a head of account management, a guy who takes charge of all of our drivers, and a head of sales. We’ve got a decent management structure in place.”

It certainly seems as though everything is rosy at the green taxi firm. Certainly when things could have so easily gone the other way: Climate Cars raised its much-need angel round just before Lehman Brothers collapsed. What’s more, it is no surprise that during the recession of the past couple of years, CSR has slipped down the agenda in UK plc. 

But Williamson says his business has been unaffected by the downturn. “We kept growing the whole way through it,” he says, confidently. “I started in a boom market for about nine months, before it all turned a bit sour. Apart from those initial few months I haven’t really operated in a thriving economy, so I’m used to it being hard work.”

Williamson’s natural knack for innovation (arguably, he’s shaken up one of the most staid divisions of the transport sector) has won him many an accolade, including the much-coveted young entrepreneur of the year award at the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards in 2011. 

He also had the opportunity to participate in the recent BBC television series Be Your Own Boss fronted by Innocent drinks co-founder Richard Reed, where Williamson and other mentors met 500 budding entrepreneurs. “It was fun,” says the Climate Cars founder. “I met a huge number of really young people with all of these wonderful ambitions. We heard lots of ideas that were just not viable, but there were a few gems in there, too.”

Closer to home, business is thriving. Climate Cars is looking at a turnover of £4m for next year, and the business has been profitable since 2009. Not that there’s a lot of cash to spare. “We’re not making huge profits because we’re ploughing most of it straight back into the business.” Recent investments have been in technology – a new shiny iPhone app was recently launched – and a large project to automate back-office operations is currently underway. The taxi firm is also about to launch its new executive line, with the December delivery of its new lower emission Mercedes. 

But his success with Climate Cars doesn’t mean Williamson is ready to rest on his laurels just yet: he wouldn’t be true to his Branson-worshipping younger self if he stopped at one business. “I’m very ambitious, so I don’t want to do just one thing,” he says. But he remains tight-lipped as to what his next ventures may entail. “There’s a few other things bubbling. Just the way I like it.” 

Hannah Prevett
Hannah Prevett

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