To mark National Car Free Day, we find out how eco-entrepreneur Nicko Williamson is greening up London’s roads
Have you seen that episode of Top Gear, the one with the electric cars? Jeremy Clarkson and James May set off to Cleethorpes in battery-charged buggies. Running out of juice in Lincoln, the car limps into the university, towed by students who grapple with cables and windows while Clarkson barks his unreserved abhorrence for all things non-petrol.
This scenario might well haunt those environmental flag wavers thinking of buying electric cars. But not Nicko Williamson, founder of Climatecars – the new taxi service dedicated to reducing corporate carbon footprints. He’s buying a whole fleet.
“Of course if you drive an electric car out to the country where there are no charge points you’re going to run out of fuel – they were such sops for doing that,” he tells me laughing.
“With our new pure electric vehicles hopefully arriving in January, we are seriously concerned about the lack of charging points in the city. But we are holding discussions at the moment to develop our own charge points; we want to develop the infrastructure ourselves so that we can run the business soundly on pure electric cars.”
It sounds like this entrepreneur isn’t going to wait around for City Hall to get their electric cars in gear. Not bad for a 27-year-old modern history graduate.
Williamson has never has another job, he has only ever been CEO of his own company. Not even a paper round. He founded Climatecars practically still wearing his graduation gowns, having worked on the business plan whilst writing his essays on American slavery.
At 23 Williamson found himself at the helm of his own business, something he always knew would happen: “I did some work experience at some hedge funds but it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to sit and think about investing in other companies, I wanted to start my own.
“ Investment from a group of business angels of £300,000, helped Nicko build a fleet of Toyota Prius cars”
“I’ve always been inspired by the biographies of successful entrepreneurs and so always wanted to start my own business. It was just a matter of time really.”
The idea came to him when he was driving around and spotted a garage selling LPG (greener fuel).
“It got me thinking about transport in London and how it could be made cleaner. We didn’t go down the LPG route because it wasn’t viable but I found out that the hybrid model would work.”
Williamson believes his age was was a help rather than a hindrence when he pitched to his would-be investors: “I think my youth and my enthusiasm for the business definitely helped in getting backing. The initial funding came from people that knew me fairly well.”
Following an entrepreneurial competition at the London Business School, Williamson secured two business mentors who helped him sell 30 per cent of the business to friends and family for £200,000.
That initial injection of capital followed by a second investment from a group of business angels of £300,000, helped Nicko build a fleet of Toyota Prius cars. The hybrid run-arounds run on an electric source at speeds of up to 30mph before switching to their petrol engine above that.
“The growth has been tremendous; we are on track for profits of well over £3m this year”
Given that London’s traffic stops and starts more than the northern line on a bad day, this seems pretty perfect.
“Our eco-cars are well suited to London’s roads, while the black cabs are choking out black smoke in the traffic, our cars glide along with no emissions.”
Climatecars’ vehicles produce 89 grams of carbon per kilometre against 159 for a standard people-carrier, and 233 for the latest generation of black taxi. The business presents the concept of embedded generosity. If you have two identical products but one has an element of good attached to it, hypothetically people will choose the product with the good stuff.
“I think companies and individuals are still looking at their carbon footprints, we are giving people a green option and we don’t see any reason why people wouldn’t try us.”
And try them they have. It has become one of the fastest growing companies in its sector since it launched in 2007. During Climatecars’ first year it achieved a turnover of £255,000. Last year it was £2.2m, with £10m projected by 2016.
“The growth has been tremendous; we are on track for profits of well over £3m this year,” says the 27 year old.
I wonder how London’s cabbies are taking to this young upstart and his green-mobiles?
“Every time I get in a black cab they’re pretty friendly – they joke that I’m nicking all of our work but realistically we have very different business models, we have to be booked, so there will always be a need for black cabs. They just need to clean up their act a bit.”
So do we have an entrepreneurial eco-warrior on our hands or just an extremely shrewd businessman?
“In geography classes we were always taught that you need to conserve resources and I do what I can. But I’m not perfect, I still go on holiday… I’m no tree-hugger!”
Shrewd it is.