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Entrepreneurs: Green pioneer Nicko Williamson on turning London’s cabs electric with WeFlex

·4-min read
WeFlex founder Nicko Williamson (WeFlex)
WeFlex founder Nicko Williamson (WeFlex)

These days every company shouts about its green credentials. Nicko Williamson was ahead of the curve. The serial entrepreneur founded his first eco-friendly business in 2007.

“This is pre-iPhone,” he says. “A long, long time ago.”

That business was Climate Cars, a green alternative to Addison Lee that offered corporate car accounts using hybrid vehicles, rather than diesel.

After selling that business, Williamson set up WeFlex. The company lets Uber drivers rent-to-own cars, offering financing tailored to fare-based work.

Like Climate Cars, WeFlex has always offered hybrids. Today — as world leaders gather for COP26 — WeFlex announces it is going all electric.

“We were already starting to add electric vehicles going into the pandemic,” Williamson, 38, says. “Coming out of it we just thought: the future is clearly electric anyway, let’s properly take some drastic action here.”

Williamson readily admits to being a pragmatist rather than a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist. He was the teenager reading Richard Branson books at school and set up Climate Cars aged just 23 after graduating with a history degree from Bristol. Going green is as much a great business opportunity as it is ethical.

But he adds: “I want to feel good about what I’m doing. When London’s full of electric cars, it’s going to be a much nicer city.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, WeFlex grew out of Williamson’s first business. After selling Climate Cars, he noticed the cab market was changing dramatically. Private hire drivers were traditionally provided with a vehicle by their employers, but the rise of Uber meant cabbies were now expected to provide their own cars.

At the same time, most banks were reluctant to lend. Williamson spotted a gap in the market and launched WeFlex in 2016.

One of his contacts had joined Uber and WeFlex struck an early partnership that helped both grow. There are roughly 100,000 private hire cars on London’s roads. Today, about 45,000 of them are Ubers.

While the Uber relationship was great in the early days, it came back to bite when Uber lost its private hire licence from Transport for London in 2017.

“You can imagine, you’ve got lots of stakeholders questioning you if there’s still a business,” Williamson recalls.

WeFlex has raised £2 million in equity and around £20 million in debt. Williamson ultimately convinced investors and lenders that WeFlex could ride out the Uber problems. Uber kept operating as it appealed the TfL decision and won a legal victory last September.

The TfL licence debacle was hairy. But it paled in comparison to the pandemic.

“Our customers just evaporated overnight,” Williamson recalls, with “a couple of hundred” vehicles handed back during Covid.

“It was sort of a terrifying period,” Williamson says. “We just had to look at every single cost in the business.”

WeFlex offered payment holidays to keep as many customers on board as possible. At the same time, Williamson negotiated debt repayment holidays for his own business and went to investors to raise more money to see the company through. Furlough and Government support loans were also vital.

“It was a real focus on how we can keep cash — as long as you’ve got cash, you’ve got options,” he says.

Now things are much brighter: “In the late spring, as the lockdown started to ease, demand just came back, and it’s just been really strong ever since.”

WeFlex has 880 vehicles on the road and is leasing electric vehicles at a rate of 60 a month. About 60% of the current fleet is all-electric. It hopes to reach 100% by the end of 2024. Last month Uber announced plans to recruit 20,000 more drivers to cope with a surge in demand since reopening, including 9,000 in the capital. It has also promised an entirely electric fleet by 2030.

“The exciting thing is it’s really the early stage of this transition,” Williamson says.

WeFlex hopes to grow more than fivefold to reach 5,000 vehicles on the road at any one time. “We’re hopeful we can do much bigger numbers than that.”

Weflex

Founded: 2016

Staff: 22

Turnover: £10.7 million last year, forecasting £15.2 million this year

Headquarters: Shadwell

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