Red Driver Training is the UK’s largest driving school after hitting a record fleet size of over 1,500 vehicles. Seb Goldin, CEO since 2022, has brought a background in fleet training to Red, deriving from a near tragic car crash in his youth, resulting in a career dedicated to driver safety. He previously founded Business Driver, which he sold to private equity, and was MD of the Institute of Advanced Motorists.
Red has 120 staff, with two operational bases in Teesside and Donnigton, is private equity owned and has a turnover of around £40m.
Neil Cunningham was my boss 25 years ago, when I was in my twenties, and he was running UK operations for car rental company Hertz. Neil had a way of remaining entrepreneurial and treating it like a small business, although we were working for a huge American corporation.
We worked together for five years and had kept in touch in the interim. When the Red opportunity came together it was great to work together again as he is currently chairman. I remembered what I learned at the time, what was irritating at the time was a good lesson — he doesn’t forget things and I suspect he has a damn good memory! — and that has all cemented our ability to work together today.
I was in sales and marketing and responsible for corporate clients. Neil was general manager and then became director of Hertz Europe. However big an organisation is, you need that ability to be a free thinker to mix things up, to challenge and that it’s right to get irritated with people who are just following process for the point of process. The bigger an organisation gets the more of that you tend to get. My style of leadership is very much down to Neil.
I ran my own business for 12 years which started on a kitchen table before selling to private equity. If you got my team to describe me now, they would say I am an entrepreneurial thinker and it’s about the "why not?" rather than the "well, we tried that and it didn’t work" and trying a different way.
A larger than life character, Neil would talk and engage with people and what sticks out is how he dealt personally with customer complaints. At the time it felt odd given that Hertz Europe had a big call centre with around 500 people.
But Neil insisted on looking at every complaint and most he would deal with personally. The outcome was that he not only discovered a huge amount of what was going on in the business, but he also flexed his ability and demonstrated leadership to sort things out.
Most of the time things were going wrong because of poor communication and expectation management. A complaint being solved was a huge positive. He’s even become friends with some of the customers who had issues, after they could see him sorting things out.
Having an ability to interact with a customer shows that you care. I quickly understood why he did it. It’s a logical way of dealing with a business and putting the customer at the centre of everything you do and really meaning it. I embody that now at Red; people come to me directly today and I have an open book in how customers can communicate. I will respond and engage and try to get a satisfactory outcome. Sometimes it’s a cathartic experience.
Last year we launched our driving instructor of the year competition. With almost 1,700 franchisees across the UK, we wanted to come up with a way of motivating them to deliver brilliant customer service. The entry criteria was the number of five star reviews each instructor have and it took our Trustpilot rating from middling to very strong and off the scale.
The average age of our learners is 25, not 17 as you'd expect, but they are all digital natives and we as a business need to communicate with them in the way they want to. Putting digital reviews on the web does engage and we have received over 5,000 learner reviews.
One of the challenges in a franchise business is managing quality control. You can guide and advise but you can’t tell franchisees what to do as they aren’t employees.
Our business model is that we recruit people to become driving instructors, which is now becoming a side hustle or career change for many. The market is buoyant and we train and qualify 25% of driving instructors in the UK. Once they are qualified, we sell a franchise and provide them with the marketing and sales tools and a vehicle to start up in their local area.
There is a current shake out in the industry of instructors retiring after Covid. Red has come back strongly since with double digit growth, not only in size but customer offering and proposition. We recently acquired a driver theory app fronted by James May. It’s another part of the jigsaw of the customer journey when they learn to drive now. It is helping us transform Red from an analogue business a decade ago, adding a digital experience for the driver. Now we are moving through to a lifelong, e-learning model.
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