Reinventing the wheel: 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year
Fleetondemand is steering itself towards its goal of becoming Yorkshire’s first billion-pound business within a decade. In the driver’s seat is Justin Whitson, CEO of the mobility as a service (MaaS) business and recently named Inflexion Entrepreneur of the Year at The National Business Awards 2020.
Most cars sit stationary 95% of the time. But Justin Whitson wasn’t sitting still – he was inspired to disrupt the travel market. By shifting drivers from an ownership model to a usership one, “expensive parking machines” (as Justin calls cars) could then be put to better use. In doing so, he reckons there could be a very positive impact on lowering global emissions, reducing traffic congestion and improving corporate social responsibility.
Justin set up Fleetondemand in 2011 as a Software as a Service (SaaS) business specialising in solutions for the fast growing MaaS market. In 2018 Fleetondemand launched Mobilleo, a technology solution that consolidates all modes of transport into a single platform. Consumers use it to plan and book travel, bypassing the need for multiple travel apps and saving time and money. Businesses of all sizes also use it to consolidate travel booking and spend, thereby allowing them to enhance employee benefit programmes and improve CSR policies. Fleetondemand is also working with a number of public sector organisations to fuel urban and rural MaaS projects to improve how people travel around their cities and regions.
That Fleetondemand is a solid, profitable business today is clearly down to Justin’s experience and personality. He knows what he likes – and doesn’t like – and has crafted a career to suit. Aged 13 he started his first job at a butchers in Bradford city centre emptying tubs of coleslaw. He hated it instantly, mostly owing to the smell, and walked out halfway through the shift. He knew it wasn’t his calling.
Showing an enterprising spark from a young age, he was running the school tuck shop around the same time as his short-lived butcher career. “That shop never had any stock control, any inventory, or profits. So in sixth form I turned it into a profitable business for the school.” The school granted him numerous awards to reflect his successful initiative.
During his time at university he set up numerous micro businesses. “I knew I didn’t want to work for anyone else.” It was during this formative time that his entrepreneurial flair blipped heavily again: He set up a magazine and sold ad space, which gave him an eye on the internet when it was a fledgling concept in the mid- to late-1990s. “I was doing an advertising and graphic design course and I realised I could put things in the browser rather than in print. It opened my mind to the internet.”
And so the wheels were greased for his future uber-success with technology. In 2000 he stepped inside the vehicle business when he founded Nexus. The company went on to become the UK’s largest independent broker of vehicle rental to business at the time - having built two new technology platforms in the process.
Three years later, barely a minute after his non-compete clause expired, he set up Fleetondemand. The business was initially bootstrapped as Justin believes in retaining the equity at the outset so as to be able to share it with staff. Keen to make his venture an international one, he kicked it up a gear, inventing a new platform to allow for cross-border growth. “Mobilleo can be spun up anywhere in the world in 10 minutes with AWS-hosting infrastructure. It will bring to life shared mobility. MaaS is what usership is all about. It’s a very disruptive model to the conventional company car market, which is in decline,” he says, noting a 42% reduction in 16 to 24 year-olds getting a driver’s license. “We are just plugging forms of transport into an app.”
It’s clear Justin prefers the fast lane to cruise control: His 20+ years’ experience in the industry combined with his passion for driving growth has seen Fleetondemand’s annual turnover increase more than 400% over the last three years, with it expected to climb further despite the current backdrop and the impact it’s had on the travel sector.
“I always knew I would build businesses,” he says, recalling his Father’s own solo sojourn from Ireland to England at the age of 14 to start a new life.
It’s about how you get there; you have to find your own path. You’re born with the spirit, but you have to harness and fine-tune it.
You need to make decisions at each crossroads, and if you make a mistake you need to get yourself back to where you need to be. That’s what makes an entrepreneur a leader; it’s how you correct the wrongs.”
Wise words, but it’s hard to imagine this entrepreneur making many wrong turns.
Inflexion has sponsored the National Business Awards ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ Award since 2016. Focusing on the contribution of a dynamic, creative and visionary leader, the Award recognises an enterprising individual who has achieved sustained levels of growth and strong financial performance through a culture of innovation, resilience and an ethos of inspiring others through their leadership style.