Badge of honour: Capstar’s fleet operations in focus
Capstar is a chauffeur firm with a difference: its drivers are ex-soldiers who have often suffered battlefield injuries or trauma. By Steve Moody.
As he weaves through the back streets of London, Simon Peacock is telling me about the time in 2007 he was surrounded by the Taliban and was blown up by a grenade. He says he was lucky: the soldier stood next to him was killed.
With numerous pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body, the ex‐Royal Anglian infantryman walks and moves stiffly. But in control of his long wheelbase Jaguar XJ he’s nimble, smooth and precise.
Peacock is a chauffeur for Capstar, a company set up by ex‐officers to give soldiers leaving the military, and especially those who have suffered debilitating injuries or battlefield‐related conditions, a new career.
“I wanted to stay in the army, but it’s difficult to keep you once you’ve got those injuries,” he says. “Once I left I was a bit of a lost soul, going through a really tough time coping with the injuries, and Post‐Traumatic Stress Disorder. I didn’t feel like I was able to achieve what I wanted, struggled to get a job, and my confidence was low. Then I found Capstar.”
Capstar runs 20 Jaguar XJs and Range Rovers, mainly in London, and is set to expand to more than double that number this year, while it has also opened offices in New York providing the same opportunities for ex‐US personnel. Wearing a discrete badge on their grille – effectively a cap star as you might find on a soldier’s beret – the drivers wear regimental ties, and keep their cars as clean and shiny as parade ground boots.
A Sandhurst graduate who served with the Scots Guards and Parachute Regiment, the company’s founder and chairman Rob Bassett Cross left the army but found the transition to civillian life a challenge. The thought gnawed away that if he found it hard, how were others faring?
“We didn’t set out to start a chauffeur business,” he says. “I was lucky I got a chance to retrain in a second career in banking at JP Morgan, but even I found it difficult transitioning into a job. I thought about those soldiers who had been members of my company who were injured, who didn’t want to leave the army, but had that choice taken away from them.
“So I became very passionate about trying to help in a very real way, above and beyond purely charity.”
He had hired chauffeur firms for clients and been unimpressed with their cost, punctuality and organisational abilities, and it occurred to him that he knew people who could do it better.
In late 2012, he contacted Charlie Bowmont, another ex‐officer now working for Jaguar‐Land Rover, and asked about buying a couple of cars.
JLR CEO Ralph Speith got involved and suggested that instead of one or two cars, why not try and turn it into a business with 40. Bowmont left JLR with Speith’s blessing and Capstar was born.
Its first driver was Nick Black, an Irish Guardsman, suffering from PTSD after two of his friends were killed.
Bassett Cross continues the story: “He was struggling to find work and hold anything down and Capstar was his first real job. Within six weeks of employing him his wife phoned us up and said, ‘I recognise my husband and the children
recognise their father again’.”
Capstar has employees with blast injuries and amputations and have even modified cars. But it is not a compromise.
Every chauffeur is expected to fulfill the full range of duties.
“As long as the individual can get a driving licence from DVLA they can drive for Capstar,” he adds. “But they have to be able to do the job of a chauffeur, so that means lifting a bag out of the boot, and carrying it up three flights of stairs for a client. For the guys who are more heavily disabled there are jobs in the office.”
As for the logistics of ferrying VIPs, executives and high net worth individuals around, it is all relative.
“The operations director, Henry Newton, is an ex‐Household Cavalry tank commander,” says Bassett Cross. “Our ops room is run along military lines. To him, it is far less complex running cars in London than running tanks in Iraq.”
Now employing nearly 30 ex‐servicemen, Bassett Cross says he hopes many of the employees will eventually leave the firm, and set up their own businesses in the sector. Capstar employees everyone full time, rather than on a job by job or hourly basis, to give them stability, but it is no charity or soft option. Bassett Cross believes that for the firm to really help as many people as possible, it must make a profit.
Some of that profit is donated to charity, but mainly it is used to grow, so that Capstar can offer a complete luxury travel and security service. It’s an area that Andrew Kinning is exploring with the company.
A former Royal Marine, who left in 2006 after two tours of Iraq, he spent a few years in private security, not really knowing what to do next.
He says: “You’re waiting for the day when your wife says you’re not packing any more bags and you need to come home. That happened about two years ago – the children were at that age where I needed to be home.
“It is so hard to find a job in the UK, and I spent months looking without much luck. A friend of mine had noticed the Capstar badge on cars, and done some research and pointed them out to me. I phoned Charlie, and pretty much he said: ‘Come and work for us’.
“From day one, you’re in a family, one of the team, part of a unit, in it together.
I came on board as a chauffeur, and have grown within the company. By the end of last year, I was doing training for all drivers and moving into security because of my background and qualifications. And now I mainly look after one client.”
With its well‐trained, risk‐aware workforce Capstar is now expanding into personal security and luxury services too. Its drivers are good under pressure and reliable, and because of the unique nature of the firm, Bassett Cross has found they often strike up close relationships with their customers.
“You can imagine a banker in the back of the car, having a bad day – they find it cathartic to look forward and go ‘that guy’s lost an arm in battle, and now he’s driving with a prosthetic’. It puts things in perspective.”