James Wilkinson recently turned 40 and is a changed man.
He’s the CEO and co-founder of car finance company Zuto, which has grown its staff to 400 this year, with plans for continued growth in 2022.
I last interviewed the entrepreneur in 2014 and a lot has changed since then.
Back then the company was called Car Loan 4U, employed 185 people and worked out of an office in Macclesfield.
Wilkinson was 32 at the time and a year away from being crowned the 2015 EY Entrepreneur of the Year.
Fast-forward seven years and our latest interview is taking place in Zuto’s office in Manchester city centre.
The CEO hasn’t lost any of his growth mindset but his priorities have changed.
“Profit, growth and margins are important but that’s not what gets us out of bed in the morning,” he tells TechBlast. “What gets us out of bed in the morning is helping Zutonites, helping customers, helping the community and working out how we can do more for the environment. That gives us energy.
“If you are achieving fast profitable growth that’s a great financial story, but if every business made their own small impact on improving the communities around them that would make a much bigger difference.”
By way of explanation a ‘Zutonite’ is how Zuto’s staff are referred to and ‘Zutopia’ is where they work. Wilkinson’s mantra is about doing the right thing for his fellow Zutonites and customers.
For a point of interest, Zuto has an impressive Trustpilot rating of 4.7/5 and a Glassdoor rating of 4.2/5 with Wilkinson himself having an approval rating of 92%.
Wilkinson agrees that he’s changed – and points to his 11-year-old son Jimmy as one of the main reasons.
Jimmy is the eldest of his three children and has a genetic disorder called Prada-Willi Syndrome, which means people with the condition are permanently hungry.
Typical symptoms include learning difficulties and behavioural problems, including temper tantrums.
The condition gained prominence through reality TV star and ex-model Katie Price talking about her son Harvey, who has Prada-Willi Syndrome.
Wilkinson says: “Every new parent will tell you that having a child changed their life but having Jimmy changed ours dramatically.
“I love him to bits but because of Prada-Willi Syndrome it’s meant Jimmy has been the centre of attention all his life.
“We have two younger daughters and we’ve not been able to do simple things like go out for lunch or go to a kid’s party.
“I think from a personal point of view I became a lot more caring and sensitive when Jimmy was born. That might have come with getting older, but Jimmy certainly accelerated it.”
Wilkinson even completed the London Marathon in 2016 to raise money for the Prader-Willi Syndrome.
Zuto’s story dates back to 2006 when Wilkinson and his friend Ryan Dignan set up Car Loan 4U to transform the world of car finance.
“Going on to a garage forecourt was daunting and getting finance was part of that daunting process,” he recalls. “By helping customers get pre-approved finance they could go on to that forecourt in a more empowered position to negotiate for that car.
“The first few years were really exciting. There’s a real passion to prove what you’re doing is working. Everyone had so much energy and passion. We didn’t want to go to the banks because we didn’t want them to say ‘no’ so we used our credit cards.
“It’s easier, in my opinion, to set up a business before you have the responsibilities of a family and a mortgage. You’re young, fearless and just want to give it a real good go.
“In the early days it was a bit of a lifestyle business but within 12 months we got a bigger vision. That coincided with the movement online and that accelerated our growth.”
However the 2008 recession saw the company lose a couple of lenders and the duo resorted to selling cars for 12 months until the economy turned.
The bounce back was so quick that by August 2011 they set themselves a target of £6.2m turnover by February 2014 but ended up achieving £11.5m.
“Looking back, if I could tell my 20-something self [something] it would be that business isn’t a linear journey,” he says. “As a startup you can think you have to do it all now and that there’s an urgency to win – but doing the right thing is more important. You’re going to have ups and down and it’s really important to have a supportive investor alongside you.”
Wilkinson and Dignan went to the market in 2014 to raise investment before settling on digital technology investor Scottish Equity Partners, which injected an initial £8m into the flourishing business.
“When we raised the money the business was flying and growing quickly,” recalls Wilkinson. “We had no shortage of offers but you have to choose based on values and they felt the most human.
“There were two reasons that persuaded us to raise investment. The first was that we were focused on growth and wanted to go even faster. Secondly, we knew we wanted to open an office in Manchester and then there was the rebrand and that meant we needed investment.”
The father-of-three adds: “As you go on a growth journey you’ll have ups and downs, and it’s so important to have an investor who is aligned to your values.
“Our focus has always been on solving the problem for our customers. That was our mission at the beginning, and nothing has changed.
“It’s a massive market. Every year about £20bn is spent on financing used cars and we have a 5% market share so the opportunity to drive that forward is huge.”
As befits a car finance company, Zuto are used to bumps in the road but Wilkinson says nothing prepared them for COVID-19.
“We went into the pandemic with two guiding principles,” he says. “The first was to do everything we could do for our Zutonites and the second was not to lose our growth mindset.
“We took the decision to use furlough sparingly and we were very grateful for this in such an uncertain time. We continued investing in new products and improving our customer journey.
“With the business growing quickly, we now turn our attention to reinvesting the furlough money we claimed back into the local community. We’ve recently been working with Forever Manchester and launched our ‘Make a Difference’ fund with them in August, which was open for community groups in Manchester to apply for funding.
“We’re delighted to have now confirmed funding for 12 different causes to support them in continuing the great work they do across their communities.”
Sales of second-hand cars soared as people turned their backs on public transport during the pandemic, prompting Zuto to go on a recruitment drive.
Since June 2020 the company has grown to a team of 400 and plan to continue hiring at a rapid pace into 2022.
Wilkinson says: “We’re proud we never closed and we kept trading throughout to support our customers. We took the decision to reopen the office in the autumn in order to protect the mental health and wellbeing of Zutonites. People were desperate to get back in.”
Although his co-founder Dignan is less involved in the business day-to-day, Wilkinson says he’s lost none of his passion.
“Ryan really enjoyed the early years and getting his hands dirty trying to find a product fit,” he says. “I have amazing respect for founders who have the bravery to step into a non-exec role. I get so much inspiration from him, and he’s always my first call if I want to chat through ideas.
“As for me, I surround myself with really great inspiring people and try and be the best person I can be.
“After 15 years our big vision of changing the way people finance their cars hasn’t changed. The pandemic has taught us that you have to be able to change and pivot. What never changes is our vision to do the right thing.”