Some of Leila Wilcox’s early memories of her family business are a mixture of pride and embarrassment. Her family business, you see, is making hearses. “I remember being dropped off at school in the back of hearses and limousines,” she laughs. “My sister and I are both very dark haired, so there were comments about the Addams family.”
However, 34-year-old third-gen is keen to add that her main emotion, then and now, is pride. They were used to transport the coffins of Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher, the Queen Mother and medieval monarch Richard III, whose remains were recently discovered and buried in Leicester Cathedral.
“It’s a massive honour to see our cars being used for royalty, I have only really appreciated it through my son’s eyes,” says Leila “He learned about Richard III at school and he could take them the photos and show them.”
Wilcox Limousines was started in 1948 by Leila’s grandparents, who met aged 14 and 16. Leila’s grandfather started a chauffeuring company which transported the stars to and from Ealing Studio, the centre of the British film industry. Soon, however, “he realised instead of just chauffeuring people around there was money to be made in buying and selling limousines,” Leila says.
“Funeral directors kept asking him for hearses,” she goes on. “There was a massive shortage of them after the war, and he just couldn’t find them, so he started adapting used cars into hearses, then in the end he went into new hearses. He started off with Austin Princesses, then Daimler DS420s, then got the contract for Vauxhall making new ones, then for Jaguar.”
These days Wilcox converts Jaguar, Volvo and Vauxhall cars into hearses and limousines. – over 150 a year, says Leila, mostly in the UK but with perhaps five foreign sales a year. They employ over 200 hugely skilled workers. “They take a car that cost about £60,000 and they retail for £130,000 so they have to look band new. It is not like a classic car where people accept that it is second-hand, they have to be absolutely spotless,” Leila says.
Her father and uncle, Peter and Paul, joined the family business after leaving school, and as a child Leila was always fascinated by it. “I remember sitting in my dad’s leather chair at his walnut and mahogany desk and thinking, one day I am going to be in an office and have a big desk,” she says.
She also fell in love with his classic cars, which her father occasionally restored. “I’ve always had cars in the blood, one of my earliest memories is that dad bought a Jaguar E-type for restoration and I would go out and sit in the garage for hours and just smell that old leather and play the old tapes. I was about seven or eight years old,” she says. She could drive by the age of 12. (These days, however, she usually drives one of the business’s “hearsettes”, cars that can convert into hearses.)
Leila’s own journey into the business was not straightforward. She did a stint working as a children’s entertainer overseas, then a series of her own businesses, including a children’s shampoo range called Halos and Horns which won a TV programme called Make Me a Millionaire a few years ago.
She subsequently sold that business and started an insurance firm for medical tourists called Medical Travel Shield, which ran into trouble because she shook hands on a deal with American insurance giant AIG in October 2008, the day before it was bailed out. After a slow start, it is now doing well. A further setback came when Leila broke her back and legs in a car accident, which meant she didn’t work for a year.
Two years ago, she started working for the family business, which is run by her father and cousin following her uncle’s death. They wanted a new website and Leila offered to help. She quickly realised that more needed to be done, her job expanded to take in “PR, sales, marketing, website and social media” until “suddenly one day a week was five”, she says.
“Dad says I have brought the business in to the 21st century, modernised everything. It has been an honour to do that for the family, and great that I could bring the skillset I have learned from my previous businesses and implement it into the family business,” she adds.
She is there at an interesting time, when the family is expanding quickly and the business needs to do the same if it is to feed them all. There are seven grandchildren, all with children of their own. “We are thinking, what can we do to triple, quadruple our turnover in the next 10-20 years?” One idea is to diversify more into classic car restoration – they recently did their first job, an Aston Martin DB6 Vantage, and are looking for more.
Another idea is to use their craftsmen’s skills to work with other aluminium products. “There is a whole range of things we could be doing,” Leila says, “aircraft, boats, anything at all that can be tooled out of aluminium our guys can do.” An expansion of the hearse business into Europe is also on the drawing board.
And Leila is committed to being part of it all. Pride seems to have comprehensively triumphed.