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Exway celebrates 25 years with plans for more growth

The business

Name: Exway Group
Turnover: £15m
No of sites: seven
Throughput: 400 vehicles per week
No of productives: 139
No of non-productives: 60
No of courtesy vehicles: 300

This year will be the most dramatic yet in the accident repair industry, with many businesses leaving the sector, according to Trevor Barefoot, owner of the seven-site Exway Group.

He points to the recent Royal Bank of Scotland paint deal, predicts that other insurers will follow suit with similar deals and says many smaller independents will struggle to compete as insurers look increasingly to dictate terms.

“There will be far fewer bodyshops by the end of the year,” Barefoot says. “If there are around 4,000 primary bodyshops now, this will fall to around 2,500-3,000.

“Insurance companies have depended on skilled people starting their own businesses to repair cars but many of these key people are getting older and have families who don’t want to follow in their footsteps. A lot will be selling.”

Exway will be one of the groups to gain from any exodus. Its seven bodyshops are all in Devon, and Barefoot has ambitions to extend his footprint into neighbouring counties Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. He expects to enter one of those areas before the end of the year and believes Exway could sustain another five or six sites, giving a network of 12-13 bodyshops.

Barefoot has his father to thank for his career. He had plumped for being a motor mechanic. His father, a storeman at a Ford dealership, told him that if he wanted to earn money he needed to become a panel beater or paint sprayer.

“I went for an interview at Motor Max in Exeter,” Barefoot says. “They asked me one question – was I colour blind? When I said no, he asked me when I wanted to start.’

#AM_ART_SPLIT# By 1980, Barefoot was keen to set up his own bodyshop in Exeter. It took him 18 months to find a suitable site and another six months to talk the bank manager into lending the money, which was only secured when Barefoot and his wife downsized their house to release the equity.

Building work started in December 1981; the following March Barefoot had his first site in Exhibition Way – hence the name Exway.

And that was it, until 2000. The business built its reputation and began to cover a large territory.

When a local bodyshop came onto the market, Barefoot recognised the opportunity to spread his business across the two locations. He acquired it in October 2000.

“When we made our second purchase, the insurance companies suddenly looked at us in a different light,” Barefoot says. “We had increased our buying power for parts, paint and materials and became a more competitive package.”

It marked the start of an intense acquisition period in Devon. Bodyshop three, in Barnstaple, was bought in April 2001, Plymouth followed in April 2002, Newton Abbot in December 2005, and two sites opened in Paignton in July 2006. Turnover is £15m, placing the group fifth in the AM50.

“The hardest thing is to keep the personal touch,’ says Barefoot. I know all the employees’ first names, but I am stuck in my office a lot more now – it’s harder to get around the sites.”

Barefoot has seen huge changes in the industry over the past 25 years, especially the time it takes to do the repairs. Back then, estimates were typically done over a couple of days then posted to the insurer. Costs were agreed on-site and there was little communication between the bodyshop and policyholder. A minor front end repair could take up to three weeks and policyholders showed their gratitude. “They often shook your hand,” says Barefoot. “That doesn’t happen much now.”

Today, the average repair cycle is seven days. Everything is computerised and every 48 hours Exway phones the customer (or texts/emails, depending on their preferred communication method) to keep them informed about the repair’s progress. Exway also offers lifetime guarantees on every repair – unique in the industry.

The Barefoot family all play a role in the business. His sons will help to maintain the momentum at Exway built over the past quarter century.

“You have to have a passion for the body repair industry,” Barefoot says. “And I’m fortunate because I have two sons that are as mad on the business as me.”

#AM_ART_SPLIT# Backing the PAS125 scheme

Exway has joined the throng of bodyshops backing the PAS125 Kitemark scheme.

“All our shops have signed up and we are well under way to meeting the requirements,” says Trevor Barefoot.

“I’m in favour because if you are professional and you invest in training and equipment, it gives you a clear difference. The industry has to be more professional and PAS125 is the first step – as long as the insurance companies continue to back it.”

He believes relationships between bodyshops and insurers are starting to improve, even though the insurers are dictating terms more than ever. “I long for a better rapport between insurers and us and it’s starting to happen,” Barefoot adds.

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