Home ... Kent ... Paul Barrett, owner of car retailer Barretts Group, on the east and west divide in Kent, future of Manston airport and being a good car salesman

Paul Barrett, owner of car retailer Barretts Group, on the east and west divide in Kent, future of Manston airport and being a good car salesman

Looking out his office window at traffic bustling through Canterbury’s Westgate Towers, car dealership owner Paul Barrett appears almost regal.

“I regard myself as almost a custodian of the business rather than the owner or managing director,” said the businessman, 54, whose great-grandfather founded Barretts Group in 1902.

The firm sells new and used BMW, Citroen, Honda, Jaguar, Land Rover and Mini vehicles at dealerships in Canterbury and Ashford.

Paul Barrett, managing director of Barretts of Canterbury

Paul Barrett, managing director of Barretts of Canterbury

Yet far from just being a car salesman, keen cyclist Mr Barrett has become an authority figure in Kent’s quest for economic supremacy.

He is chairman of public-private sector body C4B (Canterbury 4 Business) and is a board member of the Kent and Medway Economic Partnership, the organisation tasked with deciding where to spend government cash for the good of the county.

“If you want to influence things it is better to do that in a spirit of conversation,” said Mr Barrett. “Sometimes you will disagree over things with politicians but if you are at the table talking, at least you can make it a constructive process.”

He thinks Canterbury has lots of major brands on its high street but “perhaps hasn’t got as many of the independents as we would like”.

He thinks it is lucky to have its cathedral, which brings tens of thousands of visitors each year, although most of these are “day trippers spending very little money”.

Paul Barrett, managing director of Barretts of Canterbury

Paul Barrett, managing director of Barretts of Canterbury

He said: “The aim is to get people to stay for longer in hotels, rather than coming over on a bus from the Pas de Calais, rushing into the cathedral and returning back.”

He supports plans for a large number of houses to the south of Canterbury in the city council’s local plan, which is being examined by the planning inspector.

He is also not opposed to Kent being used as an overspill for London’s population.

He said: “You are not going to be able to control that. We have to make sure we become more than just a dormitory. Trains do go two ways.

“We have all the benefits of space, countryside and lower costs but we are right on the doorstep of London and Europe. That is where Kent has to pitch.”

What makes a good car salesman?

“A good salesman has to be able to communicate clearly and build a good rapport with the customer. They also have to demonstrate the vehicle and explain its features. They have to be able to get people to make a decision. We should never be involved in high-pressure selling. The last thing I want is for people to feel they were bullied into something because they won’t come back. If you treat customers well hopefully they will be customers for life.”

Do you still consider yourself a salesman?

“I see my role as selling the brand of Barretts but when you go out to a party and people find out what you do, I can’t have a conversation without someone saying ‘I’ve got one of your cars’. I am lucky that I have the ability to borrow a vast array of cars. So when someone asks me ‘what’s it like?’ I can be honest. I am always selling a bit. I am honest with people. I will say ‘I don’t think that’s the car for you’ but when you represent several different brands you can tell someone which is the right car for them – and the manufacturers hate me for it.”

Paul Barrett, managing director of Barretts of Canterbury

Paul Barrett, managing director of Barretts of Canterbury

What is the biggest economic challenge facing Kent?

“The east and west divide is real. There is certainly more deprivation than people would imagine in east Kent. A lot of work is being done to balance these things up. The Enterprise Zone around Discovery Park business site has been successful. There has been a lot of debate around Manston but I think there has never been a sound argument for keeping it as an airport. A lot of people have been very passionate about it, including the local MP, but when you are honest about it, no one went there. Not enough people used it to make it an economic success and I don’t think it has ever been viable since the RAF left.”

Business rates are being reviewed by the government. How would you change them?

“Our rates are extraordinarily expensive but I don’t know how you have a fairer system. If it’s based on turnover you are penalising the more successful companies. If you have two identical shops side by side, one effectively run and turning over a lot of money, the other not very well run and losing money, the second one doesn’t pay as much business rates even though they both have the same opportunities. Is it fair that one pays more business rates because it is more successful than the other?”

What is it like working with local politicians on the various economic bodies you sit on?

“It is always difficult when you put business people in the room with elected politicians. Their brief is different to ours. But unless we, the business people, feel we are bringing value, we wouldn’t waste time in a room. I’m not a political animal. If I think something is right or wrong I say it and that is what business people should do. With the business community involved maybe some of the bad decisions don’t get made and some of the better ones do.”

What is the best thing Kent can use to attract businesses to the county?

“The high speed rail link is the most significant thing to happen in Kent for a generation. People can live here for a fraction of the cost, have a nice standard of life and be in central London in an hour.”

CV

Born: July 10, 1960

Lives: Wickhambreaux

Family: married to Patsy with two daughters, Kathryn, 22, and Alicia, 20

First job: “My first proper job was working in the accounts department at Henley car distributors in west London.”

First salary: “Not enough.”

Salary now: “I’m not going to tell you.”

Car: “My current car is a BMW i8 but I drive many different cars. That is what I’m driving today.”

Favourite book: The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

Film: The Italian Job

Music: “I used to be a DJ. My all time favourite band is the Clash.”

Charity: “I’m a trustee of the Kent Air Ambulance and I support Porchlight. I am also a trustee of the Marlowe Development Trust and the Canterbury Cathedral Trust.”

Typical day

Paul Barrett normally gets into the office just after 8am and looks at all the post. “You see a lot of what is going on in the business that way,” he said.

He has an hour booked every lunchtime to go to the gym. “I am not a good person in the morning and I find going after work it’s too busy.”

He tries to get out to the dealerships as much as he can after lunch. He has many meetings, which are often non-business related, so “there isn’t really a typical day”.

He normally leaves the office at 6.15pm, when most of the traffic has died down.

In his downtime he does a lot of cycling.

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