A freak weather incident prompted Kevin Byrne’s change of career and lifestyle – and helped improve standards in customer care nationwide.
The rare tornado which hit his home town of Selsey in Sussex almost 20 years ago set in motion a chain of events which led Kevin to form Checkatrade, the online directory linking approved tradespeople with customers.
Kevin’s business experience has been a bit of a whirlwind in itself. He was working as a self-employed window and carpet cleaner when the tornado hit on 8 January, 1998, leaving a trail of destruction and damage to domestic and commercial property estimated at £10 million. Residents woke and found the town “looking like a war zone” and within hours a convoy of white trade vans arrived, filled with workmen eager to make a fortune from the repairs.
As he watched traders arrive in Selsey from all over the UK, Kevin was convinced of one thing: Innocent victims of the storm were being ripped off by unscrupulous workmen. He explains: “Imagine being a home owner with a huge hole in your roof. You’ve phoned every tradesman you can think of for help, then someone knocks on your door and offers to put up a tarpaulin for £400 cash. They drive off to fetch the materials – and that’s the last you see of them.
“This was happening again and again in Selsey and I was determined to do something to protect the public from such rogue tradesmen. If you go into a supermarket and shoplift, you’ll be prosecuted, but these people were getting away with it. It just wasn’t right.”
Kevin describes his solution as “certainly not a lightbulb moment, it took several months to work out what to do.” First, he checked with the Guild of Tradesmen and local weights and measures inspectors, to see what they were doing to monitor the credentials of workmen. It appeared they were doing nothing, so he set about creating a directory of businesses in Selsey, where customers could find recommended traders.
“This was before the internet was in widespread use and we were working very locally, but gradually we built up the Checkatrade company with three important criteria – what were the qualifications of registered traders, did they carry public liability insurance and what was the experience of their individual customers?”
With all these criteria in place, Kevin developed Checkatrade. He believes it was the first online company globally to carry authentic customer reviews – every one of them monitored and checked by his staff. “No one else was doing this, but it’s such an integral part of what we do,” he says. Checkatrade continued to break barriers in trading standards, with no real online opposition, until seven or eight years ago. Now, as the company approaches its 20th anniversary, he is proud to report that they’ve received well over 3 million consumer reviews on trades, all still read and verified by his 330 staff. “On top of reading all the reviews before they are published we attempted to verify 100% of all the reviews to be genuine. Our reputation is everything and we get only about one complaint on workmanship in 180 jobs undertaken by our trades.”
Kevin is now taking the process a step further, with a pilot scheme in Scotland which promises to underwrite and put right work by registered traders at up to £50,000. It’s been running just over a month and so far no job has been called in.
“We’re analysing the figures and if it proves successful, we’ll look at rolling the scheme out across the UK”.
It’s all a long way from his small carpet and window cleaning business in Selsey, but Kevin has remained true to his first principles and tries always to apply Christian beliefs to his working life. Checkatrade is an ethical company and any money it makes is ploughed back into the business. He says that if he had his time again, he would have made it a not-for-profit company.
With responsibility for four daughters, one from a previous relationship, plus a stepson, he and his wife are looking to the future. None of the next generation wants to take on Checkatrade, despite four of them working within the business. “They’ve seen my stress levels,” says Kevin ruefully. For three years, he’s been looking for an investment partner and turned down five “substantial offers” to buy the business because he did not agree with their ethics. He has now entered a business partnership with Richard Harpin, owner and CEO of the home repairs and insurance service Homeserve.
“He’s a man of high ethics and morals too, and that’s massively important to me,” says Kevin. “Money is not, nor has it ever been, my driver. I just want to help rid the world of the rogue trader.”
When he’s not pursuing excellence in business, Kevin keeps fit by going to the gym and running. Last year, he ran 12 marathons in 12 months to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to refurbish the swimming pool at a special school in Portsmouth. Next year he hopes to take part in an Iron Man contest.
Kevin also supports other charities including one in Bangladesh which rescues girls from the sex trade and boys from being sold for body part surgery and another which provides homes, clothing and education for street children.