Car-parts suppliers were hit hard when Japanese company Honda announced it was closing its Swindon factory for four months. Oxford exhaust maker UYS, for example, laid off about half its 180 workers, and those who remain face huge pay cuts.

Unipart, once Britain’s largest manufacturer and distributor of vehicle parts, is almost next door to UYS in Cowley. The U in UYS stands for Unipart, which sold its share some years ago.

Following the shock loss of the Rover contract in 2002, Unipart has been gradually exiting the automotive industry and has reinvented itself as a general logistics company, with the help of so-called ‘lean manufacturing methods’, which it has encapsulated in something called The Unipart Way.

So when Honda shut down, Unipart was able to offer alternative work to 50 of its exhaust factory employees in the Midlands — at a Vodafone warehouse in Nuneaton.

So how did the exhaust factory workers cope in the very different environment of a logistics depot?

Unipart chief executive John Neill said: “Our people are very flexible. They were welcomed in as heroes, because they have such knowledge of the Unipart Way. The job is just a process, for which you need some technical skills. But you also need knowledge of the Unipart Way."

The Unipart Way is an obsession for Mr Neill, who refers to it in almost every answer in this interview with The Oxford Times about the company’s financial results.

Linking in with a visit this week by Conservative leader David Cameron, MP for Witney, we could call it ‘the fourth way’ — the others being socialism, conventional capitalism and the ‘third way’ vision of Tony Blair.

Unipart is Oxford’s second major private employer, second only to BMW, with about 1,500 staff in Cowley and 8,000 worldwide.

But it has never been a conventionally capitalist business, being owned by private shareholders — mainly Mr Neill and other directors, plus relatively small holdings by thousands of current and former employees.

It is a member of the Employee Ownership Association, which is a broad ship, including companies such as the John Lewis Partnership and Ove Arup, which would probably fit into Labour’s ‘third way’, as well as Oxford-based bookseller Blackwell which — like Unipart — has a history of opposing recognition of trade unions.

The press release announcing Unipart’s financial results says profits have fallen from £9.8m to £3.4m, on turnover of £1bn. The 600 per cent drop in profits is attributed to the global downturn, and to investment in IT systems.

However, last year The Oxford Times reported that profits were down from £19.4m to £19.2m on sales of £1.143bn.

Why the discrepancy — and are Unipart’s results even worse than they look?

If Unipart were quoted on the stockmarket, as are most companies its size, it would have to announce its financial results according to closely regulated accountancy conventions.

Newspapers generally quote a simple pre-tax profit figure. But this year’s Unipart results are quoted ‘before goodwill and exceptional items’ and are only for ‘continuing operations’.

It is difficult to untangle the difference between the figures, but since last year, Unipart has sold Brown Brothers crash-repair business and its paint business, reducing the turnover and profit figures.

Despite its new look, Unipart still earns a third of its income in the motor industry, where times are particularly tough. And Unipart’s retail clients such as Homebase, Waterstones and Halfords are all under stress on the high street.

Now Halfords, which uses Unipart’s huge warehouse at Cowley, has decided to move its depot elsewhere, though continuing to use Unipart’s services to deliver goods where they are needed.

Mr Neill points out that it was Unipart’s idea to transfer the work, and says he will have no problem replacing this business. He said: “I am confident we can replace that work. We have 18 months transition, which is a long time. Everyone wants to be in Cowley, because it is our flagship site.”

The slack will partly be taken up by Unipart’s own car-parts distribution business, which is centralising as part of a restructuring started two years ago, when the division ran into financial problems.

Another proplem is Unipart’s pension fund, which in 2007 had a £40m deficit. Mr Neill said he didn’t know what the latest deficit was. "I have stopped thinking about it because the situation changes so quickly. If the interest rates change even slightly, the numbers change enormously."

Three years ago, the company agreed a repayment plan, which Mr Neil said involved ‘several million’ — quite a burden on operating profits of £3.4m. In 2007, for example, the company paid £9m into the fund as part of a ten-year deal.

Unipart is proud to boast that its shareholding employees have a stake in the company, and Mr Neill says employees show “a great attitude” to the business.

At this point, I mentioned that two employees had phoned The Oxford Times complaining that they hadn’t had a bonus or, indeed, a pay rise for two years.

“Neither have I,” said Mr Neill. “The executive directors have individually come to me and said ‘We know you are telling people that you don’t want a pay rise. Well, neither do we’. When times are tough, senior people have got to provide the right leadership. Most people in sectors like the automotive industry will be grateful that they haven’t been laid off.” He added: “We are not going to make any promises. We will just do our best to grow our people and develop them.”

Good news came this week with the announcement that it had won a deal involving the transfer of 350 employees at a warehouse in Tamworth, West Midlands. And it recently won a gold award from Business in the Community for its environmental and community programmes.

As part of this commitment, it offered work experience to five homeless people, of whom three were taken on in Cowley.

Next month it will be making its training facilities available to redundant employees referred from the Oxford Jobcentre, offering short courses on a variety of topics.

Mr Neill believes that, were Unipart quoted on the stockmarket, it would probably have gone under long ago.

“I’m not interested in meeting stock market expectations, which are very short term. You have to do the right thing and invest for the long-term future of the business,” he said.