TUE 12TH DEC 2017

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Bringing the family business community together

Barker & Stonehouse

About Barker & Stonehouse

Barker and Stonehouse is the UK's largest independent, family-run furniture retailer, bringing you the finest in quality, style and value since 1946

It was during the second world war that the two founders, RAF men, Charles Barker and Alex Stonehouse, decided to embark on their own personal fight to succeed in business when they returned to Civvie Street, opening the first Barker & Stonehouse store on Bishopton Lane, Stockton, in early 1946.

They were joined by Charles’ brother, Frank Barker, in late 1946 when the first Middlebrough store opened in Newport Road.

The founders would be surprised to learn that the company now employs 300 staff and owns nine huge stores across the UK with showroom space totalling 300,000 sq ft.

Charles Barker’s son, current chairman, Richard Barker, joined the company in 1960 and went on to effect a management buy-out in 1974 acquiring Frank Barker’s and Alex Stonehouse’s shares making him majority shareholder and Managing Director of the business.

Richard’s leadership created a major step-change in the business strategy with plans for growth and a particularly contemporary vision of what the stores should be selling. The business is still privately owned by the Barkers and is now in its third generation of ownership and management by the family.

There have been revolutionary changes in furniture design since the company opened its doors, chairman, Richard Barker, can remember what the stores used to be like:

“In my father’s founding days of business the whole theme was practicality. Utility furniture was all that was available as the country was still re-building itself post-war. There was no real choice of style and there was no question of choosing furniture simply for its looks."

"Furniture then was of one kind only: functional. However, people were ambitious and hard-working and just as aspirational as they are today, there was a very definite sense of people striving to build a better future for their families after the war.”

The company’s fortunes expanded rapidly under Richard Barker’s stewardship during a period when the design and retail landscape was starting a period of rapid change. It’s testimony to Richard’s management agility and change management capabilities that the company was able to make massive commercial progress during this time.

The company moved further north again with the opening of its Newcastle upon Tyne store in 1982. Richard recalls the early steps outside of his hometown: “Newcastle was an exciting challenge. It’s was always the region’s biggest retail centre and I was an ambitious young man!"

“Our store in Newgate Street was one of the largest furniture stores in the city but you could say that we were the victims of our own success in so much as we had to move again in autumn 1998 to the current store in Leazes Park Rd to give us more showroom space and car parking.”

Richard’s son, James, the current managing director, brought his own ideas to the business when he joined in 1991 after a couple of years working with advertising moguls, Saatchi & Saatchi and a stint at New York store, Macy’s and Harrods in London.

The combination of his advertising and marketing skills brought a new dimension to the way in which the company promoted itself to its customers and it was James who recognised the power of his advertising agency’s memorable, ‘is your house a Barker & Stonehouse’ - a slogan that seems to be known by everyone you meet. Barker & Stonehouse is now firmly established as a covetable brand with a very loyal following across the north.

This kind of marketing creativity has links back to the early days as Frank Barker, one of the original directors, also worked in advertising prior to joining the business. Richard Barker recalls:

“The original advertisements were created by my Uncle Frank, who before joining Barker & Stonehouse, had enjoyed a very successful career in advertising with a particular talent for writing copy. He really made a difference to the business."

"We’ve still got some of the original advertisements and they show just how much things have changed. They’re a poignant reminder of an entirely different era and make me smile when I see them. They would be considered quaint now but in their day they were cutting edge and hugely successful. They really put Barker & Stonehouse into the consciousness of customers and proved highly memorable.”

Apart from taking responsibility for the marketing James is also the buyer for Barker & Stonehouse while Richard is buyer for the Baker wholesale division, the schedule for which is fairly gruelling as Richard explains:

“When I started with the company there were only 2 buyer’s show in the UK Earl’s Court in London and Belle Vue in Manchester. I was really excited to get to these shows and eagerly awaited them. When James started with the company there were still only 5 key furniture shows around Europe in Milan, Paris and Cologne, as well as the NEC in Birmingham and the Long Eaton upholstery show in Nottingham. These were the ‘must do’ shows at the time."

"Now we visit 23 shows per year as there is a completely global market for furniture manufacturing. In the last year we will have travelled approximately 100,000 miles on buying trips. It’s genuinely fascinating to see how other cultures operate and do business. We’ve met some wonderful, inspirational and downright eccentric characters on our travels."

“We source products from all over the world from here in England to Italy, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Far East amongst others, and much of our time is now spent with manufacturers in their factories and studios seeking out ‘the next big thing’. You might, however, be pleasantly surprised to know that a lot of our furniture is still manufactured here in Britain using traditional skills.”

The non-stop pace of the sourcing process means there’s not much chance to relax on buying tours as James outlines: “My father gave me some very sound rule about our buying trips, namely, to ensure that we ‘walk all the aisles’. What he’s referring to is that no matter how tired we might be having flown for 16 hours or more, and then footslogging around a massive exhibition, we should always ensure that we have looked down every single aisle as it’s often in some of the most obscure locations that the up and coming show stealing designs are to be found. He has certainly been right about that and we continue to follow that rule on each and every trip."

“The result of this is that we get an excellent overview of the global furniture market and are able to pick up on all the up-and-coming trends early in the process. Unusually for the furniture retail industry, it also means that we meet all of our manufacturers and always visit their workshops and factories to ensure that conditions are good and that employees are treated well.”

This globe-trotting approach and early trend-spotting also led to the creation of another business division, Baker Furniture, which is a wholesale business selling to other like-minded stores throughout the UK and Ireland.

Richard and James Barker started the business in 1996 but at the time it was something of a side-line: “We were visiting many more countries and manufacturers than most other furniture retailers and staying ahead of the design trends. This was something that most other retailers weren’t doing, especially the independently owned businesses."

“Other owners within the industry recognised this and asked us if we could source products for them. We did this in a fairly low-key way for a couple of years and then I decided that it if we were going to put the effort into doing it at all we may as well do it properly and so we launched Baker across the British Isles and it has grown into a significant business in its own right.”

Grandfather, father and son have all now brought their own particular skills to the store but the company is very much a family business even amongst its staff. Richard Barker comments: “I’ve seen massive changes in the furniture and design market place and it’s intriguing to ask oneself the question: what’s coming next? I don’t know the answer but it’s been a great journey so far – one that I feel privileged to still be taking."

"I’ve never lost my love of it and still feel the desire to find the next big thing. It’s an enjoyable role to be the mid-point in the life of the business. I remember the early days but I can also imagine the future under James’ management. I feel that I’m a happy and lucky man to be in this position.”

James sums it up: “The one thing I hope that I’ve inherited is the commercial agility and talent for spotting a winning product that my father has because the face of the furniture retail sector is constantly changing and we’ve always got to try and keep apace with it. We are in another period similar to the one my father experienced in the 70s where the whole retail landscape is changing."

"Even in my own time managing the business there has been something of a revolution with advertising channels fragmenting and diversifying, online business coming into its own and other technological changes impacting on the way in which we do business now and in the future. I’ve also got the benefit of working with some great colleagues, in particular co-directors Peter Soakell and Richard Parnell, who are a valuable part of our ongoing growth."

“Like climbing a mountain range, it has lots of highs and lows but nobody could say it is boring; it’s one of the most exciting and exhilarating experiences a person could have. Every day brings a new challenge and every day I learn something new.”