George Barnsdale is an innovative, entrepreneurial, British family business that is steeped in five generations of history and heritage. This is not, however, a family business resting on the past but a forward-thinking business at the top of their game with a desire to solve problems, continuously improve and consistently deliver on their promise to manufacture premium, high performance timber windows and doors that provide long life with low maintenance. Paul Andrews spoke to fifth generation Managing Director, Tom Wright, to find out more about the family firm.
As Tom begins, “Our story started in 1884 when a 21-year-old man named George Barnsdale purchased a plot of land in Donington Market Place, comprising of a house, workshop and a storage shed for timber. He began a small carpentry business that soon built a reputation on quality craftsmanship. The business continued to develop and after World War I his two sons, Walter and Frederick joined him in the family firm.”
“Innovation and development of the sector has always been a key part of what we do and between the wars Fred was heavily involved in the development of industry standards and for our business introduced steam powered machines to help with production in our business,” continues Tom.
The war years were not easy but the business managed to keep trading and survived and in 1945 Fred’s son John joined the business. John had three daughters, one being Tom’s Mum and she and her husband Stephen joined the management team in 1985.
As Tom continues, “Growing up my families on both sides were running businesses and had been for generations. On Dad’s side it was a car dealership responsible for Jaguar, Austin and Rover cars and on Mum’s side Gramps was fully involved in George Barnsdale. I was living in a world of family business from the day I was born with people involved, enjoying being in business, stressed at times but involved and getting on with whatever needed to be done.”
“My Dad was not really keen on the car game so launched a security business on the side, something that still operates today, and I remember going to work with him at about six or seven,” adds Tom.
“As my grandfather got older he began to look to the future and what would happen to the business,” explains Tom, “and the only one of his three daughters who expressed an interest in taking on the business was my Mum. My Dad was also interested in the business and George Barnsdale was right up his street, so he joined the business, bringing the security business into the fold, and they took it on,” he continues.
Tom has fond memories of working in the business from a very young age. “It was a great childhood and I often went to work with Dad, following him around and doing bits and pieces to help. To be honest, with my younger siblings to deal with it was a little like Mum shipped me off to Dad to keep me out of the way but I loved it too. Dad and I were as thick as thieves and it was great to spend so much time together. We used to go into the factory at weekends and make tables together, patio tables and picnic tables, and only did it at weekends as the rest of the staff would probably have commented on our carpentry skills as not being up to scratch,” explains Tom.
“In work I got to add computers to the network from the age of around ten, creating content for the website at eleven, and generally learning and doing more within the business to help out,” he adds.
Tom is now fully engaged in the family business and relishes the role of Managing Director. After university he worked for Nissan in the motor sector for five years before resigning to join the family business. “My joining the business was totally down to me. In all the years Dad and I never spoke about me joining, possibly because it was almost inevitable that I would join but there was no pressure at all. I do remember my last day at Nissan when my boss pointed at the windows and said that’s your life now, which it is, but even then I never knew how complex window and door systems could be!”
Tom has no regrets about his decision to join the family business. “It was obvious that I wanted to join and I am pleased that I took the step, and gaining some outside experience first was undoubtedly a good thing too. I appreciate the endeavours of my predecessors even more though as it is not until you are actually involved and leading from the front that you really understand the responsibility and pressures that come with running a business,” he continues.
Like many involved in a multi-generational business Tom is aware of the history and legacy that has influenced the development of the business that he has taken on. “For me, there is a little additional pressure associated with us being such a long-standing family firm but I see my role as the one to keep it going, to maximise the opportunity that it affords for this and future generations. There is pressure to not being the one to break the business and to prepare it for the next generation if they want it,” adds Tom, “but like my father I will not be putting any pressure on my kids to follow in my footsteps. The business is here for them if they want to get involved but there will be no pressure applied. One thing that growing up in a family business that is a real benefit is the experience in business that it provides. The next generation will all grow up in and around the business, helping out when they can and they will be party to business conversations too, all of which stand them in good stead for wherever their own careers take them.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I would love it to be passed on to one or more of my kids but we will have to see what happens,” he adds.
The business has survived for many generations now when many others have gone by the wayside but their success can be attributed to a number of reasons. “First and foremost there has been an element of luck,” explains Tom.
“We operate in a sector that remains relevant today and relevance is often key to survival. Our business has also continued to evolve with entrepreneurial leaders at the helm who have added new ways of working, invested to increase productivity and performance and driven change for positive results. We are a family that through generations likes to find solutions to problems and continue to do so,” explains Tom.
“With sustainability on the global agenda there remain opportunities to evolve further, and we are excited about the opportunities that we are seeing too,” he continues. “We operate in a complex sector that is always providing us with challenges, be it the size and scale of the job or the historic nature or scale of the businesses that we are being asked to work in, and with that comes ongoing learning. As with many next generation members entering the business, learning on the job has been something that I became accustomed to very quickly. There was no real induction and my role evolved over time with it feeling like I had been thrown in the deep end from day one,” adds Tom.
Tom has a real enthusiasm and passion for what he does and has clearly taken on board the needs of the role and the business to add his stamp to. “Every day is different and with Dad starting to take a step back, there is plenty to get on with and as an entrepreneurial family we need to focus on the future and continue to do what we do best, manufacture and supply premium timber windows and doors,” adds Tom.
Like other family businesses around the UK the key challenges being faced are associated with staff and resources. As Tom continues, “We have good staff retention levels but do need to recruit as we grow in order to maximise the opportunities available to us, and finding the right staff is not easy. We are also operating in a period of uncertainty so have to focus on growth whilst being mindful of what the future might hold.”
As a manufacturing family business with a long history, this business is proud to be associated with ‘Made in Britain’ not least because of the nod to manufacturing which remains an integral contributor to the UK economy in terms of employment, income and wealth creation. “History is important because as a business we have stood the test of time,” Tom explains, “but we need to remain relevant to continue for years to come. We are proud of what is behind us, enjoy the history and being able to share the story but the most important focus for us now is the business of today, keeping it legitimate and relevant in order to compete successfully in an ever-changing world.”
George Barnsdale is a great example of a successful, long-standing, British family business that continues to drive innovation into the business. Their commitment to quality has never faltered over the years but the way they approach the manufacturing process continues to embrace new technologies. With the next generation now at the helm, we look forward to seeing their journey continue for many years to come.
Find out more by visiting their website at www.georgebarnsdale.co.uk
George Barnsdale are proud members of Made in Britain, the organisation that brings together the British manufacturing community which celebrates their 10 year anniversary in 2022.