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
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.
During the eighties out-of-town shopping began to flourish and the Middlesbrough branch was the first to move premises off the high street to Cannon Park Retail Park in 1987. It was an interesting time for the company as Richard recalls:
“The store was a great success more or less from day one and, of course, it’s obvious looking back that this was the start of out-of-town shopping though at the time many people thought it was quite a radical thing to do. It would be a rare thing indeed these days for a furniture retailer to choose a city or town centre location but then it was the norm.
The Bishop Auckland store was the first foray outside of Teesside, which was acquired by Barker & Stonehouse in 1979.
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.
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.”