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The Drapers Interview: Barbour's manufacturing matriarch

Dame Margaret Barbour

The linchpin of Barbour’s success is much more than just the queen of the waxed jacket.

“She’s dead nice, she is,” the taxi driver says in his strong northeast accent as we approach a small trading estate in South Shields, the humble epicentre of the fifth-generation family-owned brand Barbour. His comment is in reference to Dame Margaret, the septuagenarian manufacturing matriarch of Tyneside and the company’s chairman of 42 years. 

Dame Margaret, as I’m politely reminded to call her, has been custodian of the Barbour legacy for almost half a century. Under her stewardship, the British heritage business has been transformed from a waxed jacket company into a world-renowned name with three royal warrants. It has grown in staff from 100 to 1,000, all the while making an immeasurable contribution to the UK fashion and textile industry. 

Yet when she enters the boardroom to meet Drapers, she edges forward, in a smart navy suit and her blonde hair perfectly blow dried, and grasps my hand between hers and says: “I’m so nervous.”

Only three women exist in the Barbour company timeline. The first notable female, Nancy Barbour, Dame Margaret’s mother-in-law, did not enter the business until 1964, 70 years after it began life as a stall in Newcastle’s Marketplace in 1894. And Dame Margaret might never have made it two, nor paved the way for her daughter, Helen, to join in 1997, had it not been for a set of tragic events. 

“I had a choice. I could sell the business or I could come in.”

Founder John Barbour, a Scotsman from Galloway, started the business selling oilskins to the fishermen of the Victorian northeast of England. His son, Malcolm, joined in 1908, along with his brother, Jack, and produced the first Barbour mail order catalogues. Third-generation Duncan Barbour entered the fold in 1927. He introduced the motorcycle wear that would later be worn by US actor Steve McQueen and continues to inspire the Barbour International range (it became a standalone brand in 2014).

Nancy’s son, John Barbour, saw the opportunity in the country clothing market in 1957. When Dame Margaret met John, her future husband, in 1964, the business was being run by Duncan’s widow, Nancy – or “Granny Barbour”, as Dame Margaret calls her – and had turnover of more than £100,000 a year (equivalent to about £1.4m today).

The pair married that year, but in the summer of 1968 John died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage, aged 29. This left Dame Margaret as majority shareholder of the company and with then two-year-old Helen, now Barbour vice-chairman. 

Dame Margaret says she threw her grief and energy into Barbour, spending time working in every department – from the factory to accounts and the storeroom – and speaking to customers to understand from the ground up the business in which she had previously had no involvement. 

“I had a choice,” she recalls. “I could sell the business or I could come in. He died in June. I took July and August off and then started as a director in September.”

In 1973, she was made chairman. She quickly introduced the Bedale, the Beaufort and the Border waxed jackets, borrowing elements seen during visits to France, which remain bestsellers today. She also commissioned kilt and Highland dress manufacturer Kinloch Anderson to produce an exclusive Barbour tartan to use on jacket linings, which is still used today.

“We realised that our jackets last so long that we had to focus on product development and doing something new,” she explains. “That’s when the Sloane Rangers took us on because we started doing the jackets in blue and they went with jeans.”

Even the longevity of Dame Margaret, now 73, is no match for that of a Barbour jacket. The oldest to have been returned to the factory for re-waxing dates back to 1910. It is fondly known as Uncle Harry and is still in good condition.

“We realised that our jackets last so long that we had to focus on product development and doing something new.”

Barbour has been awarded three royal warrants, from the Duke of Edinburgh in 1974, the Queen in 1982 and the Prince of Wales in 1987. This royal connection was solidified further when Helen Mirren wore a green Bedale jacket (wholesale £104.10) in the 2006 film The Queen.

“But it wasn’t the one the Queen really wears,” Dame Margaret says. Apparently, the monarch prefers the Beaufort. 

Barbour sources product from around the globe, including Portugal, southern Italy, Romania and Bulgaria, Barbour’s classic waxed jackets (which wholesale from £86.55 for a women’s Beadnell to £113.20 for a men’s Beaufort) are made by hand at its factory in Simonside, South Shields. The team of 180 produce 140,000 jackets, a year, each of which takes an average of an hour and a half to make.

Today, the company turns out around 200 new and carry-forward products per season across its Barbour and Barbour International ranges. Its Heritage collection is aimed at fashion-orientated shoppers, its lifestyle line is for the middle market and its countrywear pieces target traditional country consumers – all are within its target demographic of men and women aged 25 to 55.

This repertoire is set to grow further with the re-introduction of womenswear into Barbour Heritage in early 2016. This 45-piece selection will centre on waxed jackets, quilted jackets and knitwear but will include shirts, overshirts, chinos, footwear, beanies and bags.

Dame Margaret believes the renewed commitment to its womenswear division is reflected in its management team. As Drapers revealed last week, Barbour has poached etailer Zalando’s head of womenswear Paget Billingsley, who will join on October 26. Barbour managing director Steve Buck, who has been at Barbour for 15 years, said Billingsley, who previously worked at Levi’s, Miss Selfridge and BHS, will head the division for Barbour and Barbour International as it grows both in the UK and abroad. 

“We don’t want to compete with the Burberrys of this world.”

Alongside the core ranges, there have been collaborations with Paul Smith, Anya Hindmarch and, most recently, Land Rover, which began in autumn 14. In February 2016, fragrances for men and women will be launched, adding to the licensed eyewear and watches in the Barbour stable.

Despite it growing into numerous product categories, including footwear, luggage and even dog jackets and leads, Dame Margaret suggests Barbour may seek to refine its offering in future seasons. 

“It was very good for us to test the market with a spread of garments but it is important that we remain focused and do not take too many risks,” she admits. “Steve and I have talked about this. We’re not sure which areas yet and it will be slowly, slowly. It is important that everything we do is always the best it can be.”

She also reveals that family is continually batting off multimillion-pound takeover offers from giant fashion conglomerates and investment funds. The most recent approach, she says, was just a few months ago.

“I want to make sure we keep our standards up, not using cheap fabrics or outsourcing to low labour-cost countries but still producing products that people can afford,” she says. “We don’t want to compete with the Burberrys of this world.”

It is clear why the business garners such interest. In the year to 31 December 2014, it reported turnover of £167m, up from £152m the year before. Pre-tax profit fell slightly from £29.7m, as a result of higher distribution costs, but was steady at £29.3m.

Barbour has 31 stores worldwide, 10 of which are in the UK. Domestic business comes largely (70%) from around 650 wholesale stockists who stretch from fashion independents – such as Jules B, Oi Polloi and Country Attire – to majors including John Lewis, House of Fraser, Harrods and Selfridges. 

Philip Buckley, manager of Denis Hope in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, says: “We’ve stocked Barbour on and off for around 30 years. We’ve seen it go through popular phases, like the Sloane Ranger revolution, and some not so popular phases, but they’ve always pulled it back. We love that it’s still family-owned because not many brands are any more, and that they support local workers.”

John Robbins, owner of Mewes in Sunningdale, Berkshire, adds: “Barbour has evolved dramatically over the 25 years we’ve had it, particularly over the last five years as it has become more of a lifestyle brand. They’ve done fantastically well at filtering their heritage into newer products like shirts, bags and scarfs, and that’s opened them up to a new, younger market.”

The brand is available in 40 countries through a mixture of stores and wholesale accounts, most recently entering Russia and China in 2014, and South Africa in 2013.

“Inevitably, I will have to step back at some point.”

Dame Margaret, who was appointed a dame in 2001, is not only a businesswoman, but also a philanthropist. She founded the Barbour Trust – now the Barbour Foundation – in 1988. The foundation has donated more than £13.1m to charities, hospitals and cultural projects, mainly in the northeast.

For this reason, she is particularly critical of attempts to discuss her personal finances, including that of the Sunday Times Rich List, which in 2015 estimated the Barbour family to be worth £320m. 

Referring to her charitable donations, she says: “They don’t take any of that into account.”

In 2000, Dame Margaret and Helen established The Nancy Barbour Award, which recognises organisations that help women with disabilities in the Tyne and Wear or Northumberland areas to reach their full potential.

Then, in 2012, she opened the Barbour Academy for textile apprentices at the firm’s South Shields factory, providing job opportunities and helping to support manufacturing in the region. To date, 56 students have been through the academy, five of whom now work for Barbour full-time in the factory.

Dame Margaret’s focus, in her 42nd year as chairman, is steering the company through its second century of operations while still maintaining the principles on which it was founded. 

She is pinning all her hopes on it remaining a family business and the future could see a sixth generation, another John Barbour, at the helm – Helen’s son is at university studying economics and business studies. “He spent the summer here on work experience and I would love it if he joined us,” she beams. “But I’ve always said there’s no pressure.”

Dame Margaret has long carried herself with the resilience of the waxed jackets that have been her life for so long. And, although her role is less full-on these days, she still comes into the office at least three times a week and has no plans to retire: “Inevitably, I will have to step back at some point, but my mother died at 94 and grandfather Barbour was chairman until he was 85. So, if longevity runs in the family like it does in the company, I’ve got a while to go.”

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