Profile: Yorkshire pudding turns out super-rich: Patrick Hosking on a furniture man who found serious wealth; Graham Kirkham

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN has 63,000 millionaires. Over the last 15 years, rising property values, mushrooming pension funds and increasingly generous legacies have made it almost commonplace to be worth pounds 1m - on paper at least.

Personal wealth above pounds 10m is more serious money. All but 2,000 of Britain's plutocrats are weeded out at this level, according to an analysis by BusinessAge magazine, using Inland Revenue statistics.

Only 500 people make it above the pounds 50m mark. But the wealth threshold that really separates the mere yacht owners from the fleet proprietors is pounds 200m. Just 40 individuals in Britain are worth pounds 200m or more.

Most of these have inherited a sizeable pile to start with - people like the Guinnesses, the Keswicks, the Vesteys and the Sainsburys. The truly nouveaux super-riches, those who have built their fortunes from nothing, are numbered in single figures.

Getting disgustingly rich within a lifetime remains exceedingly difficult. There's the temptation to start enjoying the good life after the first few million. There's the fatal decision to speed up growth by borrowing.

Graham Kirkham, a Doncaster businessman not widely known until last month, will join the ranks of the pounds 200m-plus club when he floats his DFS furniture business on the stock market next month.

He is the archetypal self-made man: the son of a Yorkshire miner, he left school at 16 with no 'O' levels and few apparent prospects.

The super-rich label sits oddly with this tubby, bullet-headed, plain-spoken, amiable man. He comes across as eager to please, jokey and self-deprecating. At one point in our interview he called himself 'a tongue-tied Yorkshire pudding'. Tongue-tied is not quite the way millions of TV viewers saw him when he appeared in regional commercials for his furniture stores a few years ago, gabbling about the wonderful discounts on offer.

He has since given up appearing in the adverts. He is not distinctive enough to be a Bernard Matthews, the 'bootiful' turkeys tycoon who made a virtue of his Norfolk accent, nor smug enough to be a Victor Kiam, who bought the Remington razor company because he liked the product so much.

So what does make him special? Nothing but hard work, he insists. 'I think people seek to complicate life a great deal. People are always asking me 'why do you do so well?', and they look for all kinds of sophisticated reasons. And I'm sure there are a lot of things we do do differently - but there are some fundamentals and to me one fundamental is to work very, very hard.'

When I point out that lots of people put in long hours and don't get very far, he says, 'But do they, do they? There's a price to pay, and I think a lot of people aren't prepared to pay the price. I've not seen a lot of my children's early upbringing.'

Hard work means getting into the office by 7.30am and staying until late at night.

In the early days, it meant visiting customers in their houses in the evenings. It meant he and his wife, Pauline, sitting up until midnight sticking fabric on to cushion buttons.

After the interview, he faxes over a quotation from Samuel Butler in 1912. It reads: 'Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains. It may be that at the start of any genuine way forward, there is a flash of pure inspiration. But thereafter striving for perfection is a matter of sheer, careful, painstaking hard work.'

As well as hard work, perhaps a deeply competitive streak helped Kirkham, now 48. At school he was frequently ordered from the playing field for fouling. 'When you really kick people's legs from under them at football, you get sent off,' he explains guilelessly.

Perhaps the humble upbringing helped, what he calls 'the tin bath background'. He was an only child and spoilt by his mum, he says. His miner father was verger at the local church and young Graham went through Sunday school and then into the choir.

Money seems unimportant to him. He owns a beautiful Georgian mansion, Cantley Hall, where he occasionally entertains, but he actually lives in an unassuming modern four-bedroom house a few miles away. The playboy image is mainly media myth. His pounds 5m salary will come down to pounds 200,000 once he floats. The story that he tipped a Monte Carlo waiter pounds 1,000 is untrue, he says.

Cheery self-confidence may have played a part. 'I don't think I've said this to anyone before, but it's a quite interesting thing - I never ever as a teenager had any doubts I would be successful at something. I never doubted that at all. I always believed in myself very much indeed without there being any specifics.'

That was despite failing his exams, a bitter blow at the time because he needed the 'O' levels to join the RAF as a trainee pilot.

Instead he joined a local furniture store as a sales assistant. He was enthusiastic, but 'I lacked the killer instinct to be a great salesman'. By 22, he was managing a shop. On the side, he set up a fledgling business selling furniture via agents whom he persuaded to turn their front rooms into showrooms.

It was a stepping stone to his own business proper. In 1969, aged 24, he rented a disused billiard hall in Carcroft, five miles from Doncaster. The settees and armchairs were assembled upstairs and then displayed in the showroom downstairs. He was vertically integrated, physically and commercially, before he knew the meaning of the word.

He was also out-of-town before the concept was coined. He was able to display a much wider range on one floor - in contrast to the traditional cramped shops on several storeys with higgledy piggledy stock. It was a success from day one.

He learned to listen to customers. 'If customers said, this is a bit hard or, we'd like it better if it was in red, then before too long, we'd have one on show that wasn't quite as hard and that was in red. I didn't think there was anything clever about that, but even today retailers try to sell what they have rather than what the consumer wants.'

DFS has grown to 27 superstores in the North and Midlands, including five under the Northern Upholstery facia and three Dining Centres. It is expected to report operating profits of pounds 18m on sales of pounds 110m for the year just ended.

The flotation, which will leave Kirkham with 50 per cent of the company, is because his son and daughter have careers of their own and are not interested in joining the family firm.

'Neither of them has any interest whatsoever in the company. As a family company you'd think they might say 'ours', but that's never been said over the years at all.

'Perhaps seeing the father - or not seeing him for all those years - and seeing the hard work that's involved, they're not prepared to pay the price.'

(Photograph omitted)

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