Me and My Partner: 'We stuck to what we were best at'

Brothers James and Nick Barke took over Essex Boatyards from their father eight years ago. It is now a £12m turnover business, employing 19 people
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The Independent Online

I joined the company in 1996 when I was 22. My dad founded it in 1978, but I didn't plan on working here. I wanted to make my own way; but as dad got older he started talking about selling up, and I realised that it was a great opportunity to do something for myself.

It was pretty tough. We had lots of disagreements early on about how he was running things and what I thought was the modern way to run things. But luckily for me it wasn't long after that Nick joined, too, and dad started lessening his day-to-day involvement.

I did have reservations about working with Nick because although we'd lived together our whole lives, we'd never actually worked together. But it was immediately clear that we complemented each other.

I'm very good at paperwork and sales, while Nick is very good at dealing with customers and looking at the bigger picture with regards to business strategy.

I'm on the front line, buying and selling boats, managing paperwork and dealing with the day-to-day tasks, whereas Nick will be looking after the customers, fixing problems and looking forward to what we should be doing in terms of developing the business. We didn't sit down and say I'm going to do this and you're going to do that, it just worked out that way; we stuck to what we were best at.

We never expected it to get us to where we are now. It hasn't been easy. We've been through an awful lot. We've had some problems which we've had to work through; disagreements over resources, for example.

Nick would say he needs more fitters to get boats delivered on time and I'd say I need some more office staff to do the invoicing and we'd have an argument but we'd eventually find a compromise. That's the important part. We've stuck at it and everything is fine now. The fact we're brothers helps, too. You can say what you like to your brother - you have to be more careful with an employee.

We both work from 8.30am to 6.30pm, six days a week. During the working day we don't actually get that much time to talk because we're both too busy running the company. Nick's desk is about 6ft from mine, but he is off site a lot of the time with customers.

We don't really have a strict boundary between business life and social life. We probably should, but because it's a family business and because we're dealing with people's leisure time, it's an enjoyable business to work in. So, sadly in the evenings or when we're out and about, the conversation does tend to come back to business. We'll discuss things down the pub in a more relaxed environment, which probably annoys some of our friends.

Nick Barke

James had been working in the business for about a year when I joined. It happened gradually. They would have a problem with a boat and ask me to come down and take a look at it. So I'd come down, fix it and then go away again. But I ended up being here virtually every day.

We were good mates when we were kids. We were roughly the same age and used to hang around with the same friends. We didn't see as much of each other when we got older, so coming back to work in the business was like where we'd left off 10 years earlier.

I'm much more technical than he is. When we were younger, we used to mess about with cars. If the cars broke down we had nothing to play with, so I read all the mechanical manuals and taught myself how to fix them. We moved on to buying MOT failures. I'd repair them and James would sell them. The conversion to the marine side was pretty easy. I worked at the yard during the holidays and I'd tinker with engines on the boats and teach myself how to fix those as well. It's proved to be very useful because it means no one can pull the wool over my eyes on the engineering side, whether they are an engineer or a customer.

James and I basically look after two different areas within the business. I tend to be more behind the scenes, getting on with things and making things work, rather than dealing with new customers. I do get involved in the selling, but mainly at boat shows where my engineering and boat fitting knowledge is more likely to be useful.

I've never really been very keen on paperwork and James has always loved it. Even when we were buying and selling cars 20 years ago, he would do the paperwork and I'd be under the bonnet. I'm not so good in the office. I usually get more involved after the sale has been completed, helping the customer get the most from the boat. That's my focus, giving the highest quality customer service. I'll diagnose problems over the phone, whether they're in the marina or 10 miles out at sea.

In the early days we were more relaxed. We wouldn't do a lot on a Friday afternoon; we wouldn't do a Sunday if we didn't have to and we'd roll in late sometimes if we'd had a heavy night. As time has gone on, the responsibility and the workload has got pretty tremendous, which isn't something we expected to happen so quickly. This morning I was in at 6am to catch up on some paperwork.

I'm out of the office a lot, but there is still a lot of communication between us. If there's something to talk about we'll discuss it on the way in to work. Or other times we'll sit down after work and work things out. I know he's not going to pull a fast one because he's my brother. At the end of the day, we've got the same shares, same responsibilities, same incomes, everything is the same. I can imagine that takes a lot of the difficulties out of running a business partnership.

Interviews by Gareth Chadwick

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