Still in the chair

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THE traditional route for the sons of 'the boss' of successful companies has always been to follow in father's footsteps - and despite a firmly-held but short rebellion when he was a teenager, that is just what Jack Berry did.

I really wanted to be a gamekeeper at one time and rebelled a bit about going into the family business, as others have done," he recalled with amusement.

His upbringing in the very rural part of Lancashire that is Chipping, where he learnt to shoot with his father and grandfather from the age of 10, gave him a particular insight into country matters...but family tradition prevailed and he became an apprentice with the firm on leaving school at 17.

It was a fitting choice - to stay in an area where he was born, where he grew up with sister Eve, where he went to school - Brabin's Endowed - before going on to Woodlands in Fulwood, the Friends School in Lancaster and finally, Wrekin College in Shropshire.

Then, despite those temptations of gamekeeping, it was straight into the firm, starting at the bottom and working all the way through to the top.

"My first job was to stoke the boiler fire, in a boiler suit," Mr Berry recalled with another smile. "Then I progressed in the order of manufacturing, operating the kilns, sawing, machining, sandpapering, chair framing, polishing and upholstering, and then the dispatch."

The boiler suit had changed to chairman's suit and tie when we sat in the former show room premises across from the chairworks to look back to those times - times even then which were a long way away from when there was a workhouse in the picturesque hollow that is Kirk Mills.

Cottages now fill that space, and the first chairworks started by Mr Berry's great grandfather John in the old iron foundry had moved across to bigger, modern premises by 1947.

Jack Berry's grandfather Henry James had established the firm as HJ Berry and Son in the mid nineteenth century, his son John built it up and consolidated it, and it was due to his ill-health that his son Jack succeeded to be managing director in 1960.

Prosperity

He recalls the 50's, 60's and 70's as being years of particular prosperity for the firm, confirmed when its business stronghold was across Lancashire, feeding out to many other parts of the UK, and with some exports to America and Canada.

"We used to send out thousands of products every week - chairs, tables, stools - 6,000 a week, 1500 a day was absolutely basic," Mr Berry recalled.

"In the good old days we had 210 working for us, all local and mainly drawn from Chipping and Longridge.

"Like most companies, we've had to make redundancies. Our first was in 1981 and we managed gradually to build numbers back up again and replace that loss.

"These things go in cycles - the last three years have been a bit quiet and sadly we've had two major redundancy chunks recently, bringing the work force to 90."

Three-quarters of HJ Berry's output in earlier days went to manufacturers ordering furniture to make up their own suites and dining sets.

"Domestic dining room furniture, for instance, used to be highly popular but with the change in eating habits and family structure, demand for it has decreased and is nothing like it used to be after the war," said Mr Berry.

"Now, however, as the biggest chair makers in the country, with a unique product, streamlined and restructured using automated machinery specially made in Italy, our main outlet is to independent retailers and our chairs and tables are in use in many restaurants, cafes, entertainment venues, hotels, conference venues and waiting areas the length and breadth of the country."

Tastes in designs have changed over the years - the firm uses its own and outside designers and Mr Berry has created his own in his time - and he says the old spindlebacks were always popular and made in Chipping until Chinese imports invaded the market.

Rush seating is another tradition still continued but to a lesser degree. A hundred years ago, the skill was demonstrated by a Berry craftsmen at the Royal Lancashire Show, as illustrated in an old photo in the firm's foyer.

"Now, as before, it is always expensive with crafstmen completing just three seats in a day, so it's not much in demand any more," he explained.

Tastes in timber have also varied during his working life, Mr Berry favouring the darker woods over the iighter teak, pine or ash - "but I think the darker colours will come back," he predicted.

Many of those distinctive designs and timbers in Berry chairs have been coveted raffle prizes at Chipping's annual shows, and now pieces manufactured through the years turn up regularly for sale in the country's antique shops.

"In fact, I saw a stool which was made soon after the war in a shop in Dolgellau - and it was bringing quite a good price!" said Mr Berry.

But current models can be purchased in the seconds shop at the mill, and the Berry trademark furniture can be acquired at Chipping Post Office and other local outlets.

"In fact, there isn't a town in the country where we are not represented!" he stated.

Mr Berry was just three months short of 60 years in the business 'which has been my life' when he retired in May.

Through it, he has been supported by his wife Jo, a keen horsewoman and competing at the Chipping Agricultural Show when they first met.

They settled in Broughton where they brought up their two children, by which time those sporting interests of his youth had matured into forming Chipping Crcket Club with his friend, John Stott, in 1950.

He played in the team in the summer months, also enjoying golf at several local clubs including Preston and Pleasington.

HJ Berry's gave one of its fields for the cricket pitch - "it's still a good wicket!" - and its MD specially enjoyed village cricket more than anything as it was 'friendly and fun.'

Saling was another sporting interest and he enjoyed family holidays in Salcombe or taking his boat to Windermere or the Wyre estuary.

Remaining chairman of the com pany he has directed for 60 years somewhat balances his departure under official 'retirement' status from something which, he re-itereates, 'has been my life.'

"It was hard to relinquish, but it had to happen sometime," he says. "I have enjoyed coming in early every morning - in the old days at 7am - and will continues to keep my eye on things.

"Changes will come but I know the firm will carry on. People are always going to need something to sit on!"

And, finally, he echoes the firm's statement "We are justly proud of our heritage in the chair and table making business and have established an enviable reputation in this field. Everything we do is driven by a simple set of principles that everyone at H J Berry understands and lives by.

"These principles ensure that:

our customers receive the highest level of service

our products are manufactured to the finest quality standards

our employees are treated fairly and considerately

we do our utmost to limit our environmental impact."

Jack Berry has worked for the village of Chipping in many different ways, and in 1998 was awarded the MBE for services to the community which he received from the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

He has served - in every case for numbers of years - as chairman and committee member of the parish council, chairman of governors and as a governor of Brabin's Endowed School, chairman of the Brabin's Trust, chairman of the Village Hall Committee, and he worked hard for many years collecting funds for the Chipping Show.