Barlow Tyrie at 100
By Tom Lassiter
Photos: ©2020 Courtesy Barlow Tyrie. www.Teak.com.
Charles Hessler had been selling Barlow Tyrie furniture for a few months when he purchased some teak furniture made by his employer. He selected a Commodore Steamer chair, Barlow Tyrie’s interpretation of a chaise longue with classic lines, a chair that looks as if it belongs on the deck of a transatlantic ocean liner.
Hessler, now Barlow Tyrie’s top executive in the U.S. office, still has that steamer chair. It’s in his backyard, where it has resided for the past 31 years, during both winters and summers.
“It still works fine,” Hessler says. “Every two or three years I clean it up. That’s it. I don’t put it away.”
Atom Deep Seating Armchair.
That particular steamer chair (which, by the way, is a 1984 design and still in production) and Hessler have been around for nearly one-third of Barlow Tyrie’s existence.
Barlow Tyrie, founded in London when the wounds and memories of the Great War were still fresh, this year celebrates its centennial. The grandsons of founder Victor Tyrie – Mark and James Tyrie – preside over the company in a manner that might seem familiar to their grandfather.
The Tyrie brothers are deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the company started by their grandfather and his business partner, Frederick Barlow, in 1920. They’ve known some of the long-timers in the British operation literally all of their adult lives. They are invested, and not just in the financial sense.
Barlow Tyrie isn’t part of some industrial conglomerate. Venture capitalists who don’t know teak from ipé from bamboo hold no sway.
“It’s a hands-on, family-owned and operated business,” says Hessler. “Their name is on the building. It’s on every piece of furniture, and they care about that.”
Layout Collection of dining chairs and tables.
Which goes to say that Barlow Tyrie continues to hold itself to the standards of quality set by the founders. The company was established to make teak outdoor furniture, and the name Barlow Tyrie remains synonymous with teak today. The company’s URL says it all: teak.com.
Barlow Tyrie uses only first-quality teak from Indonesia’s government-managed forests. Virtually all of its products are manufactured at its company-owned factory in Indonesia.
The company now also produces casual furniture incorporating stainless-steel and aluminum frames, and other non-teak components. For a time, it sold a range of woven resin furniture that was produced to order by another Indonesian company. But that range is now out of production and everything once again is made in the Barlow Tyrie factory, including the company’s shade products.
Barlow Tyrie’s commitment to producing garden lounge furniture of the highest quality comes at a price.
“The price point is up there,” Hessler says. “I never apologize for it. It is what it is, and people get what they pay for.
“Our company has been here for 100 years,” he explains.
Over the years, numerous other teak vendors have attempted to gain a foothold in the North American market, often using teak of lesser quality and less rigorous construction standards. Hessler says he reminds people who question Barlow Tyrie’s premium prices that most of its lower-priced competitors have disappeared. They didn’t last many decades, much less a century.
“So I guess we’re giving you what you’re paying for,” he says.
Young Victor Tyrie.
Roots in Shipbreaking
Tyrie joined the Royal Marines as a drummer boy in 1912. He was 14 years old. Two years later, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off a chain of events that plunged all of Europe and much of the rest of the world into war.
Victor Tyrie survived the conflict, but not without serious injury – he lost his left thumb. As part of his rehabilitation, Tyrie participated in a government-subsidized training program to teach him a craft.
He was apprenticed to a shipbreaking firm that pulled apart old sailing ships to reclaim the timber, which happened to be teak. This wood, in turn, was used to make outdoor furniture.
(One wonders what Victor Tyrie would think of today’s companies that make fashionable furniture from reclaimed teak, often sourced from old Southeast Asian boats.)
The British government’s rehabilitation program lasted but a year, but it was long enough to provide both Tyrie and Frederick Barlow with the skills necessary to start their own outdoor furniture business. They set up a woodworking shop in London; an early location was a former stable in a residential neighborhood.
For a number of years, the company’s furniture was built almost entirely by hand. The one power tool, an electric bench saw, was devised by the men themselves. According to a history on the Barlow Tyrie website, “It took the most efficient worker at least a full day to make one teak seat.”
Barlow Tyrie soon developed a reputation for quality products and designs that were to become classics. Catalogs from the 1920s show designs that are still in production today.
A worker hand-crafts a memorial seat.
The company also became known for making one-off “memorial seats,” benches with custom, hand-carved designs that memorialize individuals or events. Memorial seats are still produced in Barlow Tyrie’s facility in Braintree, some 50 miles northeast of London.
Other production, however, takes place in Barlow Tyrie’s factory in Indonesia. That facility was opened in 1992 following a period when Indonesia restricted export of raw teak timber. But there were no limitations on purchasing teak destined to be converted into manufactured goods in Indonesian factories.
The Indonesian manufacturing operation was set up by Victor Tyrie’s son, Peter, who led the company after his father’s retirement in the late 1960s.
It was Peter who hired Charles Hessler when Barlow Tyrie first expanded into the U.S. market in the late 1980s.
Monterey dining chair in full teak.
Hessler had been looking through the classifieds in a Sunday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer when one particular ad caught his attention. It said something to the effect, “Must have an understanding of the British way of doing business.”
Hessler recalls that he wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but it sounded intriguing. His mother and her family were from Scotland, and one of his aunts lived as though she had never emigrated to the States. “She always had a picture of the queen on her living-room wall,” Hessler remembers.
Hessler came from a family business background; his father owned a small company that distributed industrial maintenance and cleaning equipment. Hessler, at that time, worked for his family’s company in sales; he also repaired equipment. Seeking employment with another small, family-owned business wasn’t a big leap for him.
He was the last person interviewed during Peter Tyrie’s week in the United States.
“I got the job,” Hessler deadpans. “I guess everybody else turned it down.”
Layout Collection of modular deep seating.
Barlow Tyrie’s expansion into product categories other than teak over the last 15 years came in response to changing consumer tastes as well as ever-higher prices for the world’s best teak, the supply of which is managed by the Indonesian government.
“There was a need for us to look at new materials,” says James Tyrie. He heads design and product development aspects for the company, while brother James is in charge of sales and financial operations.
Making products using stainless-steel and aluminum components, as well as powder-coating capabilities for the metals, required significant changes in the Indonesian plant. Different technologies had to be mastered and personnel had to be trained.
“We started with stainless steel, and that went well,” Tyrie says. When the company decided to add aluminum to the mix, “There were a few small technical differences, but metal is metal, so it wasn’t a huge leap to get from one to the other.”
The decision to offer ceramic tabletops required building additional expertise. Barlow Tyrie uses slabs of ceramic material from Italy that is cut at the Indonesian plant. The company developed the ceramic top option to reduce the amount of expensive teak in tables, Tyrie said. This option also reduces the weight of a table significantly, an important factor in shipping and positioning larger tables.
“The ceramics have the best of both worlds,” Tyrie says. “They have a lightness; they’re easy to clean; and they look good.”
The company’s Indonesian plant employs around 250 people. Another 30 or so work in the Braintree facility. The company’s New Jersey offices, where Hessler is executive vice president, employ about 10 people. The New Jersey office serves both the United States and Canada.
North America accounts for about 50% of Barlow Tyrie’s sales, Tyrie says. About 35% of sales are generated in Great Britain. Most of the remaining 15% of sales are to customers in Europe, although the company does have customers in Brazil, Australia, and around the world.
A bronze Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on a Barlow Tyrie bench. Not visible in the photo is that Roosevelt has a cigarette in his left hand, while Churchill has a cigar in his.
A retirement ceremony late last year in Braintree once again reminded the Tyrie brothers of the special responsibilities and rewards of maintaining a family-run business, especially one that has reached the century mark.
It was around Christmas when Nigel Sadler retired just short of 50 years of service. Sadler joined Barlow Tyrie as an assembler “and worked his way up from there,” Mark Tyrie says. He finished his career as group production manager, where he had “everything to do with production and running a factory.”
During Sadler’s half-century at Barlow Tyrie, the company endured the challenges of restricted supplies of raw materials, setting up operations in Indonesia, expanding from teak into other materials, and weathering the whims of fashion and changing tastes in outdoor living.
Sadler’s long service reminded Tyrie that employer-employee relationships that last for decades involve mutual responsibility, especially within smaller firms. The relationship becomes, Tyrie says, a lifestyle.
“When things are good,” he says, “that’s great.” But company leaders must be prepared to navigate the inevitable downturns.
“If you want to make it last,” he says, “you’ve got to be able to ride the rough as well. We’ve been very fortunate that we’re still going.”
The century mark, Tyrie says, “is such a milestone for any company. To still be a small, family-owned business, to be going after a hundred years, is incredible, but daunting at the same time.”
Luckily, Tyrie says, the responsibilities of managing the company also provide great satisfaction. “We enjoy it,” he says. The brothers look forward to piloting Barlow Tyrie into its next hundred years.