THE starched collars worn by the men in dramas such as Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and The Crown are made by a Dorset company which you might know better as a dry cleaner.

Bournemouth-based Barker Group does both those things and also runs the UK’s largest domestic laundry service.

And while the Covid pandemic has hit the business, experience of previous crises stood managing director Matthew Barker in good stead.

“We actually reacted very quickly, having had a history of disasters – fires, floods and now the plague,” he said.

“We know how quickly things can go wrong and so I made decisions very quickly on how we engineer ourselves so that we could cope with the downturn, with the restrictions, and we got ourselves in pretty good shape really early on.”

The business, whose history goes back to 1861, consists of three parts. There are the dry cleaning outlets, which have seen business drop by up to 60 per cent during Covid. There is the domestic laundry service, which has grown in the areas it serves by direct delivery and collection, but fallen off in London, where it is operated through other people’s shops. And there is the shirt and collar business.

The company makes cotton formal shirts and the separate collars sported by barristers in the UK and Commonwealth countries, and by students at Eton College, as well as by the casts of period dramas, which include not only The Crown, Peaky Blinders and Downton Abbey but Titanic, Poirot, Mr Selfridge and the Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr.

Bournemouth Echo:

Barker Group provides collars for Downton Abbey

Fortunately for the Wallisdown-based business, period dramas are back in production after the disruption of the early lockdown. “They’re operating in a Covid-appropriate way in productions, but it is happening,” said Mr Barker.

“The next series of The Crown is already done, so what we’re going to be working on is really almost two seasons ahead.

“There might be a gap in period dramas that we start experiencing through terrestrial channels and Netflix for a while, but largely my experience is it’s carried on pretty well. It’s the theatres and operas in London which we supply as well – that has been very quiet.”

Barker Group cuts single use plastics in laundry and dry cleaning

The company has been producing a “huge” number of collars for Eton and has seen the legal custom return. “In, fact there are 1,500 lawyers in the Bahamas and we’re just putting together a massive order of legal work for the Bahamas at the moment so it’s all coming back gradually,” he said.

Mr Barker, 56, grew up intending to do “anything but the family business”.

He “blagged” his way into a journalist’s job with a motorcycling magazine at 16 and later reported for the Bournemouth Informer, one of a flurry of free newspapers in the town in the 1980s. He later sold advertising, setting up his own advertising magazine before that venture was scuppered by the downturn at the start of the 1990s.

“It was really a recessionary measure that I joined the family business. It was only going to be for two weeks to get me by and earn some cash. That was 30 years ago,” he said.

He says he worked hard for a decade under his father and was on the point of leaving when he agreed to buy the business and let his parents step down.

“At that point, they thought ‘If you go, we’ve had it’, so we hatched a deal. So I bought the company and paid three times what it was worth,” he added.Bournemouth Echo:

Peaky Blinders

“It allowed my parents to retire and it gave me an opportunity, so I took it on. I decided to go for that, did really well in its first five years, almost tripled the revenue – and then had the fire.”

The fire was a blaze caused by an electrical fault, which razed the firm’s Winton warehouse to the ground in September 2005.

“It nearly ruined me, nearly ruined the business. I can say this now because we’re in good shape financially, but in 2010 I owed a million,” said Mr Barker.

“Bearing in mind it was only a £2m business, I owed £1m and we’d just come out of the 2008 recession, but we’d barely come out of it really and the business was haemorrhaging money.

“We’ve turned the thing round in the past 10 years. It’s been bloody hard so when Covid came around, I thought ‘Oh no, not again'.”

Bournemouth Echo:

Matthew Barker with one of Barker Group's collars

While parts of the business have been hard-hit, the company has adapted and kept more than 90 per cent of its staff – and its boss remains upbeat.

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“I do see the vast majority of our business being viable moving forward, but it’s how we operate it,” said Mr Barker.

“I’m partly optimistic because of my history, because of what I’ve been through. I really know how bad it can get and I know that our condition is good, the key factors, the key elements of the business are absolutely in good shape, so I know we can combat pretty much everything.

“I am concerned more for humanity than my business that this Covid situation is not going to go away for a long time. This is something that we’ve got to live with. I’m concerned that we could have wave after wave after wave. We’re not going to be able to deal with this unless we just accept that we have to live and die with this situation and until we accept that it’s going to have a knock-on economic effect on us and our lives.

“It behoves any business owner to make sure they’re adaptable and in shape to move quickly and evolve as our economic climate does, because it’s not going to be easy.”