Hard work, loyalty and 
a life’s work

Lord Graham Kirkham, founder of DFS.
Lord Graham Kirkham, founder of DFS.

HE went from making his own furniture above a snooker hall in Carcroft to creating a £500 million business recognised and trusted by millions of customers across the nation.

But now the sofa king is preparing to take more of a back seat from the cut throat retail sector after deciding to sell DFS and retire from his job as executive chairman.

Lord Graham Kirkham, founder of DFS.

Lord Graham Kirkham, founder of DFS.

With 74 stores and more than 2,600 staff, venture capitalist group Advent International will now be tasked with taking the booming brand forward.

Lord Kirkham, 65, says: “It’s definitely bitter sweet, it has been a difficult decision.

“This has been more than a job for me, it’s been my life for 41 years. I’ve lived and breathed it, but I’m not getting any younger and there comes a point where something has to change.

“I want to see the business move forward, open more shops and expand into Europe, so it was time for someone else to come in and take those risks.”

DFS founder Graham Kirkham as a young boy.

DFS founder Graham Kirkham as a young boy.

But Lord Kirkham, who finally sold his business in a deal reported to be worth up to £500 million after much soul searching, leaves safe in the knowledge that one in four people have bought into the DFS dream.

Lord Kirkham’s story is a true rags to riches tale that saw him catapulted from life in the pit village of Edlington to becoming Doncaster’s richest man.

Adopted at three-weeks-old by miner Tom Kirkham and his wife Elsie, he grew up in modest surroundings. Lord Kirkham said: “I suppose today people would say, materially, we were poor, but I felt massively lucky. I had so much love and affection and I think it was the luckiest thing that I was adopted by parents who wanted a child so badly and had so much love to give. It’s because of them that I’m where I am today,”

And Lord Kirkham, who now lives just down the road in Sprotbrough, still has a place in his heart for Edlington - the village that received negative attention in the national media after the attack on two children last April.

He said: “Edlington is a lovely village I think it was a fluke that this happened there, murders, shootings and horrible things have to happen somewhere.

“I have great fondness for the place, it’s a good, proper, village with good people.”

And even though he now lays claim to titles that include Lord, Knight, doctor and Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, he has always managed to keep his feet firmly on the ground and has DFS furniture in his own home.

Staying true to his roots Lord Kirkham has shunned the bright lights of London in favour of staying in Doncaster.

He said: “I’ve got a massive bias towards the north. London may be where a lot of business is but I think the people here are a lot nicer.

“I’ve got two children and five grandchildren and to them the fact that I’m a knight and all the rest of it is quite funny really. To them I’m a bit of a joke, but that’s what keeps you grounded,” laughed Lord Kirkham.

But it wasn’t always scaling the dizzy heights of business that Lord Kirkham had in mind.

At the age of 11 his sights were set on becoming an RAF pilot but when he didn’t achieve any O-levels, he began work as a salesman at a furniture shop and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I never expected to be where I am today. I really do think that a lot of it has been down to luck and the people I’ve met.”

And now Lord Kirkham, who maintains he is not planning to put his feet up, wants to pursue his passion for art, his current collection of which is estimated at £100 million.
He also intends to dedicate more time to his charity work, including The Duke of Edinburgh Award and spend time with his family, including wife of 44 years Pauline.

But what will Lord Kirkham miss the most at DFS?

“The people, to me, have never been numbers on a payroll, they’ve been like a family. It was important that whoever came in after me also valued the staff.

“I’ve had a lot of success in my life but I’ve never operated this business like I’m the master and the staff are my servants. It’s always had that family business feel and I will really miss that.

“People ask me how I became so successful and if I were giving advice to kids starting out in business today, I would say you’ve got to have self-belief, work hard and get a little bit of luck along the way.They can do what they set out to.”

But although the sale has officially ended for Lord Kirkham it’s fair to say satisfied customers can expect to continue to get good deals for years to come.

Lord Kirkham said: “It’s a running joke that there’s always a sale on at DFS. We have a laugh about it , but in fact there’s only two sales a year but we do spend a lot on advertising and have offers on. We want to offer people value for money.

“And one in four people have furniture from DFS so that makes me feel really good, we must be doing something right. As long as the customers are happy that’s what it’s all about.”