Sofa king sitting pretty on £315m pile

IT was by any standards a flamboyant gesture.

Even Lord Archer, then still a favourite with the Conservative Party (this was 1997) and a man not unused to theatricality, was stunned.

Sofa king Sir Graham Kirkham – his peerage was still a couple of years away – boss of the DFS furniture chain, had just paid 170,000 for a book by Prime Minister's wife Norma Major, signed by the cabinet.

Perhaps not the kind of book you'd find on the coffee table next to a DFS Rodeo sofa "in sensual leather to get you going" but, like the price of the Rodeo at 849, that kind of money was hard to resist for the Tories.

As plain Graham Kirkham he had already given the party a 4m interest-free loan. It was only coincidence that he was knighted in the 1996 New Year's honours list.

Not everyone thought so. John Prescott, then in opposition, thundered that it was "the crudest example yet of honours given for financial services to the Tory Party."

The new Sir Graham was stung.

The honour was for his charitable work for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme and the Animal Health Trust, he riposted.

A friend comments: "Being turned over by a politician can be awesome. He wasn't happy with that."

But he's certainly used to doling out money. He's known as The Peeler for his habit of peeling off banknotes kept in his back pocket, and has generous impulses.

There was the 2,500 he gave to a Sprotborough school for a new computer room. Another 225,000 went to help cancer research by Bradford University.

And there was the 200,000 he gave Prince Edward's Ardent TV company in 1994 because he had "a burning desire to succeed."

Some might say he reached the pinnacle of his career when, in June, 1999, he was made a life peer, Baron Kirkham of Old Cantley.

He was one of the working peers recommended by then Tory leader William Hague who had borrowed Kirkham's helicopter for electioneering.

Lord Kirkham is one of South Yorkshire's richest men with a personal fortune worth 315m yet who furnishes his two homes, Grade II-listed Cantley Hall and a large house behind a six feet high wall in Cadeby Road, Sprotborough, with DFS sofas.

It's at Cantley, where he has entertained the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne, that he keeps his Old Masters, such as Constable's View of the Stour (bought for 6.7m) and Gainsborough's Peasants Going To Market (3.5m).

He is an intensely private man, giving few interviews. Perhaps his most revealing quote was: "At the end of the day my business and my private life are one and the same thing because I like it. It's my hobby, job, religion."

His four line entry in Who's Who reveals little: his knighthood, peerage, chairmanship of DFS and, significantly, his post as senior Tory party treasurer in 1997-98.

Yet his is a life story that writers like Barbara Taylor Bradford could have used for a blockbusting novel.

He was adopted into an Edlington mining family when he was three weeks old. He is deeply grateful. "My whole life has been the luck of going to a good family."

There were no signs that the young Kirkham was going to shine. He was bright enough to go the Maltby Grammar School with hopes of joining the RAF as a pilot (today he flies microlights).

He needed five 0-Levels and got none. There was no point staying on so he got a job in a local furniture store.

That was to be the making of him. He was married at 20 and was a father of two at 22, of Julie then Michael. "I had got two young children which is quite a motivation," he comments.

In 1969, aged 22, he rented a room above a snooker hall in Carcroft, just outside Doncaster, and started making and selling furniture.

He's got in on the ground floor when out of town shopping was beginning to take off. Not that he necessarily realised it.

"Ignorance was quite important. You're not aware that it can't be done so you approach it wilth a tremendous amount of confidence.

"I visited a few manufacturers and it seemed relatively easy and I thought why not combine both things and cut out the middle man. the concept was there from the start."

So was born Northern Upholstery, a company which grew steadily for the next 14 years.

Then in 1983 the Darley Dale–based furniture warehouse, Direct Furnishing Supplies, one of Northern Upholstery's own suppliers, went bust. It had debts of 900,000 but more significantly a turnover of 3m and Graham Kirkham bought it.

He pledged that people would not lose their deposits and acquired a new raft of customers.

That, as many see it, was the launch of the company into the big time. Northern Upholstery has now restyled itself DFS, has 63 stores with more to come and employs around 2,000 staff.

When, in 1993, DFS was floated on the stock market and valued at 271m, the message sank in that Graham Kirkham (his family then owned just over half the shares) was worth a bit.

It also attracted the attention of thieves. The following year his Sprotborough home was broken into by burglars while the Kirkhams were on holiday, bound and gagged the couple's 49-year-old housekeeper and made off with money and jewels worth 2.4m

The haul was later recovered and several people were jailed. It is still South Yorkshire's largest armed robbery.

GRAHAM Kirkham is the man who put sex into sofas. After all, it has been happening on them for years!

In 1998 DFS stunned the Stock Market when it announced its first drop in profits in 28 years. Kirkham suspected it was down to the boring, "fuddy duddy" advertising featuring a middle-aged couple.

Yet much new furniture is bought by young couples and the advertising was not directed at them.

Armed with the results of a What Turns You On survey – which found than a third of customers admitted to a leather fetish – the company repitched its advertising.

In came lithesome new models: blondes and brunettes draped over sofas and a model covering up her two best assets with flowers – with a DFS airmchair prominently in the picture.

Sales jumped back up. By 2000 DFS was an announcing a 79 per cent profit increase.

Lork Kirkham - the man

GRAHAM Kirkham may wear ermine for the House of Lords but he doesn't carry any airs and graces.

He tends, on rare interviews, to favour open neck shirts, sip from a can of Pepsi and ask them to call him Graham.

Others describe him a down to earth, plain speaking and a man who hasn't tried to lose his Yorkshire accent. "He's a very dynamic, highly intelligent and very personable," says one man.

Not to everyone. He upset neighbours at Cantley Hall, the Georgian mansion he bought in 1990 from motor magnate John Carnell, with a wall they claimed was above regulation height.

They have also complained at noisy celebrations. In 1998 he hosted a fireworks party at which the singer was Elaine Paige.

He's upset some by his support of FAN, Finningley Airport Network, which opposes turning the old RAF base into an airport. Members of pro-airport group FLY (Finningley Locals say Yes) have picketed his stores.

They accuse him of hypocrisy, claiming he flies chums into Cantley for concerts and race days.

He says: "I have used a helicopter at Cantley Hall on perhaps six occasions in ten years. But I haven't flown in my pals and certainly not for Doncaster Races."

FACT FILE

1969 Founds Northern Upholstery

1983 Buys DFS

1993 DFS floated on stock market, valued at 271m

1994 Home burgled of 2.4m

1996 Knighted

1997-8 Senior Tory treasurer

1999 Made Baron Kirkham

2002 Personal fortune estimated 315m