Rebirth of SA's oldest furniture retailer
THE Barnetts chain is 101 years old and appears to be the oldest name in the South African furniture retail business and, with 64 outlets across South Africa and neighbouring countries, it is thriving.
The first Barnetts store was opened in Johannesburg by Ben Barnett in 1896.
Brothers Abraham, Elias and Louis Goldberg bought the company in 1931. At the time, Barnetts was in Eloff Street, opposite the old Carlton Hotel.
The Goldberg brothers also owned Ellis & Co Furnishers, which traded from 103 President Street, Johannesburg. The company is now known as Morkels, but it still operates from that address.
German entrepreneur Claas Daun, who today controls Morkels, is also a large shareholder in Profurn and, thus, Barnetts.
When Abraham Goldberg and his two sons, Harold and Jules, took over Barnetts in June 1944, they had grand plans for expansion.
They opened two branches in 1945: Brooklyn Furnishers at 64 Market Street - opposite the Johannesburg Library - and Goldberg Bros at 43 Commissioner Street in Krugersdorp.
When South Africa's economy began to pick up after World War 2, Barnetts' activities spread into the Transvaal, Free State, Natal and Swaziland.
In 1968, when the Goldbergs sold 60% of their interests to Currie Motors, Barnetts had 17 branches. By 1970, it had 50 stores.
Currie Motors took full control of Barnetts in 1972 and retained Jonny Goldberg as its managing director until 1983, the year it bought the ABC furniture retailing group in a bid to strengthen its management. Barnetts had been struggling and its store numbers had plummeted to 35.
Myron Lewkowski, who ran and partly owned the ABC group, took over the group's leadership. Stores were opened in the Cape and in Botswana and, by 1984, the company had 50 outlets.
That year, however, the furniture industry faced a serious setback when the government introduced laws to curtail consumer spending. Currie decided to withdraw its funding and the group closed 21 branches and limited activities at the rest.
In a bid to get moving again, management bought out Barnetts from Currie in August 1987 and listed it on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in November that year.
Earnings picked up, new stores were opened and others were relocated. Management was, however, unable to contain operating expenses and made an unfortunate foray into the synthetic marble gravestone business.
By September 1989, Ellerines was in talks to take over Barnetts, but that came to nothing.
Barnetts' fortunes turned once again and new stores were opened.
Within a few years, however, a number of stores were incurring losses, operating margins were declining and company morale was deteriorating.
By the time Profurn bought Barnetts in July 1994, it owned 49 stores. Profurn boosted the number of stores under its umbrella from 78 to 127. Of these, 102 were in South Africa and 25 were elsewhere.
Profurn emerged as the biggest furniture retailer in Botswana with Barnetts catapulting its number of stores in that country from 10 to 26.
The two companies merged their head offices within a month of the deal, knocking down expenses and the names of the ABC stores were changed to Barnetts or Protea Furnishers.
The synergistic benefits and improved economies of scale of the enlarged group soon started to show in Profurn's results, with its earnings doubling in 1994. Top of page