Barry Whitaker OBE has been recognised in our Hall of Fame for his outstanding service to the College over many years, and the important role he has played in the Textile industry. He was a member of the Governing Body of Bradford & Ilkley Community College before incorporation (1999) and then a member of the Corporation of Bradford College until 2006, and performed sterling work as Chairman of the College’s Textile Advisory Board from 1990 until 2005.
Born in Bradford, where his family were topmakers, Barry grew up in a city and culture steeped in wool. “I never thought that wool was about textiles – it was just a commodity to be traded and in those days fortunes were made in the wool trade.”
Barry attended Belle Vue Boys Grammar School, where he never considered himself particularly academic and planned to join the army, entertaining “a childhood fantasy of leading a cavalry charge!” However his excellent ‘O’ Level results meant a change of plan. He stayed on at school for ‘A’ levels and then went to Leeds University where he attained a BSc Textile Industries. “It was a good time to be a student. I studied under Professor Speakman who had adapted his research on wool to develop the perm.”
It was at Leeds University that Barry’s legendary entrepreneurial flair emerged. “When I was eighteen I bought forty tickets for a Bill Haley & the Comets concert at two shillings and sixpence, and sold each one for five shillings.” Shortly after this Barry saw an advertisement for someone to make extra money selling Kleeneze brushes door to door, and decided that if there was a market for brushes there was a profit to be had. “I went to a wholesaler in Leeds and bought a job lot of brushes and pan scrubs then I put up a notice in the University canteen. One of my best friends was Rag Chairman and so I stored all my stock in his office and sent a team of students out selling the stuff from a suitcase.”
Barry also pursued more formal part-time employment while a student, working alongside Bradford College’s most celebrated alumnus, David Hockney. “David and I did a couple of years on the parcel post together. We always finished ages before we were due to clock off so we spent a lot of hanging around in the back of the van. David was always sketching on scraps of paper and then crumpling them up and throwing them away. If only I had saved them!”
Barry also met his wife when he was at university and he maintains “marriage focuses your need for money.” Motivated by his newly acquired mortgage, the new graduate joined Salts, which in those days was “a massive place, teaming with activity.” After fourteen weeks training Barry became one of four Work Study Officers. “The level of management was denoted by the colour of your coat. At twenty two I had a white coat and a stopwatch.
When our first child was on the way I applied for a better paid position as a Quality Control Manager at Josiah Ambler. It was a ring of fire! I knew all the theory but my three lab assistants knew much more and they put me through a terrible ordeal at first. But as I got more confident I brought in new systems and introduced statistical probability charts and after a few months we finished up with mutual respect. I eventually enjoyed it and became Group Quality Manager.”
The advent of the second child meant the Whitaker family needed a car and so Barry again looked for a new position. Serendipitously responding to an inconsequential sounding advertisement seeking ‘Man required to sell textile machinery’, Barry was invited to an interview at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, in those glory days an unimagined luxury, and discovered his new calling. After a second interview in London he got the job selling for the innovative Schlaforst automotive textile winding machine, which gave him a 25% increase on his previous salary, a company car, an expense account and a great opportunity.
Over the years the company developed, representing a wide rage of continental textile machinery makers. There had only been two other employees when he joined, but by the time he left to start his own business fifteen years later, he was Sales Director of a company with sixty staff over four locations.
Barry and Michael Clay founded Allertex in Bradford in 1977, and as Chairman and Managing Director, he not only built a successful business but was very active in lobbying the government for support for the industry and in supporting textile education.
“When Bradford University planned to close their textile department I led an unsuccessful campaign to keep it open, which brought me into contact with a lot of people. I decided that I should do all I could to strengthen the textile provision at the College. It was a two-way traffic. I was selling a range of spinning and weaving machinery. It suited the college the College that I put machines in there free and I could bring customers in to see the machines in situ. I fought long and hard to keep the wool scourer which was a useful facility for industry as no one wanted to stop a scourer to put 10 or 20lb of wool through for a test. The traffic of people made study relevant and provided revenue for the College.”
As Chairman of the Textile Advisory Committee, Barry fought hard to combat declining student admissions. “It was a constant battle. I spent ages going around industry to ask them to send apprentices to boost the numbers. But mill closures meant that employers felt that they didn’t need to train as there were plenty of staff on the market. Other Colleges were competing in the same market and I tried to bring them together. I arranged to bus some students between Bradford and Bolton. I tried to persuade employers that they were being short-sighted and yet as I predicted, mills now have to train in house or send staff abroad.”
Barry is still saddened by the decline of the textile industry, which he attributes to “the taxation regime under Harold Wilson which gave mill owners no incentive to invest” and complacency, as British machinery firms forgot how to sell as they supplied world and then when Commonwealth preference ended, they could not compete.” Still keen to lead his cavalry charge, he says “I still think I could have saved the British Textile industry …” He is a Fellow of the Textile Institute, a Chartered Textile Technologist and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen. Barry’s unrivalled experience of the textile industry is being put to good use with his recent appointment as Visiting Professor of Textiles at Leeds University.
Following the death of his business partner, Barry retired. He sold Allertex to two former employees who had been with him for over twenty years, and gave his eldest son the American subsidiary he had set up. Barry remains very active in the local community as trustee and supporter of various local charities. He is Chairman of Bradford Conservative Association and Chairman of the Centre for Politics and Public Administration. He was awarded the OBE in January 2014.