Page last updated at 20:37 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

Profile: The Barclay brothers

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News

The Barclay brothers after receiving their knighthoods in 2000
The brothers were knighted in 2000

The billionaire Barclay brothers have again hit the headlines they always seem so keen to avoid.

They are closing down all of their businesses on Sark in the Channel Islands, with the loss of about 100 jobs, a sixth of the island's population.

The move is just the latest twist in the twins' fight to end the age-old feudal system on Sark.

Sir David and Sir Frederick, owners of the Daily Telegraph and the Littlewoods retail group, have owned the neighbouring private island of Brecqhou since 1993.

In addition to challenging the Sark government or Chief Pleas' claim to have jurisdiction over Brecqhou, the brothers have fought a long legal challenge to make the government hold democratic elections.

The island cannot at the same time treat the Barclay family in the way that it has and expect them to continue investing large sums of money into its economy
Advocate Gordon Dawes

The campaign proved to be successful, and on Wednesday, Sark had its first election to chose a democratic government for nearly 450 years.

However, the Barclay brothers, 73, are said to be unhappy that two hereditary positions will remain at the top of the government, the posts of seigneur and seneschal.

Preliminary results of the election have also shown that the new Chief Pleas will have a majority of elected representatives that did not want the change to democracy.

Whether the brothers' closure of their business interests on Sark - hotels, shops, estate agents, restaurants and building firms - will mark the end of the dispute remains to be seen.

However, they certainly appear committed to hitting Sark - population about 600 - in the pocket.

"Sark doesn't appear to want or appreciate the Barclays' investment and so it doesn't have it," says Advocate Gordon Dawes, who represents the Barclays.

"The island cannot at the same time treat the Barclay family in the way that it has and expect them to continue investing large sums of money into its economy."

Business empire

What is certain, is that the brothers can afford to lose the income from their Sark business interests - they have an estimated combined wealth of 1.8bn.

Daily Telegraph front page
The brothers bought the Daily Telegraph in 2004

Self-made, they built their business empire from modest beginnings.

The sons of Scottish parents, the twins grew up in the 1930s in west London, where they left school early to start out as painters and decorators.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, they became property investors, buying boarding houses and converting them into hotels. This is where they first made money.

In the early 1980s, they acquired the Ellerman Group for 45m, then by the end of the decade they sold its brewing division for 240m, while hanging on to its shipping units.

The cash from the sale was spent when the brothers bought the Ritz hotel in 1995, which they continue to own.

By then, they had made their first foray into the media world, in 1992, when they bought the European newspaper from Robert Maxwell.

In 1995 they bought the Scotsman, before selling it 10 years later.

However, their biggest newspaper purchase came in 2004 when they bought the Daily and Sunday Telegraph from newspaper group Hollinger, following the forced departure of its then boss Lord Black.

Charity work

Alongside their media interests, the brothers continue to own the Littlewoods catalogue-shopping chain, which they bought in 2002 for 750m.

Their purchase of Littlewoods sparked controversy - not to mention accusations of mean-spiritedness - when they scrapped the firm's tradition of giving 1% of profits to charities, shortly after acquiring the chain.

But allies said their actions were those of determined businessmen intent on saving an ailing UK high street icon.

The two were knighted by the Queen in 2000 for their services to charity, and their charitable foundation is thought to have donated many millions to worthy causes over the past 15 years.

As the brothers' business empire has grown over the decades, so has their reputation for being reclusive, and they guard their privacy.

As such they rarely, if ever, give interviews.

It was this desire to avoid the limelight that many commentators say was behind their desire to buy Brecqhou, where they spent 60m building a gothic-style mansion.

However, with their continuing dispute with the Sark authorities again making the headlines, it seems that even living on an island retreat could not completely shield them from publicity.

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