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Sir Lawrie Barratt

Founder of house-building empire;

Born: November 14, 1927; Died: December 19, 2012.

Sir Lawrie Barratt, who has died at the age of 85, was the man who founded the best-known house-building company in the UK. At the height of its success in the 1980s, with its famous television advert featuring Patrick Allen and a swooping helicopter, it seemed to be the company that best understood the growing feeling that everyone should own their own home. Even Margaret Thatcher was a customer.

However, Sir Lawrie did not start out in the building trade. A Tynesider, he left school at 14 and trained as an accountant. When, in the early 1950s, he tried to buy a house, he was frustrated by how expensive they were, so he bought a plot of land near Newcastle-upon-Tyne and built his own for £1750.

That single four-bedroom house was the beginning of what would become a house-building empire responsible for more than a quarter of a million homes across the UK. Sir Lawrie bought the plot of land opposite the house he had built and built another two semi-detached homes and sold those for £2750. Barratt Developments was founded in 1958 and its first housing estates, Parklands, was built nearby. Sir Lawrie always believed the key to success was marketing and his company became a master at it, creating a brand that was popular across the UK, even if it was sometimes the butt of jokes about the cheapness of the homes.

The first TV adverts with Patrick Allen jumping out of a helicopter appeared in 1977 and promoted Barratt's starter homes for £7000. The trick was that the company made the complicated process of buying a home seem easy for customers, as Sir Lawrie once explained: "They had to find a solicitor, find a mortgage and all the hire purchase for white goods. We translated all that into virtually one-stop shopping.

"We took account of everything and put it into a single financial outgoing. We looked at what people earned, worked out a multiple of three times their income and from that we could work out what people could afford to buy."

The company then worked backwards to calculate how many square feet of house they could afford to build. "We wrapped the whole thing up into a package," said Sir Lawrie, "and that gave people a certainty about what their house was going to cost them."

The trajectory of the business was not always up, however; it suffered two major setbacks – first, scare stories in the 1980s about their building techniques and then recession in the early 1990s. The company was twice the target of ITV World in Action documentaries that criticised Barratt's timber frame building technique.

Sir Lawrie responded by taking his company upmarket, building bigger and posher houses. One of them, in Dulwich, was bought by Mrs Thatcher as a place to retire to when she left Downing Street. In the end, she felt it was too far from Westminster and rarely stayed there.

Sir Lawrie himself retired twice. The first time was in September 1988 but he returned three years later after its healthy profit had turned into a £100million loss. He then retired again, this time for good, in 1997, having returned the company to good health. He remained life president and a significant share holder in the company.

He had three homes: one in Corbridge in Northumberland, another in Antibes and a 4500-acre estate in Yorkshire. Two years ago, at the house in Northumberland, he and his wife Lady Sheila suffered a harrowing experience when three masked men entered their home and tied them up. The raiders, who were armed with crowbars, bound and gagged the couple before leaving with expensive jewellery.

The company Sir Lawrie founded now employs more than 4000 people and has 25 divisions across Britain. Mark Clare, the current chief executive, said Sir Lawrie had the vision to understand how deeply-rooted the desire for home ownership was and set out to meet that aspiration by designing and building high-quality, affordable homes.

Sir Lawrie, who was knighted in 1982, had varied interests away from business including golf, windsurfing and waterski-ing. He was also involved in charity work, helping to raise money for the Red Cross by opening the gardens of his home in Northumberland to the public every year. His greatest achievement is probably this: he entered the housing market when most people rented their homes and left it with most people owning them.

He is survived by his wife Sheila and two sons, David and the garden centre tycoon Peter Barratt.

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