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He formed a partnership with another trader, Donald Searle, and in due course they focused on mail-order furniture; dining suites and bunk beds were among their best sellers. Mullard Furniture Industries (Mullard being Searle’s wife’s maiden name) was founded in Wembley in 1964, and opened its first shop in Balham in 1967.
Lister (left) with his early partner Donald Searle (top) and Arthur Soutan (Times Newspapers)
A chain of “cash and carry” outlets followed, while the mail-order service hit problems because too much furniture was being damaged in transit — particularly after British Rail did away with van drivers’ assistants, leaving solo drivers to wrestle with huge furniture packages. The solution was “flat-pack”: MFI’s development of that concept was much influenced by the success of a Swedish pioneer, Ikea, then unknown to British shoppers.
MFI listed on the stock exchange in 1971 and continued to flourish — despite the death of Searle in a gliding accident — by acquiring other specialist bedroom and kitchen brands. Lister’s aim was to be able to sell furniture items at half the normal high-street price, by promising manufacturers very large orders: a folding bed offered by Gamages in Holborn for £20 could be had at MFI for £9.95, and such bargains persuaded shoppers to travel to bigger, out-of-town warehouse stores. Between 1974 and 1984, MFI’s turnover multiplied twentyfold, and profits rose to almost £40 million.
Love of the next deal
A shy man, wary of publicity, Lister was more at ease on the product side of the business than in dealing with people, and was happy to allow his flamboyant managing director Derek Hunt to become the face of the business at its zenith in the early 1980s, when it had more than 150 stores. “The next deal, that’s what I loved,” Lister observed. But he also made sure MFI’s staff were well cared for, and that his suppliers met similar high standards.
When Hunt led MFI into a merger with the supermarket chain Asda in 1985, Lister was able to cash in his remaining eight per cent shareholding for some £60 million. The timing was favourable, because the brand soon began to lose ground against rising competition from other UK retailers, and eventually from Ikea; what remained of the MFI chain ceased trading in 2008.
Lister was able to devote much of the rest of his life to his passion for sailing. He became well-known in the yachting world for his succession of yachts called Whirlwind, in which he cruised extensively and won numerous trophies. In Whirlwind XII he and his wife eventually completed a 200,000-mile, 10-year double circumnavigation of the globe. In 1987 he donated £4 million to establish the UK Sailing Academy at Cowes, which introduces 1,500 children a year to the challenges of sailing.
In his later years, Noel Lister lived quietly in the Bahamas. He married Sylvia Scales in 1955, and she survives him with their son and daughter.
Noel Lister, born December 26 1927, died January 29 2015
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