Sir David's son, Aidan, manages their UK businesses. Their businesses have been accused of tax avoidance, by placing assets under ownership of companies registered abroad and controlled through trusts. Their Press Holdings company owns The Business and The Spectator magazine, and through a wholly owned subsidiary (Press Acquisitions Limited) they also own Telegraph Group Limited, parent company of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.
In 1993 the brothers bought the lease of the island of Brecqhou, off the coast of Sark, one of the smallest of the British Channel Islands.
The Barclay brothers were born within ten minutes of each other in Hammersmith, County of London to Scottish parents Beatrice Cecilia (née Taylor; died 1989) and her husband, Frederick Hugh Barclay, a travelling salesman. The couple had eight other children. Frederick, Sr. died when the brothers were twelve years old, and they left school four years later in 1950 to work in the accounts department at the General Electric Company before setting up as painters and decorators.
In 1955 David married Zoe Newton, a grammar school girl who trained as a ballet dancer, at St John the Baptist Church, Holland Road, Kensington. Despite standing only 4'11" (1.5 metres), Zoe Barclay pursued a modelling career and became the most photographed and highly paid model of her time, appearing on the front of popular magazines such as Picturegoer. She appeared on television and in the Dairy Council advertisements as the “drinka pinta milka day“ girl.
By the end of the 1950s, the brothers were running Candy Corner, a tobacconists and confectioners on the edge of Kensington. However, in November 1960 the business folded when Frederick and Douglas were made bankrupt at the High Court after their landlord seized the shop because they were in breach of the terms of the lease. A notice in the London Gazette at that time announced the bankruptcies, listing a former business interest of Frederick, then aged 26, and Douglas, two years his junior, as a builders and decorators called Barclay Brothers based at the Barclay family home.
Meanwhile, David was registered as a director of Hillgate Estate Agents in 1962, with his wife Zoe as a co-director (she had given up her modelling career to concentrate on her young sons, Aidan, Howard and Duncan). By 1968, however, Frederick was running the family businesses, replacing Zoe on the Hillgate board. He had obtained the discharge of his bankruptcy after David stepped in and paid the creditors. During this time they redeveloped old boarding houses in London, and made them into hotels.
Between 1968 and 1974, the twins received increasingly large loans from the Crown Agents, a government agency designed to help the colonies and developing countries do business in Britain. In 1970 they bought Gestplan Hotels — which operated the exclusive Londonderry House Hotel in Park Lane — from a group of Lebanese bankers. The property crash in late 1973 brought an end to the Crown Agents, and their debts were sold on at a fraction of the original price. In the mid-1970s Frederick met and married Hiroko Asada, née Kuzusaka, a familiar figure among Japanese society in London; she had a son from her previous marriage, Ko Asada Barclay who is married to Sara Love.
From the late 1960s onwards the Barclay brothers continued to build up stakes in a variety of businesses, including breweries and casinos. In 1975, they bought the Howard Hotel, overlooking the Thames at Temple Place. In 1983 they bought Ellerman, the brewing and shipping group for £45m. They later sold its brewing division for £240m. They used the proceeds to buy the Ritz Hotel in London's Piccadilly in 1995. They spent £370 million on Gotaas-Larsen, a Bermuda-based shipping company, and £200 million on the Automotive Financial Group, a motor retail chain in 1994. The brothers are involved in philanthropy and were knighted in 2000 for their support to medical research, to which they have donated an estimated forty million pounds between 1987 and 2000.
In 2004, they were listed in 42nd place with an estimate of £750m on the Sunday Times Rich List, and in 2006, they were ranked 24th with a value of £1,800m. The Barclay brothers' fortune has shot up from £1bn in 2009 to £1.8bn in 2010. In 2012, they topped the Media Rich List with £2.25bn.
In 1983, the brothers purchased Ellerman, the brewing and shipping group for £45m. They later sold its brewing division (for £240m), and in late 1985 its shipping business (to its management). The Ellerman deal helped Barclays develop the strategy of buying companies, breaking them up and profiting from the real estate. The technique of approaching an insider in order to obtain an advantage also set a precedent for later deals: the Barclays approached the Ellerman non-executive chairman, David Scott, at a secret meeting in Monte Carlo. Scott recalled in his memoirs that David Barclay requested an exclusive option to buy the firm – and to keep it secret from all but two directors – in return for a promise that Scott would stay on as non-executive chairman. However moments after signing the sale document, Scott was handed a letter (by the Barclays' lawyer) demanding his immediate resignation on grounds that he had been indiscreet about the offer.
In 2002, the brothers purchased the Liverpool based retail company Littlewoods from its founders the Moores family for £750m. The deal was bankrolled by HBOS, which also took a five percent equity stake in the brothers bidding vehicle, LW Investments. The brothers merged the company with their earlier purchase Shop Direct to form Littlewoods Shop Direct Home Shopping Limited, which operates a majority share of the United Kingdom's home shopping market. They also closed and sold off the Littlewoods department store chain, with the largest parcel of 120 properties being purchased by Associated British Foods for leasing mainly to its subsidiary Primark, while other stores were leased to Marks & Spencer, New Look and British Home Stores.
Two years after the brothers' acquisition of Littlewoods Ltd., HM Revenue & Customs repaid the company VAT that it had charged in breach of EU law. Since October 2004, more than £200 million in overpaid VAT and £268 million in simple interest was repaid to the company. However, Littlewoods argued that the company was owed a compounded interest rate and subsequently sued the HMRC for £1bn.
Delivery company Yodel, a subsidiary of Shop Direct Ltd., has received criticism for its poor service in the past, but has improved over recent years. Yodel (which operates via Home Delivery Network Ltd.) suffered a £130 million loss in 2011.
In October 2006, the Barclays sold handbag.com for £22 million. This was almost all profit: they acquired the website after it was set up as a joint venture between Hollinger International and the Boots Group in 1999. The Handbag group was a collection of four websites designed for female users: the high fashion getlippy.com, the fashion and home life-focused allaboutyou.com, a "specialist pregnancy site" gomamatoday.com and handbag.com.
On 2 February 2009 it was announced that the brothers' Shop Direct Group had purchased the Woolworths and Ladybird brand names for an undisclosed amount, from Deloitte, the administrators of the failed Woolworths Group.
In 1992, they entered the newspaper publishing industry, buying The European newspaper, formerly part of Robert Maxwell's holdings. The weekly paper became a high-end business tabloid, but was closed in 1998.
In 1995 they bought The Scotsman newspaper, and in 1996 appointed former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil to oversee their publishing interests. On 19 December 2005, the Barclays sold The Scotsman Publications Ltd, itself then part of Press Holdings Group, for £160 million to Johnston Press. The Barclays had owned these publications for a decade, and said they intended to use the capital raised on their other interests. During their ownership of The Scotsman the newspaper went through seven editors in nine years.
In 1998 they relaunched Sunday Business with editor Jeff Randall.
In July 2004, they bought The Telegraph Group (now Telegraph Media Group), which includes The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, and The Spectator after months of intense bidding and lawsuits. The Telegraph Group was owned by Hollinger Inc. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the newspaper group controlled by the Canadian-born British businessman Conrad Black. As part of the February 2004 judgment, a Delaware judge, Leo Strine, accused the Barclay brothers of being "less than fully candid", adding they had "remained silent while Lord Black misled the Hollinger Inc. International board", remarks that incurred the brothers' wrath, with Sir David branding the criticisms "grossly unfair".
The brothers' period as newspaper proprietors has been more tumultuous than their property interests. At the Telegraph Group, Murdoch MacLennan made over 100 journalists redundant in 2006, prompting the National Union of Journalists to consider strike action. The Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson was sacked and replaced by Sarah Sands in June 2005, but she lasted just nine months. Patience Wheatcroft from The Times was appointed editor in March 2006. She was replaced by Ian McGregor one year later. In February 2015, Peter Oborne, the Chief Political Correspondent resigned from the newspaper in protest at its editorial direction.
The Guardian has stated that the brothers are tax exiles, and although they reside, at least some of the time, in Monaco (giving Avenue de Grande Bretagne, Monte Carlo as their address) they operate their businesses from an office in the United Kingdom. When asked if he was a tax exile, Sir Frederick stated that he lived abroad for health reasons. The corporate tax arrangements of the Ritz Hotel, which was purchased and refurbished by the brothers in 1995, was the subject of a December 2012 investigation by BBC's Panorama current affairs television programme. The hotel has paid no corporation tax in the UK by legally claiming reliefs for 17 years.
In 1993, the Barclay brothers bought the tenement of the island of Brecqhou, a small sister island of Sark, one of the Channel Islands. Their mock-Gothic castle on Brecqhou, designed by Quinlan Terry, features 3-foot (0.91 m) granite walls, battlements, two swimming pools and a helicopter pad. Since their purchase of the tenement of Brecqhou, the Barclays have been in several legal disputes with the government of Sark over such issues as the Barclays' violation of Sark's law banning motor cars. They have also expressed a desire to make Brecqhou politically independent from Sark – building on the research of William Toplis, the painter, and others, who argued that Brecqhou was not a part of the fief of Sark.
In the mid-1990s, the brothers petitioned the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, challenging Sark's inheritance law, which mandated their island be left to Sir David's oldest son. The brothers wanted to will their estate equally to their four children. Sark's legislature decided to amend the inheritance law, allowing residents to leave property to any one of their children. In 2002, the brothers claimed their property tax was too high, particularly since they maintained Brecqhou's paths and dock. Fearing more litigation, Sark officials cut the Barclays' tax rate.
In 2008 (partially due to legal activity by the Barclay brothers), Sark dismantled its 443-year-old feudal system of government on the premise that this was necessary to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. On 16 January 2008 and 21 February 2008, the Chief Pleas approved a law which introduced a 30-member chamber, with 28 members elected in Island-wide elections, one hereditary member and one member appointed for life. On 9 April 2008, the Privy Council approved the Sark law reforms, and the first elections under the new law were held in December 2008.
On 11 December 2008, the Barclay brothers were in the news for pulling out their investments (which included hotels) from the island of Sark, causing 170 staff to be made redundant, after local voters did not support candidates championed by the Barclay brothers. The brothers had previously warned that if the voters chose to bring back the 'establishment' Sark leaders that are still aligned with the feudal lord then they would pull out of Sark.
After the 2008 election, the brothers claimed that the presence of two unelected figures on Sark's government – the seigneur and the seneschal, the local judge - was unjustifiable. They took their fight to the supreme court, arguing that the two roles break human rights laws that protect the rights of citizens to elect lawmakers. Their challenge was dismissed, but the Barclays said they would continue to fight, taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
On 28 March 2012, BBC Radio 4 dedicated part of its Today programme to analysis of the Barclay brothers' role in Sark. It reported that the islanders were protesting against bullying and intimidation by representatives of the Barclays after a story in their local paper had prompted the only doctor to leave the island. The doctor had used a boat rather than the Barclays' helicopter to transport a patient who was having a seizure to hospital on Guernsey, which was reported in the Barclays' paper as negligent. Despite support from the patient's family and the local BMA, the doctor left Sark after the story, leaving the island without a doctor.