Running two local businesses is no mean feat, but one that Chris Taplin is up for. We popped over to Stone House Hotel, Hawes – his 38-year-old family business – to find out how he switches between hotel check-ins to working with distributors to sell the gin made by his new company, Taplin and Mageean Spirit Company in Leyburn.
What does a typical day look like?
Stone House Hotel is my main priority, so I’ve got to make sure that I don’t lose sight of what’s going on here. I get in about 8:00, 8:30. By that time, all the chefs are here and all the breakfast is on the way. So, I’ll make sure everything’s running smoothly, all the guests are happy, there are no issues from the night before, liaise with key members of staff to see how everything’s gone previously. Everybody works as a team and we all get stuck in and do whatever is required to keep the wheels in motion. So you might find me in a meeting discussing a group booking with the Bentley Owners Club or at the top of a ladder cleaning windows! No two days are the same at Stone House and that’s why I love the job. We’re a family business and have been going 38 years, so a lot of the guests have been coming for a long time. They like to see the familiar faces, so it’s important that we’re around to chat with them, they come back for the continuity and consistently high standards.
Once I am happy that all is well at the hotel, I tend to head down to the distillery later on in the day. There’s only Barry and I down there at the moment so it’s a case of attending to whatever needs doing. Barry is the head distiller, so he looks after all the recipe creation and the distillation process. I take the more mundane aspects such as bottling and labelling. I am learning the entire process from start to finish and last week I did my first full distillation whilst Barry was running a stand at the Great Yorkshire Show. I also look after the business side, the marketing and the financials – cashflow is vital for any business, especially for a new start up. We have big plans for the future, but we have to ensure we can afford to keep the lights on first. Then we’re both busy with events and gin tastings. We’re looking to expand the business, so we’re also talking to distributors. The days are pretty full running both businesses.
Do you find it a struggle sometimes to balance the two businesses?
Yes, it can be. I think initially when I decided to start another business, it was because I wanted to push myself a little bit more. It’s easy to sit back into a comfort zone sometimes and that can lead to complacency. I sometimes feel I maybe have taken on too much and splitting myself between the two businesses is a challenge at times but it’s really a case of prioritising and using time efficiently. With a new business you’ve really got to have a presence, you can’t just let it drift. It can be a little bit stressful because you’re worrying you should be in one place when you’re at the other. It is stressful, but if it was easy, everybody would be doing it wouldn’t they?
I’m enjoying the challenge and I think as the business grows down at Leyburn, we’ll be able to take on more staff and get more help and then hopefully that will free up a bit more time.
How did Taplin and Mageean start?
Last June I invited Barry to the hotel to run a Gin Tasting Evening. He was Head Distiller at Masons Yorkshire Gin at the time. We got talking after the event and decided we had the combined talents to open Wensleydale’s first distillery and rival anything that was on the market today. There are a lot of very average gins out there and so we knew we would have to focus on superior quality spirits. The explosion in popularity of gin over the past 10 years has been staggering and as we were very late to the party, we had to produce something very special. We got talking about the business plan and we started looking at locations and that’s when we found the railway building down at Leyburn Station. The location, size and potential for growth were all perfect.
We knew that we wanted to get the product out in time for Christmas, so we were very busy converting the railway building into a distillery and managed to do that just in time. We did 49 trials to get the four unique recipes that Barry was happy with. We’re using the best botanicals we can get. We also use very small copper stills, which are very inefficient, but they do retain every taste molecule, so you get the best flavour gin possible. We went to see Richard at Campbell’s first, they are very supportive of local food and drink businesses, they took our first batches of gin just in time for Christmas, which was fantastic, and then we went around all the bars and the hotels around the Dales including Stone House and got them into quite a few. I think we’re stocked in over 40 different places now. The feedback has been fantastic. In April we found out that we had been awarded a Silver Medal at the World Spirit Awards in San Francisco for our Signature Edition Gin. This was amazing news and that gave us the confidence that we were heading in the right direction.
Your plans for the next 12 months in business must be quite interesting – we’re talking about an established business and a very new business. What have you got planned?
With the hotel, it’s a case of continual improvements and enhancements, guests are becoming more discerning. They want higher quality facilities when they go away and we’re in the age where everybody reviews everything, so we need to make sure that we’re on our game and standards are as high as possible. We’ve just finished a new dining room extension and we’re looking at moving the bar to where the reception is now to give a nicer bar experience. A few bathrooms are getting refurbished, new carpets, so it’s a continual rolling programme of refurbishing.
With regard to plans for the distillery it’s a case of upscaling our production to meet the demand. We’ve just installed a 300-litre copper still to go with our 100-litre still at the moment. We are working with the Wensleydale Railway to run regular Gin Trains! Passengers will be served to the full range of our gin and tonics whilst enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Dales and hearing all about the history of gin, the process of making it and the story behind Taplin & Mageean. They will then return to distillery at Leyburn Station where there will be a visitor experience including viewing area and shop. Now we have upscaled our production operations we want to build the brand and are currently in discussions with a number of wholesalers and distributors. The export market for quality British gin is also very strong. We’ve got plans to take on a couple of interns this summer from Leeds University. Barry did his master’s degree in Chemical Engineering at Leeds University, so he has some contacts there. We are looking to build a team of Sales Ambassadors who can cover the many food and drink festivals and events around the country.
What have been some of your biggest struggles over the past 12 months?
With the hotel, competition has increased, maybe not in the Yorkshire Dales but in the UK generally, people are cutting rates all the time. With sites like Trivago and booking.com, people are a bit savvier on price now, so they’re shopping around. But having said that, the Yorkshire Dales will always have a draw for a lot of people. And I think if you offer a good service and a great location, then there’ll always be a demand from people looking for a relaxing break.
The challenge has been setting up the distillery with all the number of licenses that are required from HMRC. The red tape is unbelievable, but we feel we are getting ahead now and we now have a fully operational distillery with the capacity to produce some exceptional products.
With a 38-year track record, you’re obviously doing something right. Even on the gin side, you have done a lot in such a short space of time. What would you attribute your successes to?
It’s been all about the service that’s been offered over the years. We’re a family business, it started off with five bedrooms back in 1980 when my parents bought it as a private house. And we’ve now got 24 bedrooms and we employ over 30 staff. It has grown, but we haven’t lost sight of the core values of the hotel. People love coming here because of the location and the friendliness of the staff, and I think it’s the staff, the service and the quality that we offer that’s been key to that success.
With regards to the gin, I think it’s down to the quality of the product and having the belief that all the obstacles can be overcome. Winning the World Spirit Award has cemented the fact that we have created a great product.
How do you go about retaining staff at the hotel? You’ve referenced that you’ve got a great team, what do you do to keep them?
We look after them well and we treat them all as really valuable members of the team no matter what role they do. It’s important that everybody feels valued and they take ownership in the business, and we empower them to be part of the overall success of the hotel.
You may be bucking the trend as turnover in other hospitality places is high. Do you recognise that it’s a wider problem? Do you have any tips for businesses who might be struggling?
Recruitment and retention of quality staff is a major problem in the industry. With the reduction in numbers of staff from the EU we are relying more on the local workforce and with everyone fishing from the same small pool, the choice is limited. To attract staff from outside the area it is vital that we sell the whole experience of living and working in Dales rather than just the job itself.
You’ve got to offer a good salary, but you’ve also got to offer a package that appeals to people. Once you get them here, just do your best to look after them. And the hotel industry is notoriously bad on social working hours, but if you can do anything to help out, maybe offering to work alternate weekends or straight shifts, that could help. It’s one thing attracting them, but it’s another thing keeping them and the more you can offer somebody, the better!
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the business community in Wensleydale?
I think government cuts and lack of funding perhaps. I think Hawes is a good example of how not to lie down and accept that there’s no funding, because they’ve taken over the Little White Bus service, the local petrol station and the community office which offers all kinds of banking services. I think businesses without the funding could struggle because of the rural location. But I think good public transport, affordable housing, attracting new people into the area, not just visitors, but people that want to live here and work here – they are all really key!
How can businesses in Lower Wensleydale contribute to ensuring that the area is an attractive place for young people to live and work?
Living in the Dales is expensive because of the limited amount of properties available, and a lot of second homes pushing the prices up. To attract young people, you’ve got to have the affordable housing and also to go with that, you’ve got to have the infrastructure. You’ve got to have good public transport. You’ve got to have the leisure facilities as well to attract younger people – our nearest swimming pool and cinema are in Richmond!
How do you think business can influence education?
I think businesses need to work with schools to make them aware of the opportunities that are available in different industries in the area. I think a lot of young people leave school thinking the area is not for them and they tend to move away to bigger cities and the bright lights are very appealing, which you can understand. I was the same at that age, I couldn’t wait to move out the Dales, but I think there will be a day when they sit down and think, “Well, actually I want the quality of life the Dales has to offer”.
I think too many students have been directed into higher education, and if they’re not academically-minded, maybe it’s not the right choice for them. Maybe better careers advice and more opportunities to work with industry would help. I think a lot of students go on courses where there’s no end result, so they’ll come out with a qualification, but not many doors open to them. Whereas if they learn some skills in industry that are required by local businesses then there’s a job there for them, and if those jobs are reasonably well-paid, then that would encourage them to stay. I do think more needs to be done with local schools, and I think the work the network is doing with The Wensleydale School and Sixth Form isan excellent example of this.
With more than 20 years’ experience in the local property scene, Brian Carlisle, owner of estate agents J.R. Hopper and Co, is well placed to share his thoughts on the changing demographics of the dales and its impact on business. He is clearly proud to call Wensleydale his home and as he explains here…
Tell us about your business and what an average day might look like.
The business sells and rents houses right across the Yorkshire Dales, from Leyburn in the east, across to Settle in the west and all the way up to Kirby Stephen and Appleby in the north.
There is no such thing as an average day. It could involve going to see people who are thinking about selling or renting their houses, advising them on what their property might be worth, advising them on a marketing strategy, and then putting the house on the market. Putting the house on the market would involve photography and creating descriptions of houses and floor plans to present it in the best possible light. We would then put that information out across the universe on the internet.
Seventy-five percent of our buyers don’t have a Darlington postcode and they’re coming from out of the area, so the internet gets us all around the world to reach them. We would then be fielding questions by telephone and email about the properties. The next part of the day might be showing somebody around a house, meeting them at the property and helping them come to a decision on whether to buy one of our properties.
Having done that, then the work really starts because you’ve got to get from agreeing a sale to a completion which is now taking three or four months. Everything seems to be taking longer and longer. I think people are just much more litigation conscious so they’re looking for a reason not to buy something. Also, the enquiries we’re getting today are 10 times more than they were 20 years ago.
You say 75 percent of houses are bought by non-locals, that sounds alarming. How has that changed over the years?
I’ve been doing this job for 22 years and it has always been the case. It’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds because those houses are turning over, so they’re being sold by people from outside the area.
Roughly a third of those 75 percent are bought by people buying a second home, which might be to let out as a holiday cottage or occasionally for their own private use. Another third are buying a home to retire to, and the last third are people moving to the dales for a better lifestyle, so that may be trying to get children out of inner cities or wherever, or returning to the dales in their 30s, 40s, 50s while they’re still working, but they’re able to return because work patterns have changed and things like that.
If you asked me if I’m I concerned, I would love 15 local occupancy houses on the edge of every village in the Yorkshire Dales to rent and to buy. I think it would benefit the dales immensely, but it takes somebody else’s money to do it.
What are your plans for business over the next 12 months?
Plans for business over the next 12 months are consolidating the existing market. The market across the country has taken a little bit of a pause while Brexit is resolved. We are fortunate that properties in the dales are still turning over. People are still buying, but one or two people are being a little bit cautious so our challenge is to help people realise that there is still a good market and we can still get a good price. Nobody knows what the market’s going to do in 12 months’ time but we’re just going to carry on selling houses and ignore Brexit.
Is it a good time to sell?
It’s a great time to sell at the moment. Prices have risen steadily over the last 10 years since the credit crunch crash. They’re now above where they were then. It’s a good time to sell, and it’s also a good time to buy – it always is.
And what have been the biggest challenges for you in business over the past 12 months?
The biggest challenge over the past 12 has been cashflow and the slow process of sales taking longer and longer. If we are selling £50,000 worth of houses a month and it takes a month longer, then we need another £50,000 of cashflow to cover it. To that end, we’ve consolidated slightly in reorganising our office structure to a main central office in Leyburn and satellite drop-in offices in Hawes, Kirkby Stephen and Settle, where we’ve still got good staff on the ground but without the expense of a static shop which incurs rates and costs on a per-office basis. That’s how we’ve cut our cloth without reducing the service of being out and about at the far end of the dales where people want to be on a Sunday afternoon looking at houses.
You say you’ve been doing this for 20 plus years. What would you say is the key to your success?
Our objective is always to help people move rather than to sell houses or to make money. What most people want to do when they ring us up is to move. They might want to get the best price for the house, or they might want something else, but the bottom line is, they want to move somewhere for a reason. Maybe to be near the grandchildren, to be in a bigger house, to get married, or whatever and that’s great. When people finally get the keys to that new house, it’s a great feeling.
Turning our focus to the wider area and business community, what do you think the future holds for businesses in rural areas such as Lower Wensleydale?
I think businesses have got to use the natural assets that we’ve got here; a tourist area, an agricultural area, a beautiful place to live and bring up children et cetera. That can be combined that with modern technology, the internet, Zoom, Skype and video-calling, so you don’t need to drive to Leeds or London for a meeting. We are using that to show people houses. They’re in Australia, I’m in the top of Swaledale and I can give them a tour of a house and then we can have a Skype call for nothing to discuss it. So I think the future’s still there. The internet is getting better and better and mobile phones are getting better and better. So I think there is plenty of scope for businesses there.
The difficulty is logistics of anything that needs either a lot of people, or a lot of material moving to the top of Wensleydale or the top of Swaledale, then practically, it’s a lot cheaper and easier to do it if you’re near the A1 or the M6.
What do you think the biggest challenges are for the business community in Wensleydale?
I think the biggest challenge is the slow but steady change of the age structure demographic, we have to be honest, less and less people are of working age in the area and if there aren’t houses for them to live in, even if there are jobs, that’s going to be the problem.
I think the other issue is the lack of relatively high paid jobs. It is a problem that the local economy has plenty of minimum living wage jobs but there are relatively few £40K, £50K, £60K salaries, and one person on a minimum wage salary is not going to buy a house in Wensleydale.
Do you think businesses in the Lower Wensleydale region can contribute to ensuring the area is an attractive place for young people to live and work? What can be done?
I think businesses have got to run themselves efficiently and profitably with a view of expansion. They’ve got to be a welcoming place for young apprentices, school leavers, school trainees doing work experience and they’ve got to have a structure that can show ways for staff to have a career, have some sort of pay ladder that they can aspire to and, I suppose, at some stage, looking towards staff involvement in running the businesses. But it is difficult in a small company to create a big promotion ladder or something like that.
A fantastic change that has recently been introduced is to the Yorkshire Dales National Park planning policy for local occupancy, where they have brought in an additional qualification for having a local need, which is that your child is belongs to a local school. It means that people can move from the city, put their children into a local school and that qualifies them as a local which I think is great. It used to only apply to those in local employment or those already living here.
What do you think about the work that the Lower Wensleydale Business Network is doing with Wensleydale School and Sixth Form?
I think businesses working closely with the local school is a fantastic way for the schools and students to realise what is out there and the businesses to share the type of business, financial and customer service skills, that would be helpful to them.
You tend only to see the negative press in the newspapers about how rubbish schools are, about how this is wrong, that’s wrong. I look at the positives and think schools like The Wensleydale School and in the other areas where I do business, in Settle and Sedbergh and Kirkby Stephen, they’re all fantastic schools that are part of their community. My general feeling is that I would be happy for my children to go to any school in Wensleydale or in the Yorkshire Dales because I think they all make a fantastic effort, particularly Wensleydale School.
The Lower Wensleydale Business Network is passionate about helping young people in the area to create a future for themselves that will allow them to stay in the Dales if they wish. This month’s interview is a perfect example of a family who has done just that, so much so, that their business now provides many jobs for young local families and those in surrounding areas. We’re speaking to Allison Calvert, one of the directors of A D Calvert Architectural Stone Supplies, the company responsible for the memorial on the Camp Centre roundabout in Catterick.
Tell us about Calvert’s and how it started.
A D Calvert came about through my husband in 1993. He left school at the first opportunity because academia and further study isn’t for everybody and he was extremely skilled practically. He had the background, the knowledge, the drive and commitment to know where he wanted to go, and it was to create stonework. He gained valuable experience from working in other natural stone companies alongside studying stone masonry.
I’d say his success is down to being open to opportunity in the natural stone field. All our work used to be predominantly done by stonemasons, but because of advanced technology and labour costs and to relieve the uncertainty of staff attendance, we went through a period of not replacing specific staff. Technological advancements within the industry meant we had the reliability and we could speed up work processes using specialist equipment to meet our customers growing requirements. We created the statues on the main roundabout in Catterick Garrison using robotic technology, and years ago that would have taken considerable time to hand carve. Instead, natural stone block was selected, sized and programmed by our specialist technicians on a CNC machine and left to work. Our technicians are extremely skilled and dedicated to getting the fine details accurate. This was achievable using a specialist scanner. The soldiers were scanned and then transferred to our robotised production unit to be later hand finished by our master stonemasons.
What are your goals for the next 12 months?
We need to review our current work load and customer demand which is in all honesty a continual process. There is a need to assess the functionality and effectiveness of our old saws. Some of the fixed machines have lasted since Andrew first established himself here at the stone yard more than 25 years ago. Research, knowledge and expertise in stone has facilitated Andrew to make the correct choice of fixed machinery to ensure good investment and longevity. We are continually trying to expand however we need to come back round and start looking at other technologies and replace the very old equipment, which is still working, but we need to modernise them.
Our other focus is health and safety, which we consider ourselves to be quite at the forefront of in our industry.
We have recently compiled data for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) laboratories and are working with the Stone Federation, which is the official trade association for the natural stone industry. The Federation is an excellent resource and we have been a member for many years. Its role is to co-ordinate all aspects of the industry but unfortunately most of the events are mostly located in London despite there being several stone companies in the north. Knowing this, I’m in discussions to try to get a northern hub established to ensure northern companies aren’t disadvantaged regarding accessing events and seminars. Fortunately, I have expertise in establishing services and networks within healthcare and I’m keen to collaborate with like-minded people within the stone industry.
We’ve set up our programmes of care and monitoring utilising specialist knowledge within our established team and it’s working well. I would like to see other high-risk industries adopt this and learn from good practice.
What would you say your biggest struggles have been over the last 12 months?
The biggest struggle is keeping up with the pace of running a business efficiently, alongside keeping ahead of the industry. Importantly it is also about staff retention. It’s paramount to have a happy workforce that contribute and are willing. We consider ourselves to be forward thinking, approachable and are proud to actively involve our staff in decision making processes for example Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which has increased safety by reducing non-compliance alongside ensuring we don’t waste our money on stock. Our staff know their opinion is valuable and is a high priority on our agenda.
We also have an appraisal system which allows staff to know what we expect of them and allows them to inform us of their expectations. This is accepted very well.
Name one thing you would attribute to your success.
The key I’d say is our dedication, hard work and commitment. People in these positions when they’ve reached a stage where they feel they’re doing well, quite often can take their foot off the pedal. We genuinely enjoy our work and are driven by its success and staff and customer feedback.
My husband has had the drive and the commitment from the very beginning, alongside developing his workforce. We also have effective in-house support structures which are ensuring our company’s sustainability.
How you overcome the challenges around retaining staff?
Our industry requires skilled staff. Appropriate staff selection is essential, we know the needs of our business alongside how our workforce works and the importance of keeping a happy team.
I’d say staff retention is down to the package that you’re offering. It’s about being flexible, but also ensuring mutual respect.
What do you think the future holds for businesses in rural areas such as Wensleydale?
There are teenagers that are committed to attending universities and colleges due to their attainment. Whilst experiencing university life they naturally build their own support structures alongside building a lifetime network of friends. Quite often they establish their career foundations within the city they have studied and in some instances, they may return to the Dales.
Notably because there aren’t that many jobs available in the Dales, we have experienced a large number of applicants for any one job hence most probably why people spread their wings and seek alternative solutions elsewhere. I think David’s ambition to keep young people here is really going to be a challenge, so finding out from the key stakeholders the reasons as to why students don’t return is essential in order to try and halt the exodus that is becoming more and more prevalent amongst our young population.
One other point to mention would be have local jobs fairs to promote the work and opportunities within local Dales businesses and to raise awareness of local opportunities
What would you say the challenges are facing businesses in a rural area like ours?
Transporting goods to the market place at a reasonable cost. I would also say it is accessing facilities to support a business from start-up to maintenance. It would be useful to consider a directory of group services with willing volunteers and points of contact at discounted prices. For example, manual handling training, health and safety training days etc. I do feel that these solutions will potentially evolve from collaboration within the business group if guided well.
What do you think businesses can do to make this an attractive place for people to come to?
If I was somebody thinking of relocating to the Dales, I would want to know of all available resources within the locality including nurseries, schools, entertainment, community projects, activities, cost of housing, affordability, amenities and public transport. Businesses need to promote the Dales on social media platforms within their business marketing, offer good employment packages to entice people away ‘far from the madding crowd’ of inner-city life.
It might be that there’s some consideration given to transport measures, entertainment, clubs, groups, housing, reduced rent for young people. A notification of bedsits and job vacancy bulletins within the area, how people can get to know more about the area, a point of contact, and a website would all be useful. I would promote the ‘We love the Yorkshire Dales Facebook page’ which is a good source of local information.
What do you think about the work that the network is doing with the Wensleydale School and Sixth Form?
I think it is an innovative venture which if managed and monitored effectively will achieve its full potential. This is going to be a challenge, but it appears currently to be a small cohort of students so should be manageable. I think they should open it up to neighbouring schools as well, which I think David is doing. It’s important to also consider looking far and beyond and not just supporting Wensleydale. For those of us who are willing to be involved communication is essential, inviting regular feedback from companies would be beneficial in order to plan events and seminars for businesses and students.
It is also paramount to have driven youngsters on a business course not just ones who are simply filling a gap because they are uncertain of what they want to do. This could be via a selection process to ensure those successful at interview will commit and be motivated throughout.
This month we caught up with Andrew Partridge, a Harmby-based financial advisor, who has more than 30 years’ experience. In this interview he tells us why he is busier than he ever has been, and why he thinks businesses in the Lower Wensleydale region are here to stay.
Tell us about your business and what a typical day looks like for you?
We’re a firm of financial advisors, a family-run firm. There’s Scott, who’s my eldest son, Tom, my youngest son, and Clare who all work for me, as well as my eldest sister who does some admin duties for us a couple of days a month.
First thing in the morning, generally I would be dictating work for Scott to prepare through the day and giving him the files for any upcoming reviews. Then we do a lot of analytical work on our portfolios. Post arrives mid-morning and we tend to deal with it there and then, e.g. withdrawal requests etc.
We have a lot of clients, so most of our time is typically focused on preparing or undertaking client reviews. I spend quite a lot of my time on the road seeing clients. After the clients have been seen, we write to them summarising the meeting and complete any changes to their portfolios or process new business.
The days are pretty full and long – a typical day starts at 8.30am and I can be sat here four nights a week until 8, 9, or 10pm. I do try to take Fridays off now though so it’s not too bad.
What are your plans for business over the next 12 months?
To continue to grow the business. We’ve grown roughly 10 per cent a year for quite some time. Business is very strong; we get a lot of referrals from solicitors, accountants, and existing clients. Effectively I just want to maintain that growth and continue to invest in the business.
Also, we’re introducing more software to help us improve the service that we’re delivering to our clients, and principally getting to grips with that software will be our main objective over the next 12 months
What’s your average client like?
We deal with all sizes of clients, but on average they would tend to be high net worth. The typical client would probably have investable assets of £200,000 plus, on average. A lot of advisors will refuse to see a client now who doesn’t have £100,000 of investable assets. We won’t see everybody depending on the circumstances, because we can’t due to the regulatory costs of putting a client on the books and then maintaining that relationship. I do have an acorns to oak trees view though. If it’s a son or daughter of an existing client, for example, we will encourage them to invest from the very beginning, whether it’s a £100-a-month saving or pension plan just to get them on the ladder and start saving at an early age. We don’t make any money on cases like that, but it’s good that they start saving. They will one day inherit well (hopefully) and all being well we will continue to look after the money because of the existing connection.
It is a challenge being able to handle the volume of inquiries that we do get now, so we have to be selective purely because of time constraints.
What have been the biggest struggles for you over the last 12 months would you say?
Definitely time management due to the volume of work. Some of the volume is to do with challenges within the business through new directives that have been issued regarding the way we report to clients and the information we have to provide for them, like a breakdown of all the product charges and adviser fees, which is adding a couple of hours work to every client file and puts us under an awful lot of strain. That’s where Scott’s been extremely helpful because he does a lot of that. That’s been our biggest challenge in the last year. Regulation in the financial services industry is certainly the biggest issue the industry faces. The second is the volume of new business enquiries.
What’s caused the increase in regulation in the last few years?
It’s about giving the client a better understanding of the costs and charges on the products. Commissions were effectively banned, and we moved to fee-based charging. There is more open disclosure, which is a very good thing and I endorse it 100 per cent. Previously costs were masked in the product charges. Products nowadays are far simpler and the charges much simpler to understand. The move to fees effectively killed the bank and building society adviser network. They effectively dictated the terms to the insurance companies, took huge fees and the client paid through an increased product charge. It finished them off more or less overnight. Anything we do to make it clearer for the client, in my eyes, is a good thing.
We have obviously picked up clients from their withdrawal. Most financial advisors in the UK who are any good are absolutely flat out.
What are your thoughts on the future of market towns like Leyburn?
I think we’ll always be protected because the main big retailers are not coming into the sticks, so that’s a positive for us. I think the small independent retailers are vital to the community, and I think they provide a brilliant service. I think anybody who has a business that supplies goods that potentially can be bought online is under the biggest threat. It’s not your newsagents; it’s not your food shop; it’s not your butcher; it’s not your café. It’s those that sell maybe fridges, electrical items, TVs, kettles, anything like that. They’re going to come under some threat because people just go in, price it, look online, click the button and then Amazon delivers it the next morning.
I think there’s a tradition in the Dales that if we can keep a business going, then we’ll do that, but the internet is a threat for everybody. I think we’ll survive though.
How do you think local employers can overcome the challenges or retaining staff?
It’s not an issue for me, so it’s difficult to comment. I’m not sure which businesses are suffering the biggest challenges. If it is hospitality which is the main area of concern, they tend to employ lower paid employees, and a lot of them are potentially immigrants. I think they’re feeling a bit of pressure now with what’s going on, so they’re beginning to drift away maybe. I think a lot of us aren’t prepared to do some of those jobs, yet they are. That’s a difficulty.
I think housing affordability is a very big issue for everybody and especially if you are in one of the lower tier jobs. There simply isn’t enough quality affordable housing either to rent or buy so youngsters have to move to where they can afford a house.
Do you think young people, in that sense, are at a disadvantage?
It depends on what line of work you are after. In financial services, for example, there are very, very limited opportunities without moving to the cities because that’s where everything generally tends to be based. Your big accountancy practices, your big law firms, your big financial advisory firms, they’re in Harrogate, Leeds, York, Newcastle, Teesside.
There’s very little on our doorstep. Local businesses only take on an odd apprentice here and there. It’s always going to be limited. I think if you’re driven and you want a career, you possibly need to move. You’ll be driven away otherwise. The opportunities for professionals in the Dales are extremely limited. For other trades suc as joiners, builders, HGV drivers there are more opportunities.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the business community in the area?
A lot of the people I deal with are one-man bands. Small business enterprises and most of them are extremely busy. It can be a struggle getting a tradesman, so I think they are okay. For a larger business, I would say it’s probably technology and the speed with which it advances. It’s constantly evolving. We can buy software for just about anything we do, but it comes at a price and then you must know how to use it and the training is generally very expensive. Grandpa’s generation never had terabytes of information to deal with or the ability to post a review on anything and everything. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Google or Amazon, the digital world is playing a huge part in everybody’s lives. It’s such a powerful medium and it’s changing how we work in all walks of life at an amazing pace.
How can businesses influence education?
Schools do not teach pupils anything about finance in the real world. You’re not taught about loans, mortgages, credit cards, investments, pensions, or personal contract purchases etc. I accept as a parent we have a duty to educate but more should be done to at school to educate young people. That’s just from our perspective, but it doesn’t matter what walk of life you are going into meeting individuals who work in the business can give them a better insight as to what it entails, what you need to get into it and what qualifications you need to do a particular job. Getting business people into schools so they hear it straight from the horse’s mouth on what it’s actually like, can only do good in my eyes.
What do you think about the work the Lower Wensleydale Business Network are doing with the Wensleydale School and Sixth Form?
I think it can only be positive. I think in some respects it’s difficult because, certainly in financial services, we couldn’t bring somebody into the business because of the confidentiality of the information. For me, while I’m prepared to do a talk to some young people, I couldn’t mentor somebody for two weeks and show them what I do because our industry is built on trust. The information we have is so confidential, and that will apply to other professionals such as solicitors and accountants. That presents real difficulties for the business network for anybody looking to enter one of those careers.
I do like what they’re doing. Anything they can do to give youngsters a feel for what opportunities exist and to promote people to stay in the Dales has got to be a positive.
Following on from that point, how do you think the network can be doing more to help businesses?
I think they provide a collective voice and which means we can lobby a lot more effectively, whether it’s about business rates, parking issues or broadband or anything else. From that perspective, it’s got to be good.
In this new series, we get to know businesses owners across Wensleydale a little better and get their take on the key issues affecting businesses in the area. To kick us off we speak to Keith Garrard, Managing Director of Milners of Leyburn, who took over the family business with his wife Leonie from his father-in-law 12 years ago, making them the 5thgeneration to run the business.
How important are independent retail businesses like yours to the Dales?
Independent shops are massively important as they give a totally different experience to customers than high street shops in larger towns. If you include a traditional market town with a busy atmosphere then you have a powerful offer. People like Leyburn because of its friendly community and traditional values, which they quite find reassuring in a fast moving world.
Small businesses in the Dales help keep the community together as people still like to deal with real people. Ultimately business has to be driven by what consumers want which is quality goods at competitive prices, high customer service and experience that leaves a strong impression so they will come back.
We have to be on this every day as we have a very vast range of customers including traditional Dales people; incomers; second home owners; and visitors that have come from cities and want to kick back and relax.
Milners has changed massively since we took over and is firmly back on track. A lot of local people are using us as they find us helpful, competitive on cost and we offer a strong, reliable service.
However, the face of retail is changing quickly and we don’t fully understand the impact it will have on places like Leyburn in the long term. There is a millennial generation that want convenience, experiences and not material wealth, and who aren’t scared to challenge the status quo. We will have to adapt our businesses to suit these needs.
Do you think there will be a time when you will have to sell online, or do you think that what you’ve got is strong enough to keep going without online sales?
We have changed our business completely and become a destination store offering a great customer service and experience and we currently use social media to engage with potential customers to drive them to the shop.
I think the future for us is to find a way to retain our traditional values and offer a convenient service as our business is all about people and forming relationships. The internet offers a different service that is growing in demand and we need to use it to complement our current offer.
What’s make me angry is when a potential customer uses our goods, books and services and then buys online from an anonymous company, as it goes against our business and personal values. It doesn’t happen much, but is on the increase and is mostly by people from outside the area.
The time is coming when people will say, “we’re not sure about this anonymous online selling, we actually feel there’s a middle ground”, as I think there is a basic human need for interaction with other people. I think there’s a place for physical stores coupled with technology, high quality service and experience and that’s where we want to be. I think there’ll always be a place for face-to-face service, however, if we think we can just sit here and do nothing we would be foolish.
How important is customer service as a differentiator?
A million per cent. It’s what we are, it’s our USP.
How do you go about retaining staff in this area?
We have a very low turnover of team members because we look after them, and make sure we recruit well. For example, if I have an apprenticeship opening, then I will take them to Penley’s and have an informal chat before an interview, as I did with my current apprentice Alice. I want to see if the person’s got the right personality for the business, as it’s not just the role I’m thinking about, it’s the person. Could I put this person in front of my customers? Would this person represent the business in the way I want them to? And can I help them grow? Do they want to grow? What is it they want? These questions are important so that we can help them, as well as them help us. Alice was very hungry to succeed, but didn’t want to go to university, she had a very good attitude and a lovely persona which fitted completely with the business.
My team have a lot of autonomy to develop their roles within the business and are constantly seeking ways to improve the way the business runs, and the success of the business is primarily due to them. They know that they have my support and that if they have any personal emergencies then this always takes priority. They also have a degree of flexibility so that they can fit in family commitments.
Would you say that having a strong team is helped by the fact that you have a business that works 12 months of the year, rather than in seasons?
Yes, to a certain extent but business patterns are totally unpredictable at present.
How do you think can business influence education?
By being realistic and letting young people know it’s OK not to be academic and to go university if they feel it’s not right for them. We have some fantastic business leaders in the community and we need to develop them into the future generation of business leaders.
Unfortunately, I think the present school system is geared around getting everyone into higher education and some teachers have not experienced life outside of the education system themselves and so can’t offer real life advice. Business can fill this gap and encourage young people to focus on what they are good at and bring out their best.
How do you retain young people in this area?
Ultimately the area needs to be attractive to them to give them a reason to stay. This could be many things such as sports, leisure, career opportunity, family, friends.
People like me want to find them, snap them up and give them the opportunity to make something of themselves. There should be places for people in finance, hospitality, every walk of life, degree-qualified, or no qualifications, it doesn’t matter. They should be encouraged to seek out the opportunities for themselves and develop them.
Also, we’ve got to look at the young people as individuals. My daughter is doing her A-levels and has started a T-shirt business. She’s printing her T-shirts and set up her own website and getting orders, she said, “Dad, what happens if this takes off?” And I said, “Go for it!”
What are your plans for business over the next 12 months?
What’s been your biggest struggle over the last 12 months?
The biggest problem is that the business rates doubled in Leyburn in 2016 and online businesses do not pay anything like the rates the high street does, so it’s not a level playing field. I’ve been lobbying hard to try and get a better understanding, but have come up against a brick wall with the government, it’s been awful. Also, the weather gave us a big hit in March when people didn’t want to come out and we were flooded out in the thaw.
What do you think about the work that the Lower Wensleydale Business Network is doing with young people?
I think the work that the network does is great but needs to be more visual so businesses can see what they are doing, I think the work done on encouraging apprentices with the school is vital, but it all needs to be more joined up. It needs to have more people in the community, in business and the school pulling it together. I think it would be great if we could somehow get back to having a monthly business meeting locally where we can get some really good people sitting round the table sharing ideas, and really get some enthusiasm going again.
And finally, what could the network be doing to help local businesses?
Looking to the future, collaborating and helping people to share best practice. And I think the Facebook group is great, you should keep going with that.