Throughout this year we have heard from local businesses who have kindly given us an insight into their businesses as well as shared their thoughts on the future of young people in our area. This month, we’re delighted to be speaking to Julia Polley, Headteacher of our educational partner, The Wensleydale School and Sixth Form. Here, she shares about her passion to ensure the school tailors its offering to the rural young people it serves and why she’s had to treat the school like a business in order to stay on track.
Tell us a little bit more about your role and what a typical day might look like.
I know it sounds cheesy, but there isn’t one. Every day is different. As a headteacher, unusually, I still teach, so I might be teaching, I might be dealing with recruitment and staff issues, Human Resources, supporting staff. Today for instance, I’m taking a new student around and I always try talk to new students and parents. I also look at data, go to county meetings about finance, which sounds very boring and it probably is, but my day-to-day is just so varied. No two days are the same.
How big is the school?
The school has just under 400 students, which is tiny in terms of a secondary school, and that includes the sixth form which is very small but there’s a reason for that. We’re growing the numbers hopefully over the next few years with the changes that we’ve made.
We’ve got 24 feeder primary schools and we are pulling from as far away as RAF Leeming, obviously Catterick Garrison, all the little primary schools up to Reeth and then going the other way up to Hawes. So geographically it’s massive, but the demographic in this area has fewer little people because people struggle to find work, so we’re pulling from everywhere.
What would you say your top three goals are for the school over the coming year?
We have to improve and grow the Business and Innovation Centre for post-16s, that’s one of the top priorities. We are have taken in more Year Sevens this year than we were expecting, which is great. We need to continue marketing that and growing numbers because schools are financed per pupil. At the moment in this area we’re funded at £4k pounds per pupil, which is going up, so Boris tells us, to closer to £5k which would be great. But just to compare that to down south in Northampton, they get £9k per pupil. It can be more in London and the Southeast, so North Yorkshire is poorly financed in terms of ‘per pupil’.
So, the budget is our number one goal. Budgets across North Yorkshire schools are very, very tight. Last year we had to do a complete restructure of staffing. We have stripped everything back to absolute bare essentials. There isn’t a lot of what we call slack and there isn’t a lot of spare teaching hours anywhere, which puts a lot of pressure on the staff because they have to just do what they have to do.
Is there a reason why North Yorkshire gets less money?
This is something that the North Yorkshire local authority are campaigning quite hard on and they are lobbying parliament, and I’m part of the North Yorkshire Schools Forum, which is made up of headteachers who actively lobby for better funding. Rurality generally is poorly funded.
On top of that, North Yorkshire have to fund transport because we have a lot of distance and sparsity. The way the schools are funded is not just on per pupil, but it’s all sorts of other deprivation characteristics, but they’ve reduced sparsity funding – we’re stuffed from two ends. It feels unfair at times, but we have to do what we can.
Third goal; we’re currently are an Ofsted Good School. When I joined in 2016, we managed to retain our Good grading, which is great. We will be due Ofsted again in the next two years and I want to maintain or improve on that to show that we have got good quality education here.
The way the Ofsted grade schools has changed. The new framework actually will suit us better because it’s about developing the wider child, it’s not focused entirely on academic results.
What is the best part of your role?
The students. I’ve worked in a number of schools further down South Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, but the students here are polite and respectful and they want to learn, they’re happy and they are generally well-behaved. We have to remember they’re teenagers and teenagers are tricky, but they’re also outdoorsy and healthy. We have less of the issues that you might find in schools in city areas or larger schools.
I’d never go back to a big school. This is a nice size to be and you know everybody. I’ve also made a conscious effort to live in the community. Most headteachers don’t do that, they choose to live away. I know everybody and I see everybody around, and I think it’s important that I’m accessible and the parents can see that I’ve got an interest in the area and in the community.
What would you say the most challenging part of your role is?
Budget. Definitely the budget and lack of resources. The school was built in 1959 – we’ve got the original windows and the staff toilets are the originals. It needs some money to bring it up to standard, but there isn’t any. It is frustrating when you want to use CAD or CAM design or laser printers and cutters, but we haven’t got the money at the moment to finance that sort of stuff. I think we do well on what we’ve got. The flooding actually helped us in some respects because we’ve had new flooring and decorating.
Tell us more about the Business and an Innovation Centre.
When I started here in 2016 the local authority told me two things, I had to do something about the budget and post-16s. Traditionally, schools that have post-16s deliver A Levels or vocational Level Three courses. In this area we’ve got the Richmond Secondary School that can deliver 25 different A Levels because they’re bigger than us. You’ve got Darlington QE Sixth Form Centre – they do about 56 A Levels, and when I arrived, we were doing nine and we had small numbers. When you’re teaching A Level, you need a group of students who can discuss and evaluate, and we weren’t able to do that when only delivering nine subjects in groups as small as three – that isn’t economically viable and isn’t good for the kids. So, we had to make a decision to do something different because we can’t compete with Darlington, we can’t compete with Richmond and shouldn’t do.
David Poole and other members of the business network came in and my first couple of months and they grilled me quite hard and they said: “What are you going to do?”
We had to decide. The students who want to stay with us post-16 often don’t want to go to university, and often come from either local farming businesses or other businesses. They were very interested in business so we decided to create something that was very business focused, to allow those young people to get the skills, which the LWBN told me they needed in order to enter business at 18, or they could still go to university if they wanted to, to continue their education. That’s where the Business and Innovation Centre has come from. We deliver B-Tech Level Three, Business and Enterprise. It’s the equivalent of two A Levels. They then do either a Sociology or Psychology A Level on top of that, so they’ve got their three A Levels. The biggest USP is that they are linked with a local business. They have a business mentor that they work with fortnightly and they also work in the business as a placement and that gives them real business knowledge and understanding of the theory that they’ve been taught so that they can see it in practice. Nobody else does that – this is very new. It’s going to take time to grow, but it definitely was the right decision.
And can a student do conventional A Levels if they wish?
Not here, that’s all we do. There are plenty of providers who do standard A Levels.
What we’ve done lower down the school to try and produce a “market” of students who want to stay with us and we introduced GCSE Business two years ago. This year’s Year 11 are the first year to go through with GCSE Business and we’ve got massive uptake – 60 kids out of 74 take business. We’re hoping as we go forward that we get a nice core of students who will stay with us.
Given the limited opportunities that exist for young people in the area, what do you do as an educational provider to inspire them?
We have businesses come in and we organised something called “A Conversation With”, and I think we had over 50 different businesses and careers in last year who taught to groups of Year Nines to 11s – it’s a bit like speed dating!
We’ve also overhauled our tutor programme and everything is focused on careers and aspirations. There’s something called the Gatsby Benchmarks and schools have to now demonstrate that they are doing these eight Gatsby Benchmarks in careers education. The students get completely independent careers advice and often getting people in to talk about what they do is the only way to inspire kids.
The other thing is, it comes down to good quality teaching – if you’ve got good quality teachers, they can make the subject come alive and they can link it to different career paths and they can show you why they’re doing percentages in Maths and if they own their own business they have to understand cashflow, finance and budgets.
I think also parents probably need to play a big role in this. We haven’t done as much with parents yet, but we would like to.
The parents had been very, very supportive. Challenging quite rightly at times, but they get the direction we’re going in and they can see what we’re trying to achieve, and we’ve got more and more parents who are volunteering to do things and come in and talk about their job roles. The LWBN have been superbly supportive and they come in and they give up their time and that’s what the kids need to see.
Why would you say the partnership with LWBN is important?
Everybody in the network is so supportive and they want to help; they’re interested in what we’re doing. When I first arrived, David Poole specifically said: “We’ve been wanting to work with the school for ages and it’s never quite happened”. We had to make a really conscious effort to make that happen and we’re very, very grateful to the mentors who’ve supported the first group of students throughout. It’s because it’s local and relevant to the area, the businesses know what the barriers are here, which are very different to elsewhere. We’ve got such a diverse range of businesses, I was quite staggered about what we’ve got here from technology, IT, and marketing and business all the way through to farming and agriculture. There’s a lot.
What advice would you give to a business who perhaps wants to support a young person but doesn’t really know how?
If you’re interested, we’d like to simply discuss what we do. The best thing to do is give me a ring or drop me an email and come in and talk to us. I know that any businesses that are part of the network can talk to David and he would put them in the right direction. We just want as much exposure for the kids to all the different types of businesses.
How can businesses contribute to ensuring this is an attractive area for young people? What can a business do to change issues around retention of young people?
Education has changed quite a lot in the last few years and having a good understanding of what the new grade system means and knowing what it is that the kids are studying for example, helps. The business network has been very clear with me about what personality, skills and qualities the kids need and that’s what we’re trying to instil through business education and all our teaching.
It’s also about making it clear to the students what you can achieve and that actually doesn’t matter where you are in the country. Locality now shouldn’t be a barrier to developing business networks. In fact, one of our Year 13s from last year, has already started his own online business from his bedroom and that was mostly through the support of the business network who just inspired him to say: “I can do this. It doesn’t matter that I’m in Reeth, I can still do this”.
Do you think areas like this have potential for young people in the long-term?
I absolutely do. What a fantastic place to live in. It’s a good quality of life and actually, you know, the transport links are pretty good. I know the bus routes are not so good, but once young people are up and mobile, it can be done. And technology is getting faster and we’re getting faster internet so there shouldn’t be any barriers.
Today, we sit down with Andrea Lewis, Agency Associate Director at well-established estate and land agents, GSC Grays, Leyburn. Here she tells us about the company’s huge expansion and move to Colburn, why diversification is important for local businesses and some of the benefits and challenges of affordable housing.
Tell us a bit about the company and what a typical day might look like for you?
GSC Grays is quite a diverse company. People probably know us through the estate agency branches but our services stretch across the entire rural sector – from farm and country home sales to farm business and estate management, through to planning and development and renewables. This makes our day-to-day work quite varied. Most often, I begin my day at Leyburn, I cover the whole of the Yorkshire Dales, up towards Richmond and across over towards Northallerton. We start the day with a team meeting, so we are all on track to deliver our service and to forward-plan activities to meet those goals. Then, I spend a lot of time on the road and sat with people in their homes providing market appraisals, which is a very enjoyable part of my job. It’s a great pleasure to be involved in people’s lives for a small but very important amount of time. There’s also quite a bit of desk work as well, including pulling high quality brochures together to make sure that properties look fantastic when we get them online, day-to-day managing of the business, and keeping in touch with both buyers and sellers. In the town, we’re a well-recognised, well-visited office on the high street. We know a lot of the residents and we get a lot of walk-in traffic, from both locals and visitors who are holidaying in the Yorkshire Dales and end up wanting to live here.
We’ve got a great team of people, in Leyburn and across the whole company. I would say we are a highly motivated team dedicated to getting the best price we can for our vendors with the minimum of stress.
What’s the plan for the next 12 months?
We will continue to try and expand. The marketplace we’re dealing in has changed a lot in the last two to three years with online agencies becoming more prevalent, but the type of houses we deal with and their locations require face-to-face contact. For us this is an opportunity for growth. We would also like to increase the level of stock that we’re dealing with. We’re pushing down towards Masham and thanks to our involvement with the Swinton Estate our presence there is growing.
What would you say have been some of the biggest struggles over the past 12 months?
The ever-looming Brexit. It’s not an excuse, but some people are sitting on the fence with it and won’t bring their houses to the market for that reason. People sometimes do a speculative move and think: ‘I’ll just put my house on the market and see what happens’, and Brexit has impacted that group of people, but that’s what makes for a big, dynamic market.
As a business we’ve expanded massively over the last 12 to 24 months. We’ve taken the premises over in Colburn, which is where our land colleagues, country homes, professional services, estate management and sales progression unit are, and we’re working now to make sure all the facets of the business work together and are part of that continuing growth.
What do you attribute to the company’s success?
I think our employees are probably the number one thing. We have got really good people in all sectors of our business. Attention to detail runs across the board, and it needs to. Plus, there’s always an expert somewhere. If I’ve got a gap in my knowledge, there’s always somebody in the company that can help, be it to do with planning or land management and sales. Brand is probably number two. I think people are familiar with and like our brand, I often go to see people who have invited us into their homes because they like how we look and want to see their home under that banner.
Retention of staff is a big problem in areas like ours. Have you had any challenges retaining staff, or has it been different for you?
Being an estate agent is a less transient job than some others. Sometimes it takes a little while to get the right person, and also the right mix of people. I think once you’ve got them, you’ve probably got them for a number of years. For GSC Grays, our focus is on finding and retaining the right people. Because of this approach our staff retention rates are high. In Leyburn specifically, our team works well together, is close knit, and we also have a lot of fun in what is a fast-paced sector.
As a company we do employment fairs, particularly with Harper Adams, which is a rural university. We’ll take students on summer placements, for a year in industry and often they will come back to join the company once they have graduated. For new and existing staff we have a robust training and development programme which nurtures and guides our employees to help them reach their career goals.
What do you think the future holds for businesses in rural areas, such as Wensleydale?
I think diversification could be key to the future of local businesses. For example, we deal with a lot of estates and land and these owners have got to look at different ways of making the thing they’ve had all the time, work for them in a different way. I suppose similarly, diversification is probably important for businesses in Lower Wensleydale.
In your opinion, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing rural business communities?
Employment and finding the right people for jobs. It’s not a difficult place to drive around, but everywhere you go takes a long time, so I think that’s a factor. It’s not a densely populated area to choose applicants from and many of the younger residents are moving away once they are through their education.
I think the work the business network is doing with the schools is fantastic, because it is important that young people here have the opportunity to continue to live in the area once they have completed their education. A high proportion of clients that we sell to are slightly older, often retiring to the area, rather than young families.
What are your thoughts on affordable housing and local occupancy for young people in the area?
They’re necessary because they help young people, perhaps from farming communities, to get on the housing ladder. From that perspective it’s important. However, they can be tricky to sell sometimes when those people want to move on because their value is capped. Incomers to the area, who are the main buyers, don’t qualify to buy these homes so this can create a challenge for the seller of a home with a local occupancy restriction on it. Without them, there would be little opportunity to buy. It would appear there is more of these affordable houses being included in new schemes, so as it becomes more prevalent, it should drive a larger share of the property market as a whole.
How do we make Lower Wensleydale a more attractive place for young people to live and work?
Well I think what David’s doing is amazing. He has got such passion and energy and the work he is doing with the schools is amazing.
Also, getting back to diversification, there are quite a lot of people who work from home and increasing numbers of people that we sell to work from home. In terms of improvements, improving connectivity is key because that would bring more people who work from home to the area and it could create more possibilities for people already living that lifestyle. It might also bring some different businesses into more rural communities – ones that might be beyond the norm of what you’d expect to see.
Stuart Hall is one of the directors of the recently formed Hall and Birtles Solicitors, made up of two established law firms with more than 60 years’ experience combined. Here, he gives us an insight into what’s involved in running a modern Wensleydale-based legal business.
Tell us a bit about the business and what a typical day looks like for you?
Previously I was working with my father, John Hall, who still works here. He’s been a solicitor for 40 years in the Dales. He’s now a consultant and it was just a good idea to merge the previous business with Alastair Birtles of Hawes. Alistair Birtles is a similar age to me and also had a ‘father and son’ set up, so we thought we’d bolt on the two practices, and become a stronger outfit. We merged the two law firms in 2016.
Typically, I work a nine-to-five day, although generally I’m in before then, my day is mostly spent behind the desk, checking emails – a lot of emails. The post has to be checked, files have to be dictated, and I deal with a lot of conveyancing, people moving house, and we have weekly completions, so you’ve got to make sure that everything’s sorted. This includes liaising with all the other stakeholders, the estate agents, the lenders, the clients and a lot of phone calls.
I deal with predominantly property work. Debby Parish is our family solicitor, so she deals with divorces, matrimonial work, children matters. We also advise on and deal with probate matters, Wills, Lasting Powers of Attorney and Agricultural law.
What made you follow in your father’s footsteps?
I just stepped into it, and before you know it, twenty years later, I’m still sat here, but obviously it’s worked, because bizarrely I enjoy it! It’s important to enjoy your work because it’s a long career, isn’t it?
My father was a solicitor, I didn’t really know what to do, so I studied law at university, and then I got the job around here, then set up with my father, and here we are.
And what does business life look like in the next twelve months?
We’ve probably become busier since we’ve merged. Is busy good? You can be too busy. I think sometimes you need to take a step back, but it’s so difficult, just like many other businesses, so focusing on time management is one thing. Besides that, more or less the same again.
We have recently employed Kevin, who works in the Leyburn office, he’s training to be a legal executive.
What has been the biggest struggle over the past twelve months?
Biggest struggle in my industry is management and regulation.
We are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and there doesn’t seem to be a month that goes by without having to file some sort of report with them. Also, we act as agents for the Yorkshire Building Society, and herein lies further regulation, so we’ve probably got two aspects; we’ve got the regulation of the solicitors side, and also the regulation of the Building Society. For me, that’s been a pressure.
And while we’re talking about the Yorkshire Building Society, was it a standalone business before you became the agents, or has that always been the arrangement?
No, when I set up with my father in 2004, traditionally towns had building societies. There was the Darlington in Leyburn, and there was the Halifax, and they would attach themselves to a solicitor’s office, or an estate agency, and gradually, over time, they’ve moved out of the market. With the Yorkshire Building Society, we approached them and it sort of fitted, and we’ve been with them for the last fifteen years.
What would you say is the key to your long-standing success?
I think it’s the commitment, you can’t just treat it as a nine-to-five. It’s a lot more than that, it involves nights and weekends to make sure it all works, plus enthusiasm, doing a good job, and getting repeat work. Most of our work is repeat work on personal recommendations.
And is it worth it?
Ask my family, who probably rarely see me. Is it worth it? Yes, I shouldn’t really complain at all. You’re not going to earn what a lawyer would earn in London, but equally, it takes me five minutes to get to work, sometimes I can cycle in and I do like the countryside. It’s a work-life balance, isn’t it?
In rural areas like ours, staff retention can be a bit of a problem, how do you go about retaining good staff?
I think it’s trickier with younger staff. I think there’s a limit to what we can offer as a business, before they then decide they want to move on to, bigger, better things in a town or a city that you just can’t offer in Leyburn or Hawes. But otherwise, it’s about being flexible and accommodating them and not always sticking to the rules of the nine-to-five.
What advice would you give to other businesses who might struggle with that?
Try and avoid the high staff turnover because in the long run it costs you more, because when you recruit, you’ve got to train them, you’ve got to advertise, it’s usually time consuming. Be flexible and offer them the right package to retain them. I think there’s a lot to be said for retaining staff. Going out and finding someone else is hard work, isn’t it? I think of the last time we had a vacancy, we got maybe 40 applicants. But that’s the modern era – at the click of an email people can send their CV over. It’s hugely time consuming.
If it’s a solicitor post, surely you’re more likely to get people because it’s a profession…
It’s actually difficult to attract a solicitor and find somebody willing to come up and move their lives, plus the youngsters seem to be attracted by the larger firms. We’ve never advertised that role because we’ve got our set solicitors.
What do you think the future holds for local businesses in areas like Wensleydale?
I’m quite positive about it all, to be honest.
It’s kind of an affluent area, and we’ve been inundated with work, and dare I mention the ‘B’ word, ‘Brexit’, it hasn’t really had an effect at all, in fact it is probably the opposite.
We deal with lots of property transactions so there’s always a demand for people to buy their houses in the Yorkshire Dales.
We can work with properties anywhere in England and Wales, so when clients move away to Devon for example, they generally stick with their solicitor. We’ve got transactions all over the country. I’m not sure if that’s a true reflection of the positivity in Wensleydale with other businesses though.
How do you think businesses in Wensleydale can contribute to ensuring the area is an attractive place for young people to live and work?
I think you need to be a forward-thinking company, don’t you? With a modern approach. What can other businesses do? I think it’s not just business, I think it’s the whole infrastructure. But there’s a limit to the work you’re going to offer them. The countryside is either for you, or it’s not. If you’re a commercial solicitor, you’re not going to move to Wensleydale, because the work’s not here for that …
It’s difficult, because, as soon as young people go off to university, they tend to stay there because the jobs aren’t here.
There are a lot of incoming people buying second homes, and I know the government has tried to control that with taxes and increasing stamp duty. I don’t want the villages full of second homes. I think they should be thriving with young families, because the schools are empty, but it’s a hot topic, what do you do?
They increased the Stamp Duty Land Tax for second homes, but it does not seem to put buyers off. It seems with our clients, if they’ve got £300,000 for a house, they’re willing to pay another £10,000.
How can business influence education?
It’s about passing on our experience of working day life. We get students every year from the Wensleydale school on work experience. I think there may need to be more of that, education is probably slightly detached from real business life. There needs to be a greater link between the schools and the local businesses.
We can provide hands-on experience, by mentoring students and advising students on how they can become self-sufficient.
I think you can qualify now as a solicitor without going down that traditional route, there’s an apprenticeship scheme, and I think that’s great. The legal profession seems to be driven by maybe the more affluent and it pushes a lot out, so I’m all for not going down the traditional route, because they’ll be equally as good, with experience on the ‘shop floor’. For example, Kevin is training to become a legal executive and whilst he’s been to law school, he’s only just getting his hands dirty now. I think training / studying whilst also working is good and maybe too many people go to university.
There needs to be more encouragement between the schools and the local businesses, they need to work together more, because when I looked into an apprenticeship, it looked difficult as an employer. It seemed like there were a lot of hurdles to cross. I was off put by it and in the end, I employed Kevin in the traditional way.
What do you think about the work LWBN is doing with The Wensleydale School and Sixth Form?
I can only see that as a positive step and well done to them, but maybe it needs more promotion. I’m all for supporting students, because they are the next generation!
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.