The boss helping to save a country estate for the future
PUBLISHED: 09:30 10 August 2019 | UPDATED: 17:40 12 August 2019
Copyright: Archant 2019
He bosses a business with an 18th century hall and 25,000 acre estate at its core. But it needs to make money and it’s his job to find new ways to do it. Caroline Culot spoke to Peter Mitchell, MD at the Holkham estate in north Norfolk.
There probably are not many places of work as beautiful as the Holkham estate. I am sitting in the boardroom which is in a beautiful period building on the estate with a high ceiling and sash windows from where you can see families picnicking in the sunshine with the stunning Palladian hall in the background.
The son of a naval officer, Peter Mitchell, a Cambridge University masters graduate with impeccable credentials having been the group MD of retailer Jarrold, has a tough job to do.
The reason why he's at Holkham is because the family-owned estate needs future-proofing and owner Lord Leicester is spearheading a huge expansion plan to see it preserved for generations to come, with a need to identify new income streams. Mr Mitchell is the man who oversees the huge amount of different businesses, from farming (with 22 tenanted farms) to the holiday park to the pub right down to the gift shop and the admission to the hall itself. It's juggling a lot of spinning plates but he comes with the business acumen to do it. Last year he joined Holkham.
He said: "If you go back 20 to 30 years the majority of income from the Holkham estate came from land-based businesses, farming and property, but now well over half our income comes from tourism-related businesses and with UK farming starting to diversify and giving increasing importance to non-agriculture sources of income, we are in the fortunate position of being somewhat down that road. We are blessed with some amazing assets; cafes, deer parks and caravan parks, the most profitable part of the business."
The overall turnover at Holkham is £30m, which has doubled in the last 15 years, he said. But amazingly just one commercial tenant on the estate, jeweller Monica Vinader, actually has a larger turnover than the entire Holkham business put together.
"Monica Vinader is an incredibly successful business, it's brilliant to have her in there, demonstrating a well-run business in a rural location can be very successful, relying on the internet for sales but the team ships products around the world and employs a significant amount of people."
Equally, the investment in Holkham has been huge too - Mr Mitchell said £15m has been ploughed into it over the last seven to eight years and there's much more work to be done. The challenge is not diversifying too much, he said, though, because the potential for business is massive, but staying focused on the things they can do well is vital.
Just some of the ways the estate has diversified most recently includes the development of the Holkham studios, conversion of buildings at Longlands on the estate into commercial use, and where Monica Vinader is based. More commercial units are being created there, as it's completely full. Other work includes the development of the stables courtyard with a cafe (food and drink outlets remain among the most profitable parts of the business) as well as a gift shop and the development of the former pottery building, the Lady Elizabeth Wing, into a wedding and conference venue. Then you've got farming and the most recent development is a new £1m building for up to 1,000 cattle with Holkham operating a livestock unit which graze the nature reserve.
"None of our businesses are in decline," added Mr Mitchell. "There is uncertainty in the agriculture side at the moment but we are investing heavily into that business to grow it as well, there is great strength in that diversity, financially and the natural capital of the estate means we are able to invest in that huge growth."
Currently the new high ropes course for youngsters is in full swing and it's the first season for the Look-Out, a new visitor centre for the 800,000 people who visit the Holkham nature reserve and beach every year. He said they are also two-thirds through the restoration of its walled gardens, and about to embark on restoring one of the larger buildings, the Samuel Wyatt vinery.
He met his wife at university and it was her connection with Norfolk which lured him to the county and they have three children.
"Holkham is a fascinating business, it is a spectacular place to work and we are blessed with an amazing set of cards in our hands and frankly so many opportunities for us to play that hand."
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