Start Up Stories: The Doxford Group

Charlton Hall

Start Up Stories: The Doxford Group

Richard Shell, managing director of The Doxford Group and co-founder of The Twist Group talks to BQ about how he got started in business.

Tell us about your business, what does it do?

The Doxford Group creates, owns and runs a number of event venues in the North East, primarily aimed at the wedding market. The first venue, Doxford Barns is set within 500 acres of farmland and provides couples with a barn wedding venue where the impossible can be made possible. This is enabled by giving guests a blank canvas to allow them to make our venue unique to their own tastes and requirements. What makes us stand apart from our competitors is that guests can hire the venue over 3 days or just 1 day. We have a number of unique spaces to give couples versatility and flexibility to use the space as they wish.

I am in the process of developing my second venue - Charlton Hall, which we are renovating and converting into an eccentric venue that again will predominantly target the wedding industry, but given the style of the building (a Georgian hall) we will also target the corporate market for VIP hire and position this firmly on the map for excellent culinary experienced by holding pop-up food restaurants led by some of the country’s leading chefs. Charlton Hall is set to open in April 2018. 

What did you do before you started this business?

I graduated from Edinburgh University and went on to join the RBS Graduate Scheme, where I ultimately led the customer experience and communications agenda for c. 650 FTE within the Operations Shared Services Europe function.  This was part of the Services division within RBS and was my third and final placement as part of BSLP graduate scheme, before leaving and venturing on my own to develop Doxford Barns and building up the Doxford Group.

What inspired you to start up?

I have always had entrepreneurial traits, which could be identified from a young age. At the age of 13 I was breeding pedigree labradors to earn money. Whilst at university I purchased property in Edinburgh to rent as holiday lets. The experience I gained from the graduate schemes at RBS have given be a solid grounding in being able to run my own business and I am very fortunate to have been given that opportunity, however as an entrepreneur, it became obvious to me that I would get far more satisfaction and enjoyment from running my own business. Most people would not have taken the risks I have at the age I am (27). But taking risks excites me and to build a business that creates careers for other people is highly motivating, especially when the business consistently wins awards for its amazing customer service. This is greatly satisfying and I guess is what breathes life into allowing me to continue developing new business opportunities.

How would you describe your business to a novice?

I set up and runs a number of wedding and event venues in the North East!

Finance is one of the most common barriers to starting up. How did you access the finance you needed?

At the beginning in 2015, we relied on external funding for Doxford Barns and we were awarded a Government backed Enterprise Finance Guarantee loan from Barclays Bank. This is now no longer required due to our healthy balance sheet and is now fully paid.

The profits from Doxford Barns as well as its strong balance sheet has enabled the business to purchase our second venue Charlton Hall, our second wedding venue, which was purchased in May 2017. The renovations of the hall is going to be part funded by the Rural Growth Fund.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

My biggest achievement to date is undoubtedly the development of my first venue – Doxford Barns and with the support of my team, our turnover is in excess of £1m in just over 24 months. This has in turn created not just jobs, but careers for over 20 staff and helped boost tourism to our rural area - we have increased tourism to the rural area by over 15,000 visitors. 

How do you differentiate your business from others?

The ethos behind my business is to essentially provide unique venues in stunning locations for couples to marry and for the public to enjoy. My projects are intended to offer clients a complete blank canvas to tailor our venue to any theme they like.  In addition to this and which gives us a distinct competitive advantage, is we have onsite accommodation including glamping and camping options that can potentially cater for an entire wedding parties. 

What’s it like to be your own boss?

Every day I am faced with new challenges, whether it be a 'firefighting role' at my current venue (Doxford Barns) if something goes wrong, down dealing with tradesmen queries or property development processes at my second venue Charlton Hall. No day is ever the same, but this is a trait that all entrepreneurs have grown to love and thrive from. 

Where do you see your business in five years' time?

There are a number of plans in the pipeline to develop the Doxford Group including the development of a new ‘tourism village’ and we intend to acquire further properties to expand the portfolio of venues across the country.  I also have a number of other investment projects which I am involved in including co-owning a PR and marketing agency in the centre of Newcastle (Twist) and am a keen investor in crypto currencies. This brings me on to my next point; we are one of the first venues to accept payment purely in bitcoin!

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Take risks, follow your gut instinct, grow your network and keep trying!