A family-owned business on the M6 in Cumbria is the jewel in the UK’s network of motorway services. Paul Robertson talks to entrepreneur Sarah Dunning about its success and how it is being transported to other parts of the country.
If you have never stopped off at Tebay Services on a trip to or from the North East, or anywhere else for that matter, then you don’t know what you’re missing. It is more – much more – than you would get at a normal motorway services, devoid of fast food outlets but bustling with artisan producers. Open 24 hours a day near junction 38, it is in itself a destination, with sweeping views over the Cumbrian fells.
Unlike service stations operated by chains, Tebay’s operating company the Westmorland Family has no franchised concessions - all its restaurants and farm shops champion local produce. Its success lies in the fact the business is family-run with a passion and pride in the landscape, environment and community.
Entrepreneurial chief executive Sarah Dunning took over the reins in 2005 when her parents retired, returning to her Cumbrian roots after a successful career in the City. With the support of managing director Laurence King and the team, she has led the business into new areas. “After university I started work at NM Rothschild on their graduate programme,” she said. “I had no intention of coming back to Cumbria at the time, but some years later, the business was expanding and it felt like a good opportunity to get involved.”
It was in 1972 that her parents, local farmers John and Barbara Dunning, turned their plans to diversify into reality, setting up Tebay Services in partnership with local bakers Birketts of Penrith, as the M6 was extended through their land - becoming the first and only family-run motorway service station in the UK.
The transformation over the last 40 years has been remarkable. Where there was once a 30-seat café serving home cooked, locally sourced food, the much-expanded eaterie has been joined by Tebay’s Westmorland Hotel, a caravan park and truckstop, then in 2000 by the most innovative development of them all.
Hidden under a grass roof on the edge of the Lake District, a 90,000 sq ft visitor attraction was born. Today, the Rheged Centre is home to a gallery, café, shops and an IMAX-style cinema screen, which regularly showcases world-class events from around the globe such as opera, ballet, theatre and music.
The Westmorland Hotel is now a popular destination for conferences while its restaurant is enjoyed by visitors from near and far, with the same values as the services. There are farm shops on both sides of the carriageway, award-winning with its own butchers selling meat raised on the family farm, alongside local cheeses, baked products and fresh produce – most sourced locally.
Rheged is home to 10 individual shops, three cafes, indoor soft play and an outdoor play area, alongside a creative pottery workshop and an upstairs gallery which has a changing programme of art, photographic and craft exhibitions and is home to a wide range of children’s creative events during the school holidays. “It can be challenging taking a business from a first generation to a second generation [dad John is still on the board], but I think with the help of an independent Chairman [Bryan Gray] and an unrushed transition, we managed it relatively smoothly,” says Sarah.
“The business was well established and based on strong values which made it unique in its market. So as a team we tried to take these strengths and build on them, focusing in particular on developing the uniqueness of what we sell and the environment in which it was sold. There were new opportunities as well which our customers welcomed such as starting a new butchery and developing outside eating facilities in our motorway service areas, as well as the need to upgrade our facilities, which enabled us to make some exciting step changes.”
It is all a far cry from the family farm where she spent a happy childhood before heading to Manchester University to read modern languages then a career in the City of London. Married to surgeon Joel with two children aged 11 and 13, she has settled very much back into life in Cumbria, though expansion to a purpose built site on the M5 at Gloucester and the acquisition of Cairn Lodge on the M74 has added plenty of miles on the clock.
“We are a roadside services business and have found our own place in that industry and so it was logical that if we were to expand, it should be in this area,” said Sarah. “Opportunities are not easy to come by, so you have to seize the ones you find. Gloucester and Cairn Lodge both work well for us – they are rural, have good producers nearby, are on busy motorways and have a travelling public who understand and appreciate what we do.
“Our businesses all seek to be ‘of their place’ - which means that they reflect the place they are in, from the architecture and design of the buildings to the products they sell, and in so doing they are rooted in their communities and contribute to them. Everything we do is based on a sense of provenance, craftsmanship and good design and we hope that this comes through. None of this can be achieved without a great team of people, so they are central to everything we do.”
Westmorland employs 1,000 staff and works with many local producers within 30 miles of the site – over 150 in Gloucestershire and more than 70 in Cumbria. Among them is, of course, the family farm. She works closely with sister Jane, who looks after the family farm’s interests, to ensure the connection remains strong.
Sustainability is at the heart of the operation – water is sourced from two boreholes drilled on the land, timers have been fitted in the main kitchens at Rheged to limit the use of electricity to working hours and by switching to LED lights in areas of the service station, electrical consumption will be halved.
It doesn’t stop there – cooking oils from the kitchens is turned into biodiesel while food waste is turned into power, all cardboard is recycled and Westmorland’s waste management partner FCC Environmental operate a closed loop recycling system for plastics which means almost no waste from the site ends up in landfill.
“Where it works, it is perhaps because our whole approach is based on a single philosophy and that as a result of this, it is felt by our customers,” says Sarah. “We have a lot of very loyal customers who support our particular approach to food and to business which in turn means the local economies where we operate benefit far more as a result.”
More than 10 million customers a year are coming through the doors of Westmorland’s businesses – knowing them and the localities where they operate is the cornerstone of its success. For example, while not directly affected by the horrendous floods to hit Cumbria last year, Sarah was acutely aware of the impact the devastating rainfall had on the area.
“We were very fortunate in that the business itself wasn’t badly affected,” she says. “We were able though, through the business and support of our customers, to raise over £35,000 for the Cumbria Community Foundation Flood Fund. “We tend not to think of our commitment in terms of corporate social responsibility, because our whole business is based on a model which brings benefit to its locality but always seeks to be best for business and best for community, so one can feed the other. We hope that the relationships we have with our local farmers, producers and our own teams, all help us build a good connection with our communities and we work continuously to try and support them financially and in other ways too. “In Gloucestershire, 2% of our non-fuel turnover goes directly back into our local communities and in Cumbria we have many long-standing relationships with our communities which enable us to support a number of community needs.”
Away from the business, “family and food” come top of her list and when asked what advice she could give to other entrepreneurs, Sarah replies modestly: “I’m not sure I’m in a position to advise anyone (not even my children!). Doing what you love is a good start!
“As a business, we know that if we stand still we will start to move backwards. While we celebrate and are inspired by our roots, like generations of hill farmers before us, we understand that to survive and ultimately to thrive, we must continue to innovate, keep our family and community close and always believe in what we do.”