Flight of fancy really took off

Flight of fancy really took off

Irrepressible entrepreneur Jonathan Turner turned a whimsical notion into an outrageously ambitious project. Andrew Mernin reports.

Jonathan Turner awoke one morning with a sudden desire to build a tree house. An unusual dream for a 47-year-old man, perhaps, especially for one with so little time for frivolous pursuits.

More pressing was his responsibility at the helm of his 95-year-old, £400m-a-year business Bayford Group.

But having such wide-eyed enthusiasm for the new and being endowed with that blend of stubbornness and naivety which touches many an entrepreneur he cracked on regardless.

“I think any bloke would like to have a tree house,” he says. “I woke up one morning and just thought wouldn’t it be great to have a tree house. Then I thought, where’re we going to put it? And the idea just kind of morphed into having meetings there and it developed.”
The catalyst which sped the idea from whimsy to reality was a rediscovered link with the past.

Energy-focused but diverse investment group Bayford has as its HQ Bowcliffe Hall at Bramham near Wetherby.

This grand old Yorkshire home was also, in a previous life, the stately pile of Robert Blackburn – the unsung airplane buccaneer who helped to found the modern aviation industry. Yorkshire’s answer to Amy Johnson and Louis Bleriot pioneered powered aeroplanes and launched Britain’s first scheduled air service – the half-hourly flight from Leeds to Bradford.

As Turner piece by piece uncovered the life and times of Blackburn his tree house idea and growing intrigue for the aviator became entwined. The result was a plan for a £5.5m transformation of Bowcliffe in honour of Blackburn, including the construction of a giant tree house shaped like an aircraft’s wing which will host conferences and gatherings.

Four years into the project – which opens this autumn – Turner says “it’s already sneaked over budget”, admitting that the current tab is running at around £1m more than initially estimated. But such is his hunger to make the end product match his vision that he’s refusing to scrimp on so much as a nut or bolt on the project.

It also helps that he sits at the helm of a business generating hundreds of millions of pounds of annual turnover through fuel, property and miscellaneous interests.

“You could say this project in itself is a full time job for me but then I already have about 10 full time jobs,” he says. “I’m not normally a control freak but perhaps I am on this one. I’m picking the wallpaper, deciding the floor and I’m always on the phone. But I have to be because this is such a fantastic opportunity and we have to get it right.”

The Blackburn Wing is constructed from copper-clad wooden beams forming an aeroplane wing amid the wooded area of Bowcliffe’s grounds. It will have a capacity to hold almost 150 people for drinks receptions, with additional meeting or banqueting spaces. The venue will cater for events of all shapes and sizes from weddings to conferences, but has no aspirations to be a hotel.

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The other major part of Bowcliffe’s redevelopment glories Turner’s one true passion in life – motoring.

The entrepreneur, who confesses to owning “quite a few cars”, is never too far away from his next motoring challenge – whether that’s driving from Peking to Paris in a 1907 Itala
or tearing round Silverstone in some other vintage machine.

His office is the engine room of Bowcliffe Hall and is in fact a shrine to life on four wheels.
A giant silver Jaguar leaps out from one corner while legions of other car-related trinkets, pictures and paintings populate every available inch of wall and shelf space.

Clearly, then, the other new development at Bowcliffe, The Driver’s Club and Briefing Room, is a project with Turner’s fingerprints all over it.

“I’m into racing and rallying so I thought, ‘why not build a driver’s club?’ It’s going to look like a gentleman’s club from the 1920s and 30s, with wood panelling and rich fabrics. It’ll be very British and very Yorkshire. I’m tracing a lot of Yorkshire drivers going back to the 1930s, 40s and 50s and I’ve been collecting old pictures for the project for a while.”

Planks of wood flooring and blueprints for the interior of the development are splayed across a large table in Turner’s office. And his tales of the lengths he’s gone to in sourcing furnishings and other desirables for the new wing and driver’s club show just how involved he is in the project. Real tails from disused jets will be used as tables in the Blackburn Wing, explains Turner as he laughs off the rising cost of his grand redevelopment plans. He has limited almost all of this spending to suppliers and service providers in Yorkshire however as he is very keen on what he calls The Yorkshire Pound.

“It is worth the investment even just in terms of the laughs, enjoyment and pride we’ll all get looking at the tree house and wondering how the hell we actually did it.”
He has also trod carefully through the planning process, realising the historic value of Bowcliffe.

“I’m just a custodian of this building and in 100 years time someone else will be sitting here thinking ‘which idiot built that’,” he says nodding towards the window which looks onto the emerging tree house structure.  
Turner’s passion for the project has intensified as his detective work has brought him closer to Robert Blackburn.

A letter he uncovered led him to the dusty corner of an aviation museum where he was handed a book revealing a previously unreported aspect of Blackburn’s life.

“The most exciting thing for me is that in the last few months I was given a letter from 1918 which had the header ‘The Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Company’. So I was thinking ‘what is this motor business, did he make cars?’ Then a guy at the museum showed me a book and I had tears in my eyes when I saw public service vehicles and buses that Blackburn had made. This was the biggest revelation that nobody had awareness of.”
In fact not even Blackburn’s ancestors who have been helping Turner piece together the aviator’s history knew about this aspect of his career. But they did reveal many other things about Bowcliffe though.

“Robert Blackburn’s daughters Janey and Sarah lived here until they were 16 and 18 and I’m so lucky that they are passionate about what I’m doing. You could argue that I’m trashing their family home but when they came to the place they were beside themselves with excitement.

“They were pointing out where the butler used to sleep, where their nanny stayed, where the groom’s quarters were, which was fascinating.

“They sadly sold the house on Robert Blackburn’s death in 1955 and Sarah remembers walking out and closing the gate for the last time. Being invited back here by some mad entrepreneur is like some crazy whirlwind for them.”

Walking the grounds with Turner as he points the recently welcomed Red Kites soaring overhead and talks of the sheer opulence he plans for Bowcliffe’s new developments, there’s a hint of the Great Gatsby about the whole thing.

“I want people to come here and say ‘wow’ about 26 times before they leave,” says Turner with darting eyes and the vigour of a true showman. Unlike the aforementioned F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, however, there’s nothing shady or mysterious about this entrepreneur’s wealth generation.

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The empire Jonathan heads up had its roots planted by three muddy-booted Tommies seeking prosperity in the peaceful melancholy of post WWI.

Battle fatigue had robbed none of the Leeds lads of their entrepreneurial vigour and, on their return to Yorkshire, named their coal merchant’s business after the Hertfordshire village they had previously been demobbed to.

While energy has since remained at the core of the business, its path towards the circa £400m-a-year giant it is today has been more labyrinthine than meandering.

Oil distribution in the early 1960s morphed into petrol retailing in 1969, before further diversification into property, opencast coal mining, shipping, electronics, pollution prevention and fuel cards.

Other highlights include the 1995 acquisition of Burmah Oil and involvement in the £47m rescue deal of Britain’s biggest independent petrol firm Save Group plc in 2000 alongside entrepreneur Jack Petchey.

All 409 stations have since been offloaded, as has the lucrative Gulf fuel brand it acquired in 2001 – sold in a package with Bayford
Oil and heatingoil.co.uk to GB Oils for £22.5m in 2009.

Meanwhile, a pioneering move into providing fuel cards to businesses across the UK in the early 90s continues to pay off with the group now a dominant player in that market and enjoying close relationships with the likes of BP, Shell and Esso.

“Our fuel card businesses continued growing right through the recession,” says Jonathan.

“As fuel costs rise, they help control expenditure for fleets, white vans, trucks and company cars.”

Our interview takes place 10 years to the week that Turner completed a family management buyout (FAMBO) of the business.

So busy has he been in the period since, that he is oblivious to the anniversary until prompted by BQ.
“There’s been just dozens and dozens of highlights in that time,” he says. Perhaps among them are the seven acquisitions his firm made in the first year after he assumed control.

“We were lucky it was in a time when the banks were willing to lend. They lent when I wanted them to and they trusted my management team and me to do the job and deliver and we did. We never let anyone down and we grew businesses. We were successful and still seem to be. “Much of that is down to my MD Liz Slater. After working together for 26 years I wouldn’t be where I am without her keeping me on the straight and narrow”.

“We’ve got a good track record and so banks are prepared to lend that’s why we are where we are now continuing to develop and grow businesses.”

Holiday homes in remote Northumberland, plans for a motorway service station on the A1, a 13,000 acre Scottish estate and Yorkshire children’s adventure company Battlebox form other investments backed by the group.

Meanwhile its subsidiary The Right Fuelcard Company currently operates a thriving duel-branded fuel card for both Shell and Total customers. Last year the company also invested in a new fuel card business, Diesel 24 and in a return to the company’s roots, oil distribution company Oilfast. Both are based in Scotland and, according to Turner, growing rapidly.

So, aside from current aviation inspired activities, what’s the next note in Turner’s entrepreneurial composition?

“I’ve been told by my team to slow down a bit. But things crop up, things happen, conversations take place and opportunities arise. A few years ago I thought I’d like to have a tree house and now I’m building a conference centre for 150 people.

“We’ve recently bought the Laudale estate in Scotland with acres of farm and forest land, hydro and biomass schemes – so I’m learning about things I didn’t know anything about.

“My business ethos has always been have fun, make money in that order. It’s always been about enjoying ourselves.”

Given the fervour he shows as we explore the stone, wood and metal skeleton of his new conference centre, he’s certainly doing that.

And, as a maxim for success, his approach clearly works.