Mike Hughes drops into the General Tarleton for a spot of lunch with Robyn Peat of land and estate agents George F White.
Robyn Peat looks like he would choose outdoors over indoors any day of the week. He has the look of the gentleman farmer and keeps 17 Shetland sheep on four acres near his home so perhaps – stereotypically – a picnic with some good chunks of bread, cheese and pickle would be a suitable menu over which to talk. But thankfully, Robyn is completely at home in the excellent General Tarleton at Ferrensby, a few miles from Knaresborough.
As the managing partner at George F White, he oversees offices at Alnwick, Bedale, Wolsingham, Shiptonthorpe, Duns, and just down the road from where he lives, in Barnard Castle.
Backed by founding partner George, who still works in the business, Robyn will be spearheading a push deeper into Yorkshire as business builds, with diversification, green belt and windfarms coming more to the fore. “I see my job in three areas: the technical work that I do when I am surveying, business development and then leadership,” he tells me as we settle in at our table. “I sort out my days between those three roles and have to get the balance right for each to work. The first role involves advising landowners on valuations, management of their assets, planning and development and dispute resolution.
“I think it is a mistake if the managing partner just manages, you can become disconnected from the work your business does and what the needs are of your clients and colleagues.”
The company has a strategic board alongside the management board, a structure which supports Robyn as well as letting him get out and about. It obviously works for him, as this year will be his 26th with the firm partner. “When I joined there was only one other partner and six people. George told me taking on a partner was, in some ways, more important than taking on a spouse. It is a kind of marriage, because there has to be absolute trust, you have to get on together really well and be happy spending lot of time together. Personally, my long relationship with the company is more than loyalty, it’s a commitment to growing a business.
“There is also an excitement about building the business and being able to bring people on within it and empowering them to take responsibility.”
Robyn, now 52, has all the basic credentials for his job. His father farmed, he doesn’t like being “stuck inside” and he likes working with people. In his early days, he was at the Royal Agricultural University at Cirencester where he got his diploma in estate management and rural estate management. Then he went to work in Bournemouth and Oxford, before George called.
The Oxford business only had four clients, but the fact that they were All Souls College, Queen’s College, Lord Jersey and Lord Bournmouth meant there wasn’t much time to put his feet up and his experience of dealing with large estates grew rapidly.
“When you’re young you don’t definitely know what you will be doing, but working in the countryside and not in an office was one of the things I decided I wanted from my career. My son likes the countryside and is at Harper Adams College in Shropshire doing pretty much the course I did at Cirencester. That can lead to my sort of job, but he has choices and has yet to choose exactly where he will go.”
The reputation of the firm is critical to its stability and future plans and great care has been taken in putting the right people in the right roles. When it comes to recruiting, perhaps from Cirencester or Shropshire, Robyn is there to make sure the candidates ‘get’ the business and understand its aims under the four headings of agriculture, residential, commercial and leisure.
“We are not a lifestyle business, we are a commercial consultancy, and while we expect the commercial rewards that go with that, you can only get them by being absolutely focused on the business. You look after the clients and their needs and also anticipating those needs – it all comes with the territory.
“As a consultancy, getting the right people to join the business is a priority. Although people do business with people, ensuring the brand and values are protected by our staff is the most important thing.”
Whoever is welcomed on board will be joining a different business to the one Robyn joined in 1989. Times have changed in the great outdoors, with growth and diversification seeming to battle for top spot.
The limits of what can be done with Yorkshire’s agricultural heritage can seem harsh when it is a family farm trying everything it can to make money. It’s their land, let them do what they need to. But there have to be limits because their hopes – or the aspirations of a huge agricultural investment group - mean changing the very nature of the county.
Perhaps there has to be an extreme point set that must never be reached – a theme park in Grade 1 rolling dales. Then work back from that to set an unwanted, but possible, level of development and take it from there. But that is not the expert view, of course. This is:
“Our landowners have become more sophisticated and have diversified their businesses and we have diversified our business as their problems have become more varied.
“The planning system has become more commercial and more realistic over the last few years. It is there to serve an economic need, so not to stop, but to encourage what is needed in the right places. It is a matter of identifying what the opportunity is. If you have a field with an agricultural value and you turn it to housing, there is a massive windfall. Land values generally have increased dramatically, driven by reinvestment from farmers who want to have longevity and want to expand, and from economies of scale – bigger farms can make better money than smaller ones.
“But there is also an element of lifestyle. It’s what people know and what they want to stay in and it is also a dream for others to have that space.”
There are now seven planners and an architect working for George F White, which illustrates that change in planning and development work. Energy is another big issue, from siting commercial windfarms to allowing a single farm to have a single half-megawatt turbine. From tariffs and grants to take care of as well as planning laws and construction and then potentially the sale of the energy produced, George F White now has staff who can handle the lot from start to finish. It has an enviable agility that I have seen in many compact operations, which means it can switch strategies or absorb a new market sector almost at will.
This huge benefit is making competition with big businesses a lot more manageable. It’s turning a speedboat around as opposed to a tanker. Firms like George F White which have people like Robyn Peat leading them, empowering his staff, are changing the geography of Yorkshire for the better. Theirs is the task of allowing development and aspiration to flourish, while keeping the county whole and apparently untouched.
Having shared a meal with him and two hours of good company, I would trust Robyn to do that well. Our county and its future prosperity is safe in his hands.
A tasteful balance
The General Tarleton is a restaurant with 13 bedrooms about three miles from the A1 and about five from Harrogate.
Head Chef Marc Williams and award winning Chef Patron John Topham – who is also the signature chef at Bowliffe Hall - are the creative force behind the wonderful food that Robyn and I enjoyed. The pub is warm and welcoming, with a well-balanced mix of history, tradition and modern taste in its furnishings as well as its food.
I started with Queenie Scallops cooked in a garlic and lemon butter with gruyere and cheddar cheese. The texture was perfect and the presentation delicate – the ideal starter as we got talking. Robyn was particularly impressed with his sardines. They were served on roasted pepper bruschetta, with capers and olives and a pine nut pesto. This was looking good...
For mains I went for cornfed Goosnargh duckling. The breast was poached and roasted with a confit leg salad, gravy and... savour the moment....thrice cooked chips in duck fat. Thank you Mr Topham. Robyn, perhaps keen to compare it to his own flock, chose the duo of lamb. This was a spring lamb rack with pressed confit shoulder served with mint gel, Savoy cabbage and thyme jus.
He diplomatically avoided dessert, but I felt honour-bound to try the ‘Taste of Yorkshire Rhubarb’, which gave me crumble, compote and pannacotta. Light and refreshing and a reminder of what marvellous goods we have on our own doorstep. The General Tarleton, when mixed with good company, will be hard to beat.