Mike Hughes meets Charlie Forbes-Adam, who is turning to SMEs to help him secure the estate his family has lived on for almost 350 years.
When I lived in Shropshire, I had a very overgrown paddock of about a third of an acre. And a Fordson Major tractor to plough it and move things around. At last I was a farmer, of sorts.....
So imagine my admiration for Charlie Forbes Adam, who has several tractors and around 8,000 acres to look after at Escrick Park, seven miles south of York. Not on his own, of course, because that would be a step too far, what with being High Sheriff as well. Charlie is certainly a busy chap, redefining the word ‘diversification’ several times as he seeks out new ways to help his glorious surroundings pay the bills.
His family has owned the estate since 1668 and at its peak 200 years later it had stretched to more than 22,000 acres. But death duties and the somewhat lavish lifestyles of his predecessors meant things had to change. The home had to become a business. “It had been downhill all the way until relatively recently,” the very honest Charlie tells me.
“The three Ds, death, debt and divorce were the downfall of many rural estates, but I was lucky enough to be born in the generation where it became acceptable for landowners to become businessmen again. For the previous generations it was much more about lifestyle and grandiosity.
“In the not too distant past a lot of rural estates were self sustaining, with their own building materials from the timber and a couple of brickworks on the estate. But then the agricultural recession hit and the supertax charges in the Second World War combined and things got a lot tougher than you might see on Downton Abbey.”
After working in insurance in London, Charlie returned to the family home in 1990 after his parents announced they were to divorce. He describes his concerns about his inheritance as “a reverse takeover bid”.
“I also made a few changes in my own life, like stopping drinking, which I was doing too much of, and decided to tackle the thing and start that first era of diversification.
“There was a mountain of debt, so we needed to get the cash flow up. I did a huge list of how we could sweat the assets that we were lucky enough to have. So whenever a tenant moved out and as property became vacant we renovated it, we started a horse-riding course, which wasn’t big money, but it was getting extra income from the land and the tracks through it.
“We then got a 30 per cent grant to convert seven redundant farm buildings to make 39 offices and light industrial units up to about 3,000 square feet. They were at various stages of dereliction and were being used as part of the farming operation, but we worked really hard to get them let as soon as we had finished with them rather than hang around waiting for an extra few quid.”
The units were marketed on the basis of space, of course, but also on context. Working on part of an historic estate on the outskirts of a beautiful city has its attractions – and Charlie knew it. “We want businesses to enjoy their time here and over the last 17 years not many have left because they didn’t like it. We are a very local landlord, we have lots of free parking and a lovely environment because of the masses of trees and shrubs we have planted around the farm buildings.
“We even commissioned one of our tenants to provide animal carvings, at a former farmstead we call Menagerie. That all seems to be working and we have been recognised with a few awards over the years – including the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors Award.”
The letting of the new units was all done in-house to save money and maximise that cashflow. Refurbishing cottages on the estate with essentials like central heating and loft insulation made them futureproof and worthy of a healthier rent. The latest businesses to join takes the number of jobs created at the park past the 130 mark. Joy’s Bella Bridesmaids, Quattro Auto and Silver and Stone are the new arrivals, while IMC Toys have extended their business on the estate.
Hannah Robinson of Joy’s Bella Bridesmaids, who have taken 1,000 sq ft in the Old Granary at Riccall Grange, said: “It is ideally situated in a beautiful rural setting. The estate has been very supportive and guided me through the lettings process as this is my first business venture,” said Hannah.
IMC Toys, who first moved on to the estate in 2011, have taken an extra 1,500 sq ft at the Menagerie. Terry Crew said: “The estate is well-run, clean and tidy. Thanks to the peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the city, it is a beautiful place to work, especially in the summer. The offices are great, with plenty of character.
“Our business has grown dramatically over the past four years and we need additional space to preview our products to our customers. Our offices suit us as there is room for expansion and our customers can find us easily.”
But Charlie still had to keep looking, and in 2003 he went to an open day at Castle Howard, who had some new agents in, and it became clear that another major profit driver would be a holiday park - he thought “if it’s good enough for Castle Howard.....”
The estate got planning permission in 2004 and The Hollicarrs opened in 2005. The holiday lodges are set in 25 acres of Escrick Park’s 750 acre woodlands and provide the most tangible evidence of how the old ways have given way to the new ones for Charlie and his team and how the red lettering on bank statements has been replaced by black.
There is an unarguable logic about what he is doing, but the turnaround has been as inventive as it has been dramatic, and all to backdrop of heritage and family history. “We have had 29 planning permissions over the last 20 years,” he tells me. “The idea has always been to retain the core of the estate, while getting added value and leaning towards development. My long term aim is to be able to hand over the place in good order and with as low a debt burden as possible.
“One thing that helps there is that we have started working with renewables and have a wind turbine as well as supplying biomass to a former farmstead that has three offices and four houses.
“It all adds up when you are trying to make a place like this work. And the people it brings here benefit the likes of local garages and cleaners and maintenance guys.
“Not just in terms of our own business, but having a thriving rural economy is really important for the whole country. It can be frustrating trying to develop sometimes with some negative feelings, but it is a great adventure and there will always be more to do.
“In the last 30 years or so there has been much more of a change in attitude and a lot of farmers and landowners have woken up to the fact that the farm isn’t going to bring home the bacon – if you will pardon the pun – and we have all had to look elsewhere.
“Subject to the tax regime, I feel very optimistic. At 58 I’m a bit long in the tooth, but the younger generation are all geared up to be much more business-like in their approach or at least be quite happy to go off and get experience in other professions in order to sustain the family home by getting funds from outside the estate.”
So his hard work and vision is paying off and the future for large parcels of the country like Escrick is stronger than for a generation – if there are honest appraisals of what must stay and what must go. No business across Yorkshire will have stayed the same for 300 years and Charlie recognised some time ago that landed families were just as vulnerable as the newest SME if they stood still and relied on the past to support them.
Now he can spend time helping the wider community, as High Sheriff of North Yorkshire, where his father Nigel held the title in 1976-77. “I was delighted and honoured to be asked. I have a fantastic team at the estate and once you have your properties in good order it doesn’t require mountains of management, so I have been able to do some of this other stuff.
“I have been involved in fundraising at Selby Abbey and am chairman of fundraising at a treatment centre for addicted ex-offenders in Hull, so that probably contributed to my selection.
“I remember my dad saying ‘no privilege without responsibility’ and he was on huge numbers of committees supporting various projects. You do get called upon and finding that balance is very key. You can end up being a rather boring committee man.”
Boring is certainly not a word you could use for Charlie Forbes Adam - a supporter of small businesses and master reinventor of both himself and his heritage.