Mike Hughes wanders around the 80 acres of Capability Brown parkland and stunning interior at Scampston Hall and asks double entreprenuer Chris Legard about the challenges of running a stately home alongside a successful clothing firm that he started as a result of a devastating family crisis.
Surprisingly, when Chris Legard inherited his new magnificent 18th century Regency home Scampston Hall, he actually needed to pause and consider his options. The house near Malton is stunning, surrounded by landscapes designed by Capability Brown among the estate’s thousands of acres and including large walled gardens from Chelsea ‘Best in Show’ winner Piet Oudolf.
Inside, its painting and porcelain collection is renowned, including works by Thomas Gainsborough. It is, in many ways, the perfect Yorkshire stately home.
While Chris’s entrepreneurial brain would be put to good use at the hall, it had already been used to establish Joseph Turner, the high-end clothing firm he has run for 20 years, so a balance had to be struck that would allow both sides of his new life to flourish.
“The history here is of the St Quintin family rather than the Legards,” Chris told me in one of the very comfortable lounges in the private East Wing overlooking the parkland and a door or two away from the “the posh wing” and the art that many visitors come to see.
“We were only up the road for hundreds of years at Ganton, but we lost that in the days of gambling and entertainment. So that was the end of the Legards until my grandfather – clever fellow – married my grandmother.”
Chris was born in India, where his father was a mining engineer. He came to Harrogate before he was two and was then brought up just outside Ripon, but would often visit his grandparents at Scampston. As the eldest son, Chris inherited and the family moved to Scampston six years ago when his own son Ben was 16 and daughter Phoebe 11, so they have had some of what he missed out on – a childhood spent exploring such a hidden jewel in Yorkshire’s crown.
“I knew the inheritance was coming, but I wasn’t really conscious of it or excited by it. I was much more concerned by the rest of my life – my job, my career, my wife and my family were all much more of an immediate issue for me.
“That was stuff I was creating myself rather than something I had been given. Things like that will always mean more to you because they have your blood, sweat and tears in them. You have done it and built it up and can do what the hell you want with it.
“Somewhere like Scampston, you get given and mentally you are in a place that says ‘I am the custodian and will leave it in a better state than when I found it’ and can hand it on to the next generation.”
So the blood sweat and tears were in Joseph Turner, now based at Concept Park in Thirsk. Through its website and a catalogue, it offers the finest tweeds, silk ties, pure cotton shirts and shoes for £290 a pair (although I should do the decent thing and add that there are many others at much less money).
The family’s Yorkshire heritage is proudly displayed here, with Yorkshire Tweeds, worsted wool woven in family-owned mills in the heart of the region and corduroy supplied by a family business in West Yorkshire. It means a lot to him, having built it up from scratch after a traumatic family event.
“I left Eton (yes, he knew Boris but they weren’t really friends, he was just ‘an interesting chap...a nice guy’) and became an articled clerk in Hull and qualified as a chartered accountant. His wife Miranda - who did a BA in Fine Art - was 19 and he was 22 when they married.
“We then moved to London for a couple of years before I got a posting to Massachusetts with Coopers & Lybrand and we had a fantastic two years there. I was in my office in Boston when I got a call to ask if I would be interested in a senior manager role in Leeds.
“I said I absolutely was interested - I didn’t fancy going back to smelly old London. We bought a house outside Thirsk, a lovely farmhouse with a load of fallen down outbuildings. My wife became pregnant, but part way through the pregnancy she suffered a massive brain haemorrhage.”
In an instant life was brought into focus for Chris as his wife battled her attack as she was carrying their first child. “Life was thrown into some turmoil,” he says in a calm and reflective manner. “She spent two or three months in the neurological department at Middlesbrough, where my son became a medical first by being born in the neurology operating theatre.
“I got a six-month sabbatical from Coopers & Lybrand - who decided to give me full pay while I was away - because my wife was debilitated to a degree in those early days and she was left epileptic and I had a new baby in my hands. When I went back to work for six months, I realised how chaotic things were, so I went back to them and said I would have to leave.
“Once again they appreciated the situation and gave me six months’ pay to take with me. I couldn’t have asked for more, they were absolutely brilliant.”
So the right decisions were made on all sides and Miranda would get the care and attention that would make such a difference to her recovery. But what about the bills and the future of the new family?
“One of the last things I had done at C&L was to sell a mail order business on behalf of a client, and as I was sitting at home thinking ‘cripes, I’m going to have to find something to do’ I decided to set up a mail order business.
“We had a cowshed where I could put the stock - after a lot of work to clear it out - and we craned in a couple of Portakabins to use as offices and hired three members of staff. Then I rang round my mates and got the names of some suppliers of shirts, ties and cufflinks and used their address books and mine to build our first database, sent out a couple of thousand catalogues and waited for the phone to ring and, lo and behold, an order came in - which was very exciting.
“So the business was born out of necessity, trying to find something that I could do close to home because of the very complicated domestic situation and partly because I have always been someone who wanted to work for themselves. I have never been the best at taking advice as my parents would tell you and would much rather make any mistakes myself and accept them and face up to them and learn from them.
“I had a very good job and was pretty well paid, so would I really have started again from zero if I hadn’t had that catalyst? To a certain extent I had the entrepreneurial brain, but I also knew that behind me, some day, I had some significant assets if the shit hit the fan.
“So I felt a bit of a fraud compared to some other entrepreneurs who have done very well on the back of very little.”
It’s a fair point, but the life of an entrepreneur doesn’t always have to be lived on the edge of a precipice. The key factor is the drive and the aspiration to create and grow something yourself, not whether it is your sole option and a do-or-die situation. Joseph Turner – a made-up name after an evening of red wine at a friend’s terraced house in Saltaire – enjoyed fifteen years of growth after those first few months in the cowsheds, so Chris obviously had the start-up business sense he always knew was in there somewhere.
“We grew from four staff to 20 and then in 2010, on the back of the recession, we tried to launch a ladieswear brand which went quite badly, so we had a time of very difficult trading which I had to turn around and we are now profitable again, so I have certainly been through the cycle of running a business.”
The success he has had there made the move to Scampston possible, because to an extent Joseph Turner was running itself, so Chris could travel the 32 miles between there and the hall whenever necessary.
“The great team we have there means there probably isn’t enough for me to do for five days a week, because I am the managing director, but it is really the finance director and the marketing director and the operations and customer service teams who are doing the work.
“I also think I suffer slightly – though never professionally diagnosed I should add – from
an attention deficiency sort of thing and am never great at doing the same thing over and over again. This way I am constantly doing something different.
“Running the Hall is much more complex than Joseph Turner because that is one business and Scampston is a very old-fashioned heritage asset, family home and business. There are so many different dynamics because of staff structures and the very departmentalised way things are run like weddings, farming, Christmas trees, residential property, tourism, the cafe, the lodges... all of which have nothing to do with each other as businesses but which are all a part of Scampston.
“It is complex trying to get all those things working together for the estate as a whole
and that is a challenge. As the one person who has the overall picture, it is important for me to communicate that well and properly so that everyone understands where we are trying to go.
“My dad (Sir Charles) has been brilliant ever since I started taking over certain things before we moved here, like the farming and the lodges. He and I never really had a handover, we would just chat one morning and he would say ‘why don’t you take over the property side today’.
“We are quite similar people because he was a successful entrepreneur with two electronics businesses, one wholesale and one making products for control systems. So it is definitely in the blood and he is quite decisive and a clear thinker and we nearly always come to the same view on things so have never had to do anything by committee.”
“He has been a really good example of how to transition things between two people who are quite comfortable doing things on their own.”
The lodges Chris mentions will become a very important part of Scampston’s future. They are, of course, at the top end of the market and several light years away from the caravan I stayed in as a kid a few miles up the road in Scarborough, with its gas lintels and sink the size of a large mug.
No, these start at a shade under £180,000 and come with designer furniture, a large decking area, a view over some of the seven lakes in the park (which was awarded the prestigious David Bellamy Gold Award for conservation in its first year) and have a choice of 60 kitchens and 50 carpets.
The four phases are planned to hold a total of 75 holiday homes, so their contribution to Scampston’s bottom line is significant and Chris knew that the only way to go was to echo the Hall’s image of luxury and exclusivity and attempt to create ‘the highest quality and most desirable park of its kind in Yorkshire’.
“We needed to find another major ‘something’,” said Chris.
“We already offered weddings, sometimes in a pleasantly amateurish way – a bit like us!
But I only want to do a dozen or so each year because this is a private family home. The upside to the way my sister Louise does them here is that they are much more interesting and quirky, completely bespoke, so no set marquee sites or caterers. We just say ‘here’s this beautiful site how do you want to use it?’.
“So they will cover the heating costs, the roof repairs or the window painting or something, but they are not a game-changer for Scampston. But the lodges are because last year we had our most successful year by miles and by some margin the biggest earner over farming, property etc, was the lodges.
“It is a significant investment for us with borrowings that will need to be repaid over time, but if we sell half a dozen each year it becomes a very profitable enterprise with an income stream you can predict for ten years.
But there will come a day when I have worked my socks off, paid off the borrowings, sold
some lodges and my son or grandchild will look back and say ‘Grandpa Chris – that was a good thing to do’.”
The whole process from initial idea to completed development was around three years, which shows how much councils guard against a fear of over development of the county’s greatest asset. But the lodge’s high standards will attract people with money to spend from outside the county who will be going to the theatre in Scarborough or York or out for a Michelin meal. So there is a deal to be done about a discrete local development that will add to the local economy. The house is also bringing in some red-carpet money as a film setting, for a TV adaptation of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls starring David Thewlis, Miranda Richardson and Ken Stott, and lately for Mad to be Normal about the controversial psychiatrist RD Laing, and starring David Tennant, Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon.
There is a limit, of course, to what Chris would do around the hall, the walled garden and the Capability Brown parkland. But the many other acres at Scampston are opportunities for events that bring a paying audience.
“It’s my job to maintain, protect and hand on as best I can, so I will not be putting a BMX track in the park or a go-kart track on the front lawn! Whatever I do has to fit in with the heritage, but if I get a chance to do something in a field a mile down the road which isn’t going to bother anyone, then I will look at it.
“If you looked at a P&L for the whole estate it wouldn’t look like a very profitable business, but that is because we put so much of the resource and income back into maintaining the hall, or repairing the bridge. I would never moan about it – I know how lucky I am to have it – but places like don’t tend to be money-spinners.
“I earn my living flogging shirts, and that is my holiday money and will be my pension one day. This is about leaving Scampston in a better state than I found it during my tenure, just as my dad did.
“That is becoming increasingly difficult with things like Brexit and farming subsidies, so you have to be more creative and bring some commercial nous to these places. One of the excitements of Scampston is that after I had been an entrepreneur with Joseph Turner, there were elements of the estate here that I knew nothing about – like it being a visitor attraction – that have made me an entrepreneur again.
“But unless it is hugely technical, a lot about running a business is common sense in terms of understanding your customer – how will they get to hear about Scampston, how should I spend my marketing dollars to attract them, how will they get here and when they do, what will they be looking for?”
Chris is happy with what he is doing here, but always with a view to handing it over in good shape to his children. With Joseph Turner being the pension, what are his plans for the inheritance?
“It so happens that my boy is the oldest of my two children, so he will inherit Scampston and I will look after my daughter as well as I possibly can. He is very much being encouraged to make a career away from here. He is at Oxford Brookes at the moment studying commercial property and will then hopefully get a job in London, forge a career and get some cash, if he wants to drive a nice car and go on nice holidays.
“I’m hoping he’s a little bit like me for his sense of self-worth and identity. I would much rather be known as the guy who started the shirt company than the guy who inherited Scampston.
“I want my son and daughter to do whatever they would want to do without any regard for Scampston and then hopefully one day the time will be right and my son will decide to return here to Yorkshire.”
With the lodge park well underway, one of the biggest challenges of the next few years will be restoring the lakes at Scampston, which are silted up and in poor condition. That will need external funding, so there will be a lot of form-filling and an external project framework to be sorted out. Brexit will have an impact, although possibly more so at Joseph Turner, although Scampston operates a higher-level management scheme on its thousands of acres, to manage headgerows and field margins and there is European money to support a stunning wetland to the top end of the estate for ground-nesting birds like plover, lapwings and cranes.
And then in Easter 2018 Chris will be appointed High Sheriff of North Yorkshire, which will prove to be an expensive but rewarding year in office.
“It is a massive honour to be asked but it isn’t paid, and there is a lot of entertaining and you have to give up a lot of time to it,” he says.
“But I am really looking forward to it as it will get me to places I have never been before and I will meet some amazing people who I would never normally come across.
“It will be damned hard work, but I will get a lot out of it and will hopefully give a lot back. Although there is some trepidation about the tights and the sword and all the kit I will be wearing in a marquee in August!”
For diversity, there can be few entrepreneurs to match Chris, with his clothing business, heritage renovations, farming, holiday parks, tourism and Christmas trees. Therefore, to sum him up as a really entertaining bloke with a big house does him a disservice - but he is, just with quite a few other roles added in to keep that busy mind occupied.