New age leaders on Landed Estates

New age leaders on Landed Estates
Published: 13 May 2020

The rural sector was seemingly in a brave new world well before coronavirus broke. The crisis has exemplified the challenges and estates are now going to have to be even braver.

The two obvious and historic sources of revenue for rural estates – farming and country sports – have been up against it for a while. With social, political and economic pressures growing, they are set to suffer further unless done on a significant scale – something that only a very few estates have the luxury of and responsibility for. ‘Diversity’, therefore, has been the buzz word for decades and we’ve seen estates move into retail, hospitality, leisure, commercial property and other such sectors in order that the ‘family silver’ is retained and the estate is in good shape for the next generation. Ben Ingram, Head of the Real Estate leadership practice at Berwick Partners, explains more.

A new breed of leader

In order to identify commercial opportunities and successfully deliver on these, landed estates have had to become more sophisticated ‘Family Offices’ to attract broader talent. Functional roles, typical of a more corporate environment, are not uncommon with high calibre professionals leading finance, legal, digital, marketing, operations, property and HR. With the change in nature of an estates team, as well as the broadening of commercial interests, comes the need for a different type of leader and, occasionally, from a different background.

From the breadth and nature of the work we are undertaking for landed estate clients, this is certainly the case. Our specialist Rural and Landed Estates Practice is regularly working with our Consumer, Retail, Hospitality & Leisure, Higher Education, Property, Finance and IT & Digital Practices, as we engage with talent from all sectors where skill sets are transferable and relevant.

There are organisations even more absorbed and embedded in the sector that are a great source of measuring key trends and indicators such as these. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) is one such that is very well placed to comment on leadership change, not least due to it having the highest number of members in the sector and with representatives in each region of the UK.

Ann Maidment, Director South West, has said that the type of agent (resident or not) has significantly changed in the last 5-10 years. They have become someone with a broader skill set and greater wealth of experience in a business (or corporate) environment, so they are more commercially focused and can work at a more strategic level. In Anne’s opinion, this is true, even amongst the estates of 2,000-4,000 acres that need to move into commercial property and tourism. Estates of this size cannot justify the employment of a full time Resident Agent/Estates Director/CEO and so employ agents from one of the rural consultancies.

When considering the larger estates, there are many examples of leaders who spent their early careers (and in some cases very recent ones) outside of the Rural sector. David Horton-Fawkes’s very early career was at the Savoy; Peter Mitchell was MD at Jarrold Norwich until 2018; and Nicholas Dobbs was previously at Cazenove. There are also examples of those advising on the smaller estates who have come from worlds away but are experts in sectors that Landed Estates have diversified into. William Roe is one example who had Executive level roles at Poundland and Morrison but moved to Lowther Castle and is now advising the Apley Estate, amongst others.

In our experience, and almost without exception, the successful transition from one sector to another is not just about the transferable skills and relevant work experiences of a potential candidate. These qualities are the priorities in the initial selection stage, but importantly, what it comes down to is the character and interests of the individual, which ultimately dictates their suitability. For instance, do they appreciate that this is the Family/Principal’s ’train set’? Not so much a need for ’donning the cap’ but understanding that this is a private and family affair with no room for their own ego or drivers. Are they passionate about the countryside and the rural community? As one of our clients put it: “I want someone whose head is in commerce, but heart is in the country”.

Reaction of agencies

The shift to broadening talent within the consultancies has been less obvious and quick. The likes of Bidwells, Carter Jonas, Knight Frank, Savills and Strutt & Parker, do have agents whose expertise go well beyond the traditional rural sectors as they oversee a multitude of the smaller, very different estates. It helps that these broad consultancies have many specialist business lines to cover other sectors and there does seem to be a move away from the general practitioner. Cath Crowther, who recently moved from Bidwells to become CLA’s Director East, started her career as a broad Rural Surveyor but then specialised in planning. There are also signs that they are looking for different talent at ‘grass roots’ – those from different colleges, universities and backgrounds – which in turn, is seeing the traditional agricultural colleges broaden the courses they offer and deliver.

However, it seems that estates are often put off by the ‘one stop shop’ nature and size of a national private practice. The lag in adapting to the changing market by these consultancies has allowed a breed of ‘disruptor’ to establish themselves. These are small, niche and often regionally focused rural consultancies that tailor their advisory or management style, and products, to suit the very specific needs of a family and estate.

In the North of England, Dorothy Fairburn has seen a distinct change in the types and style of agents. She has said that those working for consultancies have adapted so that they see themselves as, and are also perceived to be, resident agents (albeit they are obviously not resident)! There has also been a marked increase in the number of women agents, and those from the less traditional rural or agricultural colleges and universities, something I believe is in response to estates owners truly seeing they need someone who is more than a ’tweed wearing shot from Cirencester’.

On the gender diversity point in the North, interestingly we are certainly seeing evidence of this trend across the assignments we have completed recently. Over the course of 2019, only half of our final shortlists for Landed Estate related searches had female representation; however of those, circa 75% were headhunting campaigns in the North.

Dorothy noted that today’s Agents/Estates Directors/CEOs,, now need to have leadership qualities, together with strong financial acumen and experience in public relations – the latter being of particular importance on Scottish estates that are under distinct pressure to work with the wider community. There is a political and Political agenda that very much needs to be considered by those working in the region.

Rebecca Williams, CLA’s former Director Wales, highlighted that the political framework was even more important and indeed central to working in Wales; as well as a realisation by agents as to the size and nature of holdings in the country. Being predominantly family farms and owner occupiers, there is a hesitancy to ‘diversify’, but instead an appetite to focus on ‘utilising’ and making things more ‘efficient’. The more dynamic estates are looking to do this through complex and scientific methods that demand advice and guidance from a different sort of professional, which, in turn, is fuelling a requirement for new talent and skills within the consultancies. Furthermore, they must possess a real understanding and appreciation of devolution and awareness of Wales in the context of the UK (and Europe going forward).


The next generation of Principal

Another trend was confirmed by Ann Maidment. In the South West there is the ’Next Generation Programme’ where those who have recently been taken on as custodians of an estate, meet to discuss core issues. Generally speaking, and not surprisingly, with a new generation comes a shift in focus, concerns and priorities. Top of the agenda within the Programme are issues such as climate change as well as opportunities and relationships with Europe. The very fact that Principals of estates are meeting and becoming increasingly ‘hands on’, is a shift. A further signal is that today’s CEO or Agent must be able to work closely with a Principal who is fully engaged, open minded, commercial and holistic in approach. Certainly, in our experience in sourcing and selecting these professionals, there has been increasing involvement from the Principal/our client in the process, as they see the benefits of being involved in the search for someone who they can work with, and not just get along with.

Ben Underwood is now Programme Director for the CLA, having previously been Regional Director East (and prior to that, Regional Director Wales and Assistant Director South East). He and Dorothy make the interesting point that a younger generation ‘Principal’ seems more prevalent today and that the generational handover seems to be happening earlier. Perhaps this is because landed families are recognising the need for real change and significant engagement with the estate and its associated businesses

Ben also says the ‘new generation’ have often had significant careers outside of the rural sector, which brings valuable and varied perspectives, ambitions and expertise.  From Edward Tollemarche and Lord Downe, to Lord Burlington and the Hon. Wentworth Beaumont – all are individuals who have worked (and in some cases continue to work) in diverse sectors that are very different to the rural sector– notably Banking, Finance and the Arts. Naturally, these Principals will question the traditional and look to enable positive change using what they have learnt from elsewhere.

Interestingly, Ben went so far as to say he believes the term ‘landowner’ is somewhat outdated and that these families and their next generations are rural ‘entrepreneurs’ or ‘enablers’. These are broad rural businesses that support rural communities and are central to the Rural Powerhouse Campaign - launched by the CLA in 2019 to unleash the potential of the rural economy.

Often it is said that leaders recruit in their own image. It could be that the new generation of Principal, who have different backgrounds outside of the rural sector themselves, are looking for different talent to support and enable the change they are seeking. Principals are not seeking these changes because of their own careers/backgrounds, but because they realise the estates, for which they are custodians, must diversify to survive.

A balance required

Of course, and as always, there is a balance to all this, and Dorothy Fairburn points out that estates need to be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bath water”! Farming, sport and the typical residential lettings need to stay central to a rural estate’s interests. Doubtless, the revenue they generate is important, but perhaps the heritage is more so along with traditions and core community values.

Typically, the ‘emerging leaders’ reflect the changes in the sector in which they lead whilst recognising the fundamental and traditional elements of how the sector has evolved. The modern-day CEO needs to have a holistic view and a broader commercial sense, underpinned by a strong financial understanding. What remains crucial, though, is that he/she has a rural grounding and an appreciation and passion for the traditional rural way.

The COVID effect

Our world has fundamentally changed since the outbreak of the Corona virus. A lot of the long-term trends in the rural, land and property sectors remain; however, the pandemic has been a catalyst and fast forwarded a lot of these by as much a decade. As Arundhati Roy wrote in the FT: “The pandemic is a portal”. The office workplace is the obvious example. Businesses have been forced to embrace the virtual world and flexible and agile working habits. Whilst employers need to interact in order to effectively collaborate, meet with customers/clients and benefit mentally from socialising; it is doubtful that a lot offices will go back to the lines of desks for workers to simply ‘get head down’.

The CLA Regional Directors have been flat out since ‘lockdown’ putting members in contact with experts and clarifying government guidelines. Cath Crowther commented that cash flow has been the greatest concern for landowners but also members have been seeking advice on public access and right of way, fly tipping, the definition of key workers and the increase in rural crime. Ben Underwood pointed out the positive, but probably short term, impact of the crisis is an uptick in consumer demand for local produce and the public recognising the importance of British farming. Sport is obviously shot, for the moment (excuse the pun); tenants (residential and commercial) are often looking for assistance in rent payments; and retail (bar garden centres and those selling daily provisions), hospitality and leisure sectors are closed for foreseeable future. Some of these business lines for estates will never recover and the others are going to take time.

What is certain is the ‘new age leader’ is going to have to be more commercial, adaptable and robust than ever before. Michael Valenzia, the newly appointed Director of South East, has come from out of sector and sensed the industry was evolutionary not revolutionary when he joined. However, now there will need to be a shift to revolutionise due to huge economic pressures. At the same time, the place of the major landowner in a community has never been more profound - the drive for revenue cannot come at a social cost. As such, tomorrow’s leader of a landed estate needs to be hugely aware of their social responsibility, firm as to the financial stability of the business(es), flexible to change and be brave to step out of traditional ways.

Ben Ingram would like to thank all the CLA Regional Directors who took the time to speak with him in the course of researching this article. As a specialist headhunter in the Rural, Property and Landed Estate sectors, Ben has particular interest in changing and emerging leadership in these industries. Ben is also one of the driving forces at the heart of the annual Berwick Partners Emerging Leaders Programme.

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