WILLIAM FRY TALKS RURAL SOLUTIONS' COMING OF AGE
Rural Solutions is celebrating two milestones this year. It’s 21 years since the company was originally founded, and ten years since the management buy-out led by William Fry, Mark Hancock and Ralph Foljambe saw Rural Solutions build its advisory business alongside planning and design. We looked back at the last 10 years with our managing director, William Fry.
Rural Solutions has been a part of William Fry’s life from the first day he walked in, back in 1998, embarking on what would become a significant journey. At that time, with Roger Tempest at the helm, the business was a dynamic and innovative operation recognising the opportunity to work with landed estates to develop rural office space as an alternative income source. Fast forward to 2007, and the business’s ownership had changed along with its direction and culture. William decided to armour himself for the future and left the company, to study for an MBA and hone his skills in business transformation.
In 2009, with his new ‘toolkit’ in place and a David Cameron-led government about to emerge, things were looking very hopeful from a rural economy perspective. Add to this, a huge planning policy reform on the horizon, and the potential was there for a big shift in what could be achieved in the countryside. With these macro-environment factors, William followed his strong instinct that there was a significant opportunity for Rural Solutions to help landed estates again but now, with a much broader offering, William set his sights on acquiring Rural Solutions from its then owners, The Accent Group. With fellow executive and non-executive directors, Ralph Foljambe and Mark Hancock by his side, trading commenced on 1st August 2009.
A new Rural Solutions was born, the one that we recognise today – with the prosperity of the UK’s rural economy at the heart of everything we do. Rural Solutions’ has a story of rural business growth and diversification of its own services, in common with its clients. From here, Rural Solutions has rapidly developed from a small team of business advisors, to a multi-disciplinary professional services provider with over 40 people in the business and offices in Oxford and Yorkshire. It is firmly established as the UK’s leading rural diversification and development specialist. Attracting key rural experts in its field, the business continues to grow and the quality of advice and talent as impressive as ever.
What has Rural Solutions achieved so far in your opinion?
The most significant thing we have done is really redefining the way in which clients receive development advice in the countryside. Changing from the traditional asset led approach to a forward thinking, business and market led approach.
What was one of your first big diversification projects?
Granary Barns. An excellent achievement, turning the buildings and their location into an extremely successful wedding venue and still is today. The client was facing real challenges having already taken bookings for his venue and with a project team that were failing him, Rural Solutions came to the rescue providing a full project management service to ensure that everything was turned around ready for the opening date. It’s not quite the same as what we do today but it gave us the confidence to know, we could change the fortunes of those that work with us, really galvanising our passion for diversification and putting it into action, with impressive results.
What would you say are the biggest challenges you have experienced whether external or internal?
I think one of the biggest challenges is judging the impact of the changing political environment: general elections etc, and most recently Brexit. Overall, viewed in the media as a negative, and the challenge for us is to show that it actually presents a very exciting opportunity, a way for the countryside to evolve into meeting the needs of consumers looking for experiences, and importantly, the environment. Finance is low cost, there is a more conducive planning system and there is a consumer base increasingly looking to spend time and money on quality experiences in the countryside.
What would you say are some of your fondest memories of Rural Solutions over the last ten-years?
Definitely the people, the friends that have been made and the culture within the business. I am very proud of that, I think people enjoy working here, and that’s really important. I also think the proudest ones are probably working with clients who were facing financial challenges where we’ve transformed their fortunes.
Are there any that stands out?
Absolutely, Jonathan Fell at Cheshire Ice Cream Farm. That project has been an astounding success. From a simple ice cream farm offering with a reliance on wholesale, we recognised the huge potential that the site had within it and understanding the growing consumer demand for play experiences. It was the most visited free farm attraction in the UK in 2017 – and that is down to our vision and Jonathan’s enthusiasm and confidence in what we could do to help him.
Would you say these are your most favourite projects?
They are my favourites because they demonstrate our commitment to high quality delivery, as well as our expertise in the rural planning and design. The outcome shows the transformational impact that our approach has on land-based rural businesses.
Another one that really stands out for me is the new Wieldwood Park Estate. We achieved planning for a complete overhaul of a tired and unexciting estate in Hampshire, from a plain dwelling and land to a beautiful replacement house surrounded by attractive parkland, ancient woodland, lakes and further replacement lodgings.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice when you started as MD, based on everything that you have experienced what would it be?
To just have the confidence to look at things evolving over a longer period of time.
A more generic question, how do you think rural Britain has evolved in the last 21 years?
I think it’s staggering the change in rural Britain in the last 21 years. There’s been a push factor – the increasing pressure on agriculture has meant landowners have been looking for new business opportunities. And the pull factor – the significant increase in the public’s awareness and interest in the countryside and all it has to offer and then, more recently, their rising expectations for the quality of what’s offered to them in the countryside. And although the rural broadband issue is far from resolved, today there’s the most amazing range of businesses and jobs in the countryside, far beyond what I might have predicted 21 years ago.
What would you say is the strangest diversification project you have ever come across not necessary your own or Rural Solutions own?
The one that’s taken us all by surprise is the rewilding experiment at the Knepp Estate in Sussex – I definitely didn’t see that one coming.
Where do you see Rural Solutions in the next ten years?
We’ll be a bigger and broader firm ten years from now, but still with the same values and core client message. As well as expanding all our current service lines, I see Rural Solutions bringing in additional skills
Our client base will continue to expand. There are places in the UK that have experienced Rural Solutions, counties that we haven’t worked in yet, so the scope remains significant. I’d also expect us to increasingly work with existing clients on their operational businesses, rather than our focus being entirely on new diversifications.
I believe we have done a lot of the hard bit, we have a strong structural base in place now to grow from, so we should expect to see faster growth in the business in the next ten years.
A message to the Rural Solutions team…
Well, first of all, I am so thankful for the people who have been with us on the journey so far.
We can continue to be successful by knowing the importance of working across teams closely together, enhancing the client experience, being ahead of the curve in terms of market intelligence and intuitive to trends based on our collective, unique understanding. I strive to turn this from a great place to work into a phenomenal place to work. We are a people business and it’s all of them that have contributed in the last 21 years. The company has come of age, it is in a traditional world and from that perspective we may look like quite a young company but in terms of rural diversification, we have been pioneers.
Have you got any regrets?
There are a few things that didn’t work out as expected but I don’t think I have any regrets because I get up in the morning with the same energy and enthusiasm business as I did on day 1.