Profile: Alison Robinson, partner at Saffery Champness

Alison Robinson, partner at Saffery Champness

Alison Robinson, partner at Saffery Champness

Alison Robinson was lucky enough to find her niche early. A 1980s accountancy
training at a City of London firm led her quickly into the world of private
client work and, urban location notwithstanding, brought her into early contact
with the landed estates clients that have been her meat and drink over the last
20 years.

There aren’t many firms where accountants can develop a niche practice in
estates management, Robinson points out, so her next move was similarly a lucky
one. Her upcoming marriage and a desire to move homeward towards Yorkshire
coincided with mid-tier firm
Saffery Champness
decision to open an office in the spa town of Harrogate. The firm, as she points
out, has a 150-year pedigree with landed estates and the diverse rural
businesses they increasingly support. That happy accident has led to a very
productive career in her locality of choice helping to develop the kind of
clientele that the firm excels in dealing with.

Some 20 out of 60 partners at Saffery Champness are actively involved in
estate work, a factor that provides ‘an awful lot of expertise’. It would be
difficult to replicate this kind of solidity in a small independent firm, she
argues, and it is something that provides Robinson and her clients with a
reassuringly high level of confidence. Whatever happens, and however
complicated, someone at the firm will have been through it all before.

That’s not to say, however, that there is nothing new in this discipline.
While the bulk of work connected with estates management ­ inheritance tax
planning, the odd disposal, property exemptions ­ is as predictable as the
changing seasons, it is also true to say that managing today’s country estates
is a very different business today to say 30 or even 20 years ago.

Where the country’s stately homes and their landholdings once represented
fairly quiet businesses with steady incomes to be collected from tenants,
perhaps with traditional farming businesses attached plus a smattering of
fishing or hunting rights, today estate holders have had to diversify. Those
incomes are simply not sufficient to pay salaries and sustain the core of these
estates ­ the main house and the immediate surrounding grounds and properties.

Today’s landed estate holders now turn their hand to running everything from
farm shops to festivals.

Knebworth in Hertfordshire was famously one of the first to open its doors to
contemporary music events.

Goodwood in West Sussex, while long associated mainly with its race course,
now also plays host to private and corporate golfing, an airfield, plus a
festival speed, the Goodwood Revival and a sculpture park.

Yorkshire, says Robinson, is particularly blessed, with many green acres and
good accessibility from the A1.

It still boasts many estates, some of which are great examples of traditional
family businesses that have branched out to survive. Landholders have turned
stable blocks into wedding venues, manor houses into boutique hotels and farm
buildings into conference centres and bespoke offices. Others have opened their
doors to film and TV productions. Castle Howard, for instance, has been the
setting for two versions of Brideshead Revisited. Newby Hall has also played
host to period dramas. The Leeds Festival takes place at Bramham Park each year.

The changes have been prompted mainly by financial issues, says Robinson. Tax
changes and rises in the cost of living ­ particularly in rural locations ­ mean
that the traditional sources of revenue are simply not sufficient on their own.
But her clients are more than reluctant entrepreneurs, she says.

The fact that their families have been landholders for generations, that they
know from an early age that they are to inherit and, hopefully, play guardian to
the estate for generations to come, gives them a steadiness that seems to lead
them to making discerning choices, she says.

‘What estates have been quite good at is looking at what they’ve got, whether
that is the heritage or the properties on the estate. They look at disused land
or buildings and might turn those into up-to-date and bespoke, high quality
offices, conference centres or a wedding venue,’ explains Robinson.

What is characteristic of this kind of client, says Robinson, is that they
build, convert or renovate with their eye firmly on the existing style and
heritage of their main estate. These conversions and businesses are not being
built and sold on quickly, she points out. ‘If they have an overall
characteristic it is that they have a long-term view ­ a sense of succession, a
stewardship and preservation type of view. I think that does generate the need
to do something really well.’

The steadiness of this kind of client plays well in the current climate, says
Robinson. They tend to be concerned about the credit crunch but not overly
ruffled. ‘They are very good at riding things out.’

Moving away from the traditional business of farming plus rent collection is
no mean feat, however, she says. It is not in everyone’s make-up to have an
entrepreneurial streak.

‘It takes quite a leap to move from sheep grazing to hosting festivals. There
is no national funding to speak of and everyone who has had success will also
have had false starts along the way.

‘What estate holders principally want to guard against is selling too much ­
giving in to the temptation of selling properties to developers in a way that
dilutes the essence of what they have. The most successful and entrepreneurial
estate holders have a plan and overview that they stick to,’ she says. ‘Not
everything is set in aspic. Outlying areas of land, and particularly property,
may be fair game, but they are all about keeping the core strong.’

One of the satisfying things about her role is the amount of client contact.
The firm, and presumably the clients also, aim for long-term relationships.
Robinson and her colleagues at the three-partner Harrogate office have worked
with some of their clients for 30 years and longer relationships are not unusual
at the firm. ‘From my point of view that is quite a privilege.’

She also enjoys the fact that, as client businesses evolve, her role becomes
increasingly one of giving strategic advice, business planning and providing a
sounding board for future ventures.

The tax issues don’t really go away and, in fact, sometimes become more
pressing when someone goes from a traditional estate business to building an
array of more entrepreneurial businesses. In some cases clients can go from no
capital taxes to a situation with a 40% charge. But, then again, Robinson’s
clients are often individuals who have to accept the idea of succession and
inheritance tax planning at a relatively young age. They are therefore no
strangers to calling for professional help.

‘You have really got to be a bit bothered about tax,’ she says. ‘A lot of
estates have been broken up to meet death taxes. Much as nobody likes to think
about their mortality, there is a need for early planning.’

Most are matter of fact about the need for this regular and early planning ­
and the need to look at new ideas to make these estates pay. With the joys of
ownership come huge tasks and responsibilities. ‘It’s quite trying and it makes
you do certain things ­ perhaps not things you wanted to do.’

Not all estates have obvious or easy answers to the thorny and pressing issue
of revenue generation, she says. ‘Some haven’t got the advantage of location ­
they might be deeply rural and just too far away for office conversions or
certain types of visitor attractions.’

What is more, there is mounting competition among estates as well as threats
in the current business cycle.

In the 1990s office conversions became very popular but, with rents coming
down in city locations, remote working may become less attractive and that
particular trend might have had its day.

Farm shops and some visitor attractions may well struggle, she says, as
discretionary spending falls. On the other hand, furnished lettings and opening
up the family home to shooting parties are ventures that have done well and may
enable estate owners to hold their own, she says. In fact the country’s estates
may see increased visitor numbers, as a weak pound looks certain to discourage
European travel in favour of holidays in the UK.

Land and property is still a good thing to have, she maintains, and land
prices in her part of the world are holding up. ‘Land is still a relatively
scarce resource,’ she says.

Making money from it, without selling the farm, stately home or stable block
will continue to be key.

Saffery’s secrets of success

  • Expertise – while the Harrogate office is small, the firm has some 20
    partners engaged in estate work, something that brings a depth of experience and
  • Offering broad independent advice – as estates evolve and become more
    entrepreneurial, professional advisers pay their way by providing strategic
    advice and broad business experience.

Case study: updating an estate

According to Robert Ropner, his story is ‘the usual country estate sob
story.’ When he moved into his family’s estate, aged 30, the 450 acres and
Georgian house didn’t really offer a sustainable income stream. ‘It didn’t
matter what you did with more traditional farming methods, there wasn’t enough
to support a country house and collection of buildings.’

Ropner wanted to keep the house as a family home and says his youth,
exuberance and career background in engineering and marketing led him to
approach the problem full bore. ‘I did some research into corporate
entertainment and training and identified a niche,’ he says. Between 1995 and
1999, he set about building an infrastructure that would support an upmarket
conference and team building centre capable of hosting around 300 visitors at a
time, with kitchens, showers and parking, converting the farm and coach
buildings that he describes as ‘fantastic, but redundant.’

The facility, Camp Hill in North Yorkshire, soon started to attract steady
business, but Ropner wanted to set up another company – something that would
attract the public. He enlisted Robinson’s help with a business plan for Aerial
Extreme, an outdoor adventure high ropes business, in the hope of bringing in
valuable consumer revenue.

‘The family had used Safferys for a while, but my contact with Alison has
come to the fore through the growth of the business. I was fine at running with
the ball and not so good at covering my tracks financially. She provides
financial expertise, and an independent voice – a great financial sounding
board.’ Aerial Extreme now has four sites, including one in Milton Keynes, and
brings in £200,000, a useful complement to the conference and team building

Robinson and her team have provided support with an employee option scheme as
a means of helping Ropner keep people in the business. She has also assisted
with formulating an exit strategy, budgeting and the obligatory inheritance tax
planning. But it’s the long-standing relationship that he values. ‘The stamp of
approval, the expertise and understanding of agricultural and rural estates is
what I felt comfortable with.’

Ropner’s business interests are still diversifying. He has set up an
equestrian education company to provide riding and horse training with a cross
country course through park and woodland. He wants to provide something more
than just DIY stabling and hacking and tap into another training niche. The
equestrian centre and all-weather facilities at Camp Hill also gives greater
control than simply allowing riders access to his land for simple hacking.

Robinson and Ropner talk once a month and meet on an ad hoc basis. ‘She just
generally knows my affairs and that’s very valuable as I’m someone who is fairly
provincial and insular. The relationship adds a lot of value; it gives stability
and a look at the broader picture.’

The proof of the relationship lies in the contribution it has made to
business success and continuity for his family. ‘I clearly recall my father
saying in 1993 that we would only be able to live in the house another two to
three years. We’re now at the 15-year mark and they’ve been my happiest, with my
wife and three children in the family home.’

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