Family-run hotel business thrives under daughter
PUBLISHED: 16:47 19 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:47 19 February 2019
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Statistics suggest that as a family-run concern, it's surviving against the odds. But four years after taking over the reins from her parents, Tarnia Robertson's hotel business is still going strong.
Only a third of family-owned firms last into a second generation, figures suggest, but Tarnia’s long apprenticeship under parents Shirley and Colin Aldous have stood her in good stead: four years after she became managing director at Ufford Park Woodbridge Hotel – enabling her parents to take a back seat – she has already taken the business to new heights.
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She has modernised procedures at the hotel, golfing venue and spa, introduced a training and career development programme, and involves her whole team in preparing strategies and budgets for joint success.
Turnover has soared by 27% in the last three years and profit risen by 10% in the last year alone.
She has also looked at how to branch out to encourage younger people to use the facilities.
A new adventure golf course – Congo Rapids Lost World – attracted an astonishing 35,000 visitors in its first year and had a knock-on effect on the sale of beverages and food.
Tarnia capitalised on this by renovating the Park Bar & Restaurant to create a contemporary dining experience with new patio areas.
At the same time, she embarked on an intensive five-year refurbishment programme, including the re-design of all 97 bedrooms and bathrooms.
To crown her achievements, the hotel was awarded a Quality in Tourism silver accreditation last year, and Tarnia scooped the 2018 Institute of Directors (IoD) East of England Family Business Director of the Year title.
The venue, which was opened in 1992 by Tarnia’s parents, who now sit on Ufford Park’s board, retains a strong family ethos.
“Actually, the family element sometimes makes running a business harder work,” she says. “The challenge is separating relationships at home with those in the workplace and the emotional baggage those bring with them.
“I’d love to say we are all really good at this but that would be untrue. Sometimes we have to restrain ourselves from discussing HR procedures and budget planning at Sunday lunch.”
Tarnia’s husband Stuart is a non-executive director of golf and owner of The DoctorGolf Academy while her eldest son Josh, 23, worked in the golf, conferencing and events department for two years and has now started an apprenticeship with Fenn Wright in Ipswich. Middle child Oliver, 20, works in maintenance during his holidays and daughter Georgia, 17, takes shifts in housekeeping and golf reception.
“It may seem like we have a natural progression plan in place. But I wouldn’t try to push my children into following in my footsteps,” says Tarnia. “To run any business, you have to be passionate about it – not just have it land in your lap.
“My parents are understandably passionate about what they created and I have been given enough autonomy to develop my own ideas to move the company forward which has allowed me to feel as passionate as they do.
“It’s all about striking a balance between past and future, new and old.
“Of course, if one of my kids wanted to take on the business after I retire, I would be delighted. But they will have to be prepared to learn a lot, as well as be confident enough to be a learner-leader.”
Family businesses fail for a host of reasons when they are passed on – misplaced family loyalty, a sense of entitlement, lack of knowledge, a general resistance to let go by the previous generation and balancing management with ownership.
Tarnia refused to take on the reins until she had learnt all aspects of the business, working shifts in every department, and even helping kitchen staff make breakfast and the night manager patrol the premises in the small hours.
She visited other hotels (and still does), researched competitors, developed financial understanding and gathered as much information as she could.
“There are always challenging issues when a business moves hands. My parents were pioneers and they needed to see that I was safe pair of hands, as well as see beyond that I am their little girl,” she says.
2019 will be a big year for Tarnia, personally as well as professionally. She and her husband will both turn 50, and celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in October.
Her wedding – in 1994 – was one of the first held at the venue she now runs.
“Ufford Park Hotel is very much a part of me,” she says. “It is where some of our biggest family celebrations have been held, it’s where I developed my business acumen and it’s a place I want to thrive and survive.”