'Have faith in yourself' say Suffolk business women

Tarnia Robertson, managing director of Ufford Park

Tarnia Robertson, managing director of Ufford Park - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Today marks International Women’s Day – a day that aims to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women across the globe. 

And here in Suffolk, there are a number of women who have done some great things, especially in the world of business.  

Three of them share their stories of how they’ve risen through the ranks and broken the glass ceiling to take charge of two of the county’s most successful businesses – and share tips for any women who wish to follow in their footsteps. 

“Have faith in yourself – you're better than you think you are” 

Ufford Park is a sprawling, 120-acre hotel, golf club and spa set in historic Suffolk parkland near Woodbridge.  

It was purchased in 1991 by Shirley and Colin Aldous, who took over the stalled development. They invested their own money into the scheme, along with another local entrepreneur, and the Ufford Park Hotel opened its doors the following year. 

“My parents were housebuilders who were retired. Dad took up golf at the time, and it went from there really. He spent a year using his building skills to complete it, as it was a shell when they purchased it,” explains managing director Tarnia Robertson.  

Tarnia Robertson, managing director of Ufford Park

Tarnia Robertson, managing director of Ufford Park - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

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Colin and Shirley managed to transform the business into what is now a 90-bedroom hotel, with bar, restaurant, health club, and 18-hole golf course. 

“We opened the doors in April 1992, and we’re about to celebrate our 30th anniversary this year.” 

But for MD Tarnia, working for the family business was never something she envisaged.  

“I studied as a surveyor at Bristol Polytechnic and worked in London before coming back to Suffolk to work for Bidwells in Ipswich. I worked for them until I got pregnant with my first child, but this was back in the day when you weren’t offered a part-time position – you either came back or didn’t come back at all unfortunately. It took me five years to qualify, and I either had to work full-time or jack it all in.” 

Opting for the latter, Tarnia worked a series of temp jobs in order to bring in money to support her and her two children.  

“Then during the Christmas of 2000, mum and dad said they need someone to coordinate advertising and marketing at the golf club, as each department was doing its own thing and no one really knew what was going on.” 

That February Tarnia began working at Ufford Park in a marketing role. Over the years, she eventually worked her way up, getting to grips with the ins and outs of hospitality, promotion and PR.  

“In 2013, my parents talked about retiring as they were nearing 70. My brother had been in a business a couple of times but he had no intentions of coming back as he had his own career by then. 

“I thought to myself ‘well I know about the business because I’ve been marketing it for so long, but haven’t run it before’. So I replaced myself with a full-time marketing manager and threw my all into spending the next 18 months learning everything I could about running a business.” 

In April 2015, Tarnia took over as MD. 

Describing the huge career step as ‘daunting’, she says she knew she had to prove herself.  

“I think I was terrified because I suppose I’d been brought up to believe my brother was the brains, and he had the financial aptitude because he’s a forensic accountant. And I think, for me, my people skills were never particularly considered a strength. But I was willing to learn whatever was needed to succeed.” 

Soon after taking up her post as MD, Tarnia was invited to join Vistage, a leadership programme headed up by former ITFC boss David Sheepshanks.  

“He was selecting MDs and CEOs from varying businesses to start up a Suffolk branch of leadership coaching, and I was recommended for it. Following an interview, I was offered a place at the table, and I’ve been involved with it for five years now.” 

Tarnia says it’s given her all the skills she needs to run a business, as well as build up her self-confidence. 

“It’s also made me realise my ‘soft’ skills are a real asset, rather than a weakness, and has ultimately helped me with my job which is managing people. Being a manager is all about getting the best out of people, and helping keep them engaged – whether they’re a pot washer or someone as senior as a hotel manager.” 

And while hospitality and marketing are both quite female-centric sectors, it is still men who tend to hold the top positions – and Tarnia herself admits that women in the workplace are often quick to doubt themselves. 

“We do lack confidence and self-belief, whereas men are generally more self-confident. They’ll blag it until they know it, whereas women are more nervous and cautious to do the same. I do still notice in anything that I attend, as a woman I’m still a minority. If there’s a board meeting, there’ll be 10 men and two women.  

“But over the last few years, I think people are becoming more accepting of the fact that women do know what they’re doing and that what they bring to the table is an asset.” 

For any women who wish to strive for those sought-after top positions, Tarnia says self-confidence is the biggest and most crucial asset.  

“Have faith in yourself – you're better than you think you are. And make sure you keep learning. I think a lot of women are humble and because of that, they’re willing to take the steps they need to become better at their jobs.  

“If you keep developing and learning new skills, and surrounding yourself with people that know more than you, you’ll go far. And you shouldn’t feel threatened by that – you should be bringing up people who want take your job one day. Some people see that as a threat, but we should be encouraging people to chomp at our heels.” 

“I learned from watching my mum on the phone growing up” 

Stoke by Nayland Resort – an award-winning hotel, golf, spa and lodges destination that straddles the Suffolk-Essex border - celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Established in 1972 by Bill and Devora Peake, the entrepreneurial pair had their fingers firmly in many pies. Not only did they found one of the region’s first golf clubs, they also expanded their original 120-acre apple farm and successfully diversified into fruit processing by launching the now-famous Copella fruit juice brand which saw Devora awarded an MBE in 1996 for services to the fruit industry. 

Sisters Susanna, Tamara and Carmella at Boxford Farm

Sisters Susanna, Tamara and Carmella at Boxford Farm - Credit: Tamara Unwin

Creating quite the empire, Devora’s three daughters Tamara Unwin, Susanna Rendall, and Carmella Meyer have certainly inherited their mother’s vision for business and, together with their brother Jonathan, and Susanna’s son Robert, they have successfully expanded the resort and the fruit farming business over the years. Their Boxford Group includes Stoke by Nayland Resort, Boxford (Suffolk) Farms and Peake Fruit, employing around 600 staff. 

All three sisters have fond memories of their mother, who they remember as a pioneering go-getter during the 1960s and 1970s.   

“We grew up with mum on the phone to customers for apples and our other produce every day in the kitchen - she was a wonderful salesperson, a natural marketeer, and a well-respected woman in business. She was a great role model for all of us,” recalls Tamara. 

“And both of our parents were very inclusive – at mealtimes they would discuss business in front of us and ask our opinions, so we’ve always felt very involved from a young age,” adds Susanna. 

“We all felt passionately about the business, and were committed to wanting to see it work and help our parents where we could.” 

After all three sisters graduated from university, they each spent time managing the family restaurant in London – getting their first taste of what it was like to take charge of a business aged just 21.   

“Running our Pippin restaurant for a year was a real baptism of fire as there were 40 staff – and a food shop underneath,” says Tamara.  

But the experience served her well, and she then worked as the PA to the MD of a food importing company, supplying supermarkets across the country.   

“But my father died in 1979 and I thought to myself ‘why am I doing this job for someone else? I should be using this experience to help my own family business,’ So I ended up setting up a sales office for Copella in my bedroom in London”.  

Tamara Unwin

Tamara Unwin - Credit: Dan Tidswell

Throughout the 80s, Tamara would travel around the country selling Copella to supermarkets – something, that at the time, was unusual for a woman.  

“Back then, there were hardly any other female sales directors in the grocery trade. I remember feeling quite intimidated, sitting in these big supermarket head office waiting rooms as the only woman – and I realised I had to appear a lot more confident than I actually felt.   

“I think what took me through was my enthusiasm for the product. That’s what gave me the confidence I needed to succeed, and I think I learned that from watching my mum on the phone growing up.”  

After years of hard work and emulating their mother’s successes, Susanna is the managing director of the Boxford Group, Tamara is group PR and marketing director while their third sister Carmella is a Boxford Group director based at Peake Fruit.   

Susanna also had experience of being a director on the board of the local NHS Trust, among other directorial roles, and learned a great deal from this. 

“I have never felt that being a woman is a weakness in business. However, I have realised that I’ve had to perform as well, if not better, than my male counterparts, especially when I was working with Taunton Cider during our Copella days where I was the only female on its board,” says Susanna.   

“I do think being a woman has helped me in the business world though, as you probably have a more sympathetic yet professional approach.”  

“I think no matter what you do, you have to focus on trying to be the very best you can be, and look to spend time and effort perfecting your skills for whatever role you’re wishing to fulfil,” adds Tamara.