Sir John Harvey-Jones revisited: what are the lessons learnt 30 years after the Troubleshooter came to Suffolk?
- Credit: Archant
Looking back to the time the famous television business guru helped the Copella apple juice business.
Back in the early 1990s reality television was just getting off the ground.
One of the first programmes of the genre was called Troubleshooter - a BAFTA-winning BBC series, which featured the late Sir John Harvey-Jones, one time chairman of chemical giant ICI, visiting and advising small and often struggling UK businesses.
It first aired in 1990. In an age when there were only four terrestrial TV channels and no internet, the programme was big news: suddenly Sir John became a well-known figure and business management was a popular subject for discussion in the homes of millions of people.
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In that first series, Sir John visited the Peake family who remain well-known among the region’s business community today as owners and directors of the Boxford Group - incorporating three businesses including Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf & Spa.
Last week, representatives from a host of family businesses gathered at the hotel on the Essex–Suffolk border to rewatch the programme, filmed 30 years ago, and to take part in a Q&A with Peake family members about what they had learnt from Sir John’s visit and how the experience has shaped their decisions in the years that have followed.
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The event was organised by Family Business United - a company which champions family businesses - and sponsored by regional law firm Birketts.
As the light dimmed and the film played, we were transported back to 1989 - a time when collars were big and mobile phones even bigger. Sir John was travelling by train towards East Anglia, his manner as calm and inviting as the Dedham Vale countryside into which he was entering.
The ‘Troubleshooter’ wasted no time in getting under the skin of the family’s businesses at that time - farmland of 700 acres made up of mostly Cox’s Orange Pippin apple orchards; their two championship golf courses and clubhouse that had been developed on land less suitable for cultivation; and an apple juice-making business called Copella. We saw him in conversation with different family members, including matriarch Devora, about how they saw the business and what they thought might improve things.
The problem Sir John was looking to unravel was that despite the impressive array of ventures under the family’s control, the business was struggling to turn a profit and was burdened with debt.
It is “barmy”, he said, that the family “works all the hours at a business when you could make more money selling it and living off the money in the bank.”
He advised them to consider selling a part of the business, so they could concentrate on other parts: “If you hold on to something - be clear whether you are doing it for emotional or commercial reasons,” he warned.
On further thought, Sir John decided it was the Copella business that was the problem - because the juice had to be made a year in advance, holding stock was costly while the product margins in a very competitive market were not high enough.
He advised that the family pursue a strategy of re-launching Copella as an upmarket, premium product, which would allow them to increase the price by up to 40%. The programme ends with the family agreeing to sell a controlling share in Copella to cider makers Taunton Cider, who they believe are better placed to guide them through this process.
The lights came back on and Peake family member Tamara Unwin and her husband Stephen took to the floor. In the years since, the family bought back the Copella business before selling it on again to Tropicana in 1997. Then in 2000 Stephen bought back the Cawston Press brand - part of the Copella brand range - which is now a successful business in its own right.
The hotel and golf club has gone from strength to strength with the inclusion of a conference centre, spa and guest lodges at different points over the years; while the farm has diversified its crops and now grows a wide range of produce including asparagus, rhubarb, cherries and blueberries. It has recently won both Top Fruit Grower and Soft Fruit Grower of the Year Awards.
A new business has also been formed called Peake Fruit, a marketing, cold storage and packing company supplying the group’s own and other growers’ fruit to supermarkets. Up to 600 people are employed across these three companies, which make up the Boxford Group.
As for the lessons learnt from Sir John, who eventually visited the family three times over a ten-year period for different programmes, Stephen says two things stand out.
Firstly, the importance of “stepping away from any emotional attachment” when it comes to business decisions and focussing on the commercial elements.
Secondly - he said: “Having worked with Taunton and Tropicana, I saw the work they were doing in developing their people. At the time, we weren’t doing enough of that and it’s something we’ve improved on. After all, it’s the people who are central to growing the business.”