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15 Apr 2021

Natasha Hassall: A good reputation can attract investment, tenants and support for larger environmental projects

In April's edition of The Lede, we sat down with Natasha Hassall, a Partner at Boodle Hatfield, to talk about the challenges and opportunities landowners face when commercialising their landed estate.

Why are landowners commercialising their estates and turning them into brands?

NatashaThe world of landed estates constantly evolves and landowners need to embrace change to sustain their estates and remain profitable. This is not, necessarily, particularly new. Urban estates have long been involved in active management and development of the areas they own. Many rural estates have commercial operations from wedding businesses, leisure operations, and business parks to prestigious venues for festivals and sporting occasions to diversify and spread their risk. These often run alongside significant investment in new farming methods, rewilding or renewable energy.

The options are endless: selecting what to do can be challenging and agreeing how to present them equally so. However, if a landed estate has a set of clear values and principles it consistently applies to its commercial enterprises — effectively its branding — it makes it far easier to communicate the value proposition to potential partners, investors, and local communities.

If the strategy is to diversify or enter a new market potential, customers will have an idea of what they can expect to see from that offering and are more likely to give it a chance. Last but not least, a strong brand has the advantage of putting the business in a stronger position to weather any storms, as many landowners have seen over the last year.

What concerns do families have when commercialising their estate?

NatashaThe financial advantages to creating a strong commercial operation are clear, but it is important that the commercialisation suits each family, and the process should ideally start with the interests, values, and aspirations of the families themselves. The more passion they feel for a particular commercial approach, the more likely it is to be successful. But they also need to be clear as to what should be retained.

The key concerns which need to be addressed upfront are privacy for the family so that their day-to-day life is not impacted too much; how to manage the reduced control of the Estate if external investors or professional managers are brought in; and finally what impact the changes will have on the legacy which is handed onto the next generation.

We always recommend that the family consider these factors carefully before embarking on any major schemes.

How have ESG & CSR trends impacted landed estates?

NatashaLanded Estates are acutely aware of current trends and the part they can play in addressing environmental, climatic, and social concerns. Landed estates and farmers are custodians of 70% of the UK’s land and, as such, have a key role to play in driving the green agenda. Many are introducing innovative ways of farming and exploring renewable energy schemes.

The implications of Brexit and the government’s intention to provide public funds for public goods changes the situation for rural estates and offers some real challenges.

Generally, estates are fundamentally concerned about sustainability. They have a long-term view and environmental issues are considered important. But there are difficult questions to face about financial viability and tax reliefs.

Increased transparency and emphasis on CSR impacts landed estates as much as it does other businesses. Estates are directly involved with local communities and liable to being called to account on such issues. Equally, they are well attuned to their interdependence on local customers, suppliers, tenants and residents and, for many, CSR is a long-established tradition under a new acronym.

In what ways do next-gens have a different approach to commercialising landed estates?

NatashaUsually the next generation grow up on the estate and are immersed in the culture and strategy of the family. Many now first pursue a career in the City, commercial property or event management which provides them with great insights into new trends and experience of other business practices, as well as providing them with good leadership skills and management experience.

In many cases, their forbears were more likely to have had an initial career as an army officer, so things are evolving. The newer generation are confident in their business decisions and keen to diversify and look at the Estate as a business, ensuring all assets are used effectively.

They are often more willing to borrow, can be far more focussed on the environmental agenda and more alive to reputational issues. Their approach may be at odds with the traditional management of the Estate and can generate healthy debate!

What succession challenges do families face when transitioning and estate from one generation to the next?

NatashaFor a successful transition to take place it is important that the family develop a plan which is discussed with all generations so that there is clarity on what happens and when. Open communication is key and there are very real challenges for everyone involved, which need to be understood.

Sometimes, as a first step, we find that it can be a good idea to pass responsibility for a small part of the business to the heir so that there is a discrete project and clear responsibilities. That might be the farm shop, the glamping sites or developing a new farming or energy project.

Some families find that having both generations working together on a joint project, usually with some external input, can be helpful. Both generations need to understand the viewpoints of the other, but also their different aspirations so that there can be a joint plan which addresses the different needs. The family also need to consider the value of bringing in external expertise to assist with the process.

Why is reputation important for landed estates?

NatashaAll landed estates are mindful of how they can develop their offering today and protect their legacy for the future. A strong reputation underpins those aims.

Estates have always played a key role in the community and continue to do so today, particularly over the last year where Covid has ensured people are living and working closer to home and are more immersed in their locality.

Estates are often large employers; they manage the land and buildings which impact the local community, both in urban and rural settings, and they are frequently involved with local charities and initiatives, providing valued support.

A good reputation can attract investment, tenants and visitors from outside the area, and provide important support to larger environmental projects. These multiple factors ensure that successful landowners pay close attention to the reputation of the Estate and the family. A landed estate cannot move, so local relationships are vitally important.

How can reputation enhance business opportunities for landed estates?

NatashaBusinesses today are acutely aware of the value of reputation and how that can be built or destroyed overnight.

Investors and business partners will always be looking to align themselves with enterprises or brands that can enhance their reputation in some way. And, of course, having a reputation of being open-minded and forward-thinking will also make an estate more attractive as a potential investment/partner.

This article was originally published in The Lede, Transmission Private’s monthly newsletter, in April 2021.