The Westmorland family’s diversified and geographically dispersed portfolio of businesses

Sarah Dunning and Jane Lane - Westmorland Family, Cumbria

The Westmorland family’s diversified and geographically dispersed portfolio of businesses was built up gradually over the last 45 years. Today, the portfolio includes Tebay Services and Hotel, Gloucester Services, Junction 38 Services, the Rheged Centre and Cairn Lodge. It all started in 1972 when John and Barbara Dunning, hill farmers in Cumbria, spotted an opportunity when the M6 was built, cutting through their farm. Sarah, their daughter, explains: “At the time, Tebay had lost its primary employment as a village serving the rail industry, so instead of seeing this as a threat, they saw it as an opportunity to create a new enterprise. They joined forces with local business partners David and Nicky Birkett, and opened a small motorway service area with a 30-seat café serving home-cooked, locally sourced food to passing traffic.” Since then, Tebay Services has extended its offering to passing trade to include two farm shops, as well as a butchery selling beef and lamb produced on the family farm. Last year, the north- and southbound Tebay Services had a footfall of around four million people. “My parents started a business that was an extension of their farming enterprise. So it was based on the principles of celebrating place, staying close to the family’s farming heritage, creating buildings that fit in with their landscape, using local products and creating a business that brought benefit back to its local community,” Sarah says. The business has continued to build on those original principles. Unlike its competitors, it has no franchises, but has instead a simple offer of a farm shop, working with small, craft food producers, and a kitchen, where it makes its own food. The total business now employs 1,100 people, of which 700 are based in Cumbria. While Sarah leads Westmorland, John and Barbara’s other daughter, Jane, who lives in Norfolk, looks after the farm in Cumbria. They work closely together, both as shareholders and through the connection between the farm and the business.

“We were very lucky that the business had such strong and enduring principles, which we were able to build upon.”

Strong Principles

Away from her family and their business, Sarah worked in London for NM Rothschild and then later as a head-hunter. She then joined the Dunning family business in Cumbria and, in 2005, when the Birkett family retired and sold their share in the business back to the Dunning family, she became chief executive. It was a very gradual step back for her parents while Sarah got to grips with learning about the business and honing the various skills required for the job. In her own words: “We were very lucky that the business had such strong and enduring principles, which we were able to build upon.”

Branching Out

In addition to strengthening the existing business, the team was keen to explore the opportunity of creating another motorway service area in a new location. During the same period, Mark Gale, who worked in social regeneration in the Gloucester area, approached the family with a potential business opportunity in the Matson area of Gloucester to create sustainable income for the community and job opportunities for local people. The Dunning family’s interest was piqued, and from this idea came a long-lasting partnership that resulted in the development of Gloucester North and South Services on this motorway. As with any development, there will always be some challenges. The partnership bought land from two farmers but securing planning permission for their planned development on a greenfield site was a “sensitive challenge”. As well as new motorway service areas being subject to the guidance and regulations of Highways England, the proposed site flanked an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and so faced significant challenges in terms of landscape impact. The team set about appointing expert designers and landscape architects to find the best ways to minimise the impact on the landscape, resulting in the inclusion of a ‘green roof’ in the plans to make the new service station look like part of the landscape. In addition, a bespoke seed mix was used to reflect the natural vegetation of the local area. Apart from addressing environmental concerns, the plans also guaranteed a significant level of local sourcing and local employment, with a guarantee to provide opportunities to the long term unemployed in the locality. “We persevered and secured planning permission after a judicial review and subsequent appeal was launched by specialist interest groups. We stuck by our convictions in what felt like a David and Goliath challenge,” Sarah says. Today, Gloucester Services matches the annual footfall at Tebay Services, with four million visitors each, and employs 400 people.

Customer Care

The Westmorland Family business has a workforce of more than 1,100 people, with an annual turnover of around £92m in the last year. But success is not just about impressive numbers, it’s also the quality of the service offering as experienced by their customers. Continuously gauging their customers’ overall satisfaction and loyalty to their brand is a vital management tool, as it highlights areas that can be improved. Underlying the success of the business is a deep ethos. Sarah explains: “Our family’s approach to our business was borne out of a commitment to connecting people with place. Ensuring that our whole team of colleagues feels part of this purpose is absolutely key to our success.” Following the business’ growth – and in particular its evolution into a more geographically dispersed business – they decided to bring new skills into the team. As a result, Katherine Davis, who is from a multi-site retail background, is now the chief operating officer and Sarah has become the business’ chair.

What Lies Ahead?

Looking to the future, Sarah recognises that there is still much to do in their existing businesses. She says: “Maintaining an innovative offer and our high standards is an ongoing pursuit. We have to spot trends and the ever-changing tastes of our market and adapt to them.” That said, the business is also keen to identify new motorway service area opportunities, providing they are the right fit for the business and will help it become stronger at what it does. It does not want to pursue growth for growth’s sake.

“Maintaining an innovative offer and our high standards is an ongoing pursuit"