How did you get started in your career?
My family have been Exmoor farmers for generations — there are Beers mentioned in Lorna Doone — so it is not surprising that I should have made a career in land and property. I have always been driven by a great love for, and appreciation of the importance of, the rural economy.
I started at the very practical end of farming: in 1983, aged 16, I joined a Youth Training Scheme at £25 per week and became a herdsman and sheep-shearer in Devon. I then read agriculture at Seale Hayne College near Newton Abbott and went on to manage farms in Hampshire. One day I was approached by the neighbouring estate and asked if I’d be interested in estate management. I’ve always been curious and open to new opportunities, and this piqued my interest. So I studied Estate Management at the Royal Agricultural College on a scholarship from Strutt & Parker. I spent the scholarship funds on my wife’s engagement ring, but I did end up working for Peter Lee at Strutts in Chelmsford, and after a year as his bag-carrier I became the land agent at the Rockingham Castle estate in Northamptonshire.
You've moved on a lot since then – how have things changed for you and in your field?
In 1999 I was head-hunted by Savills to establish its Telford office, not far from Shrewsbury, where the other side of my family were fine art auctioneers. Soon after joining Savills I was asked to provide expert evidence in the Antrobus tax tribunal, a seminal case that set the precedent for whether a house should legally qualify as a farmhouse and thus attract the tax reliefs enjoyed by agricultural property. It was my first tribunal, and we won it. It taught me the vital importance of really understanding the meaning of a property, and how it fits in with all the different contexts in which it might be viewed.
Stewardship of heritage is what I’ve always enjoyed, and it has been a huge privilege to work with great estates in the UK and Italy: the finest agricultural holdings, houses, gardens, art collections. The key is understanding how to make all those elements work intelligently together. Today everything has become very professional and specialist, and there’s a danger of losing sight of the bigger picture, and how things are interlinked and related.
As my career has developed, it has become less about property law and tax and more about people: my role has come to be advising families about succession planning and tax. One of the most precious assets of an estate is the family that owns it. The family can make the difference between success and failure, and if the family is an ancient one, there’s more to lose. But if you put the people first, all the other elements come together.
Innovation in the property sector has always been of interest to you. What do you see in the pipeline?
We are seeing a reformation of the rural economy. It represents less than one per cent of the UK’s GDP, yet the remaining 99 per cent relies on it to fulfil all its environmental obligations and green credentials. Never before has the one per cent been so important to the nation’s economy, as green issues and environmental security become central to corporate agendas, and coalesce around it. There is dynamic change in the market, and in the general attitude to rural land — more than I’ve seen in my entire career.
What is the most interesting piece of real estate you’ve been involved with?
The single property that most blows my mind is Blenheim Palace. But the one that gives me the greatest enjoyment is my own: Berrington Manor in Shropshire. I first saw it when I was eight; 40 years later I finally bought it.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry today?
My son starts his first job as a trainee surveyor on 5 July, so this is not hypothetical. My advice to him is to understand property in its broadest sense. Only by appreciating its component parts and grasping how they work will you see how it all knits together: in order to enjoy property, you have to see the wider landscape. Remember that property is always owned by people, so fundamentally people matter. And avoid becoming a specialist too soon.
Looking back, would you do it all again?
Why wouldn’t I? But I would do it slightly differently: I’ve learned to be more understanding of people and problems, and instead of trying to force issues I’ve become a better mediator. I wish I could go back and rectify the times I lost my temper — now I’m more patient and genuinely keen to seek another person’s point of view.