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Zoe Clough meets Robert Fedder – Dartington CEO

The man at the helm of Dartington Hall Trust loves the place so much, he’s even dreaming about it.

In a lengthy conversation with Robert Fedder in his office on the estate, he laughed: ”Foxhole was in my dream last night. It was open and it was busy.” In reality the old school building, a decaying hulk of a place that’s been shuttered for years, will need millions to bring it into use.

That’s in Phase Three of the recovery plan Mr Fedder and his new team are bringing in -not without protest and grumblings of discontent. He says he predicted that reaction. “It’s quite usual. It’s to be expected. You know that with such significant rapid changes, there are going to be issues around that. For ill or good there is a lot of pent up passion. I don’t take it personally.

Mr Fedder’s first ever visit to the estate was in early June last year with insolvency specialist David Buchler. They were called in by the chair of the Trustees, Lord David Triesman, who’d been appointed in the Spring.  Lord Triesman looked at the existing plan and didn’t think it was “economically sustainable”. He asked the executive to come up with another plan.  “By early June , he didn’t think it was a credible plan.” Mr Fedder said.

To the rescue…

Time to bring in a commercial Chief Executive Officer, the board decided. Mr Fedder agreed to take the job on the condition that he could hire and fire – but also with the starting point that the estate could be rescued.

For ill or good there is a lot of pent up passion. I don’t take it personally.

“It was very clear to me that this place was very close to a cliff edge and financial disaster,” he said. “The first challenge – how do you reduce costs so that you don’t have to go bankrupt, which was very imminent , incredibly imminent, I’m talking weeks.” He never went for that nuclear option, and he says the Trust remains solvent.

Robert Fedder standing in front of the great barn
Robert Fedder in Dartington

Zero Hours?

Staff were asked to take flexible contracts – he denies anyone was put on zero hours – and some chose to leave. He’d says there have been no redundancies, and staff morale is improving. Office space has been restructured to free places for new tenants he wants to attract, including local businesses. Loss making activities have ended. Everything now has to recover its costs. And here’s where the music summer school enters the conversation. Its artistic director and her team left last year.

We said if your plans have full cost recovery, you get the green light,” Mr Fedder said. Stephen Benzikie, the new chief marketing officer, who is also in the room, said: ”The summer school goes to the heart of a great misconception that things are discontinued because of the financial state of the trust. It’s the other way round. It is a preponderance of loss making activities, like the summer school, that have contributed to the long standing and continuing financial state.” Mr Fedder adds: ”It was a significantly loss making activity, completely unsustainable. Hundreds of thousands of pounds per event.”

A seat at the Table

He adds that the Green Table, the popular cafe, was also making “significant losses” per month. It’s now, under his management, losing less and there are plans to bring in partners to rejuvenate it.
But, I said, what about the reports that the old team were told to buy cheaper food? “No, that’s complete rubbish.” But it was always packed? “I used to go every day but waited 30 to 40 minutes – it’s throughput that counts,” he said.

Tough decisions…

A closed shop at Dartington Cider Press
A sad looking Cider Press Shop

The estate’s monthly losses have been halved by this first six months of hard headed actions. A big contributor to cutting of costs was the sale, which he approved, of 41 works of art owned by the Trust. In October, Sotheby’s sold a major Rabindranath Tagore work given to the Elmhirsts in the 1930s, and other works connected to him , for more than £730,000.  Mr Fedder has pledged not to sell off any more land for development. Although some may be sold to people who want to improve or preserve the land. “There is an absolutely golden rule, we do not sell off assets to perpetuate the loss making activities that we have had before.”

I would like the place to be buzzing

Developers in the Village

Over more than 30 years, the Trust has sold its land. Once 5000 acres, the land holding is now 1,200 acres – a quarter of what it used to own. Dartington village is in the middle of what is, to quite a few locals, an unwelcome house building boom on some of that land. In 2018 the Trust launched a bond offer, hoping to raise up to £20 million. But few people wanted to buy into it and instead of raising money, it cost the Trust over £1 million. A subsequent £3 million bank loan , secured on properties on the estate, is being paid back.

How did we get here?

Implicit in what the turn around team are doing is dealing with past failures from past trustees and top staff.

Mr Fedder made no explicit criticism of anyone, but said: ”If they’d had this approach three or four years ago they may not have needed to sell land for development, but I can’t speculate, that’s my hypothesis.”

When he landed, he said, the place needed needed more business acumen. “Many people in that June period when I was interviewing people, including some senior people, and challenging them on their sustainability plan which looked like it was going to continue to make losses, I did ask what’s the Plan B? And there was a general consensus ‘ well we’ll always find a way, we’ll sell something’”.

He continues: “Now that just galvanised me more to say, ‘OK this place needs to be turned round and we need to get hold of it’. Now a lot of people may not like that new reality – a lot more people won’t like it placed under an administrator carving it up.”

Is that what might have happened? A carve-up? “Probably. It’s very rare to come out of administration and trade again. What a shame that would have been, it would have been a tragedy.”

A Fixer Upper

Phase Two of the turnaround plan is giving some of the buildings some TLC , like Higher Close, High Cross House and The Granary, where he envisages local businesses working. The White Hart bar and the hotel accommodation are in his sights for change, too. Losses at the Cider Press centre, where several shops are closed, are being reduced and he has plans to bring it back to life, selling things local people want to buy every day, ideally grown locally. “The Cider Press centre can be a gem, it’s got the right location, we have got loads of great local businesses that haven’t got places to go, there’s not enough local competition so it’s a no brainer.”

I think as CEO we’ve been generous….but they do good work.

The Schumacher Story?

Last autumn students newly arrived at the Schumacher College found themselves locked out, with courses postponed. This was quickly over turned, but it prompted a move to become independent. Mr Fedder said the Trust fully supports the Schumacher College becoming more autonomous, not least in the sense of being financially and operationally self sustaining, while considering it an important asset for the Trust.

Soundart Radio survives. They’ve been helped to apply for more grants and the Trust has reached a “commercial accommodation” with them.  “I think as CEO we’ve been generous….but they do good work.”

What of Foxhole and Aller Park, once elegant buildings which will now need millions spent on them? Will his dream from last night come true? “They are big ticket. There is going to be a need for partners to inject capital. It needs to be really seriously considered.” It’s clear that Mr Fedder’s vision is for partners to come in and make stuff happen. The Trust doesn’t need to owner-operate everything, he says. Arts, heritage, culture, learning, innovation – all welcome, as long as they make financial sense.

and the wages?

Building SoundArt Radio Ne Studio
The New Studio at SoundArt

The Trust is a charity with a serious money shortfall – so how does he justify his and his new executive team’s salary? Is he worth it, I ask? “Obviously I’m worth the money because the money we have saved is many multiple of what we have cost. It’s almost instant payback as well so yes we are worth it.”

As well as himself and Stephen Benzikie there is a new Chief Financial Officer, Philip Owen, and a new creative director, opera singer and businessman Mark Stone. He’s in charge of the choral festival to be launched this summer.

Staying put for now

Mr Fedder says he will stay until the job is finished.

“This place could really bloom again. I would like the place to be buzzing. People smiling, laughing, enjoying themselves, spending money. Visitors from near and far coming for lunch, for a gig, people coming to work.” He says, “I didn’t know anything about the history. I didn’t know Totnes very well. You start off looking at it in a clinical manner but you do fall in love with the place. This morning there was blue sky, you walk in and think what a bloody great place this is.”

 

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Sam Richards
Sam Richards
9 days ago

Hardly a mention of Dartington’s rationales from Day 1 – the arts and education. There’s one sentence that reveals all: “Arts, heritage, culture, learning, innovation – all welcome, as long as they make financial sense.” That gives the tone of the whole thing – entrepreneurial values, each venture a business venture, business business business. I do not deny that Dartington has a financial challenge and that it has to be confronted. However, when that’s all there is I check out. I can’t think of any artists, artworks or arts ventures that “make financial sense” – not, at least, from the outset – although it is true that the Saatchification of the visual arts is now cloyingly in charge.

Anon
Anon
8 days ago
Reply to  Sam Richards

Thankyou for posing pertinent questions, particularly over job contracts and executive salaries. I question whether the executive management team would accept a flexible / zero hours contract? Perhaps they have secure package salary deals, possibly with bonuses for the percentage of losses “saved”!

Joy Hanson
Joy Hanson
9 days ago

I have lived in this area since 1970 as my first husband was contracted by Dartington woodlands to fell Kingswoods on Dartmoor, a cash crop, and sell the timber to offset the huge death duties,
My son-in-law ‘s grand father built that empty shell of a building in the photo and his great grandfather was up on the roof with Willian weir in 1920s
Our families have been connected with DHT since 1920s.
The future of the hall and the gardens is close to my heart
Dorothy and Leonard would be SHOCKED to see their beloved gardens surrounded by forbidding barbed wire

Dorothy wishes her gardens to be enjoyed by us local people
Read the Elmhirst of Dartington to find her words
Preserve the spirit of Tagore and enthusiasm enterprise imagination… education….and Dartington will be here for generations to continue the heritage

Lee Godfrey
Lee Godfrey
9 days ago

Having read the article in more detail and with more time I believe that Mr. Fedder is definitely in the right lane and seems to have grasped the problems well. I believe he has more insight than I think his predecessors had, ‘though I had great hopes of Rhodri when he first arrived and we heard him speak in the Great Hall one evening. I shall watch this space with enormous interest and hope, and wish him well.

Anonymous
Anonymous
13 days ago

There are arguably more ethical approaches to delivering transformation than putting all employees onto “flexible” contracts. What Mr Fedder fails to acknowledge is that previous employees also loved the Estate, and were happy to accept below market rate salaries in order to be part of the Trust. However, faced with the financial uncertainty presented by a “flexible” contract the majority of employees would have had no other choice but to leave.

Anonymous
Anonymous
13 days ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Which of course was the intended consequence, despite the spin

Annon
Annon
14 days ago

Wow you really drank the Kool Aid, Totnes Pulse!

John caley
John caley
9 days ago
Reply to  Annon

Er … don’t get confused between Totnes Pulse allowing Robert Fedder to put across his point of view, and actually agreeing with the man. That’s how journalism works (or used to do). Would you prefer to not hear Mr. Fedder’s rationale?

Richard Elmhirst
Richard Elmhirst
15 days ago

It appears that Mr Fedder has grasped the situation and I wish him and his team every success.

Jane Parsons
Jane Parsons
15 days ago

I have staunchly defended this new team without really knowing why. Now I know, thanks to this interview, and I will continue to bang the drum for the new financially stable Dartington. I have great hopes for this glorious place.

Paul Elmhirst
Paul Elmhirst
16 days ago

I think I’m beginning to feel some relief, but a rough track still lies ahead.

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