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.
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.
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?
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.”