Farmer’s daughter Victoria Robertshaw, 49, expanded the family business Keelham Farm Shop, with her brother James, 47, from a £2m turnover in 2006 to £20m in 2018. She is now preparing for expansion, having entered into a new partnership with Growth Partner LLP and Santander, which are investing millions into the retail business.
Ms Robertshaw transformed the working farm shop, outside the village of Thornton, near Bradford, West Yorkshire, by creating hundreds of local jobs and quadrupling the fresh food range, sourced from 450 Yorkshire farmers and producers. With the opening of a second shop in Skipton, the number of employees has increased from 40 to 300 in that time. More than 50 per cent of products on sale are manufactured on site, including sausages, pies, juices and bread. She plans to open further farm shops across the north of England.
Did you think you would get to where you are?
Yes, because for me Yorkshire was always home and I knew that at some point I would want to join my brother to help expand the family business. London was a place to gain work experience and acquire skills, but whatever I did I wanted to do really well. I loved working at Andersen. I was 21 and I immersed myself fully into the work.
In 2000, when I was 31, my father died suddenly. I tried to support the farm business from London, but I had a full-time job and two young children by then, and it was not easy. By 2004, I knew it was the right time to leave London, and fate gave me the luxury of choice. While I was at Freeserve the company was taken over by Orange, and my role was made redundant. As I was on a very good salary, my settlement was a six-figure sum. It was definitely the best thing that had happened to me. I could move back to Yorkshire and get a grip on the business that had been ticking along with a £2m turnover for a number of years.
This next stage of my career is the most exciting yet.
When you had made your first million did you want to slow down?
I achieved that milestone in January 2017, when our Ebitda (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) was £1.3m. I knew it was coming so it was not a surprise, but I certainly did not want to slow down. It was part of the journey and I saw it as a stepping stone to greater things.
The money went back into improving the farm shops, and repaying several loans. When we took on a second site it cost £6m to build and kit out, and that created 160 jobs, but we had borrowed £4m.
What is the secret of your success?
You need the best people working with you, who want to make a difference and buy into your values. For me, it’s always been about staying true to what I believe in. Anyone born into a farming family, as I was, has seen the growth of the UK’s food retail sector crush the smaller food retailers, so consumers have lost the link between fresh food and the land. To fill that gap I could see the opportunity for Keelham to support independent rural start-ups, micro businesses and SMEs. I wanted a better, healthier, food shopping experience that wasn’t just a chore, and I knew that plenty of others felt the same way.
CV Victoria Robertshaw
Bradford, West Yorkshire, September 1969
Bradford Girls Grammar School (eight O-levels); Bradford Grammar School (co-ed) three A-levels; Durham University, BA Economics
Obtained equity investment and refinancing for expansion
Became member of industry-led Retail Sector Council
Wins Woman of the Year award, NatWest Everywoman.
Opens second shop in Skipton, Yorkshire
Goes full-time in family shop, with James, who has worked on the farm and business since leaving school at 16
Customer relations at Freeserve, the internet services provider
Accountancy qualification and consultancy work with Arthur Andersen, London
Corporate strategy and development at Dixons, the electrical retailer
Lives in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, with husband Brian and three children; Harry, 21, Katie, 19, and Lucy, 13
What was your best preparation for business?
It was definitely my accountancy qualification, because in business it is so important that you understand numbers and the financial implications. You can have a great idea but if it is not commercially viable it just does not work. You see that with so many entrepreneurs. My training means that I am confident with advisers, accountants, bankers and lawyers. I don’t do my own books, but I understand the jargon, and professionals like accountants respect you more, especially in a male environment.
The investment partner that I chose for Keelham — Growth Partner — has so far invested only in businesses founded by women.
What is your basic business philosophy?
Anything we do in terms of design or new products is done to make things better for our customers, from helping them with fresh cooking from scratch, to developing home deliveries. We have been making fresh soup bags with the ingredients for soup, for £1.50. We hate food waste, so we offer pick and mix herbs, just the right amount you need, like a sprig of thyme for 5p. Our objective is to improve the health and happiness of the nation through better food.
What was the most challenging period of your career?
I think opening the second shop in Skipton. Originally, the plan was to have a turnkey project but the developer unexpectedly pulled out. We were very good at retailing, farming and butchery — but not property development. In 2011 we were left with the job of managing a multimillion pound building project, with no previous experience, that took four years. The project went over budget by £1m, but we learned so much.
Do you want to carry on till you drop?
Yes, definitely. What I have at Keelham is a job that does not feel like work. So why wouldn’t I carry on? In May last year I got up at my normal 5am and had a drivetime interview with BBC Radio Leeds, but it did not feel like work as I was promoting a treat box of Yorkshire foods to celebrate Harry and Meghan’s wedding.
Have you made any pension provision?
I have always had a pension, since I was 21 and living in London. I am now actively contributing to two pensions. One is a company pension that I pay into monthly. The other one is a SSAS (small self-administered scheme), that I started at age 40, into which we have put some land and a pub that we own and let. The rent from both goes into the pension pot. It is administered by my advisers but I know exactly what is going on. I consider pensions as a tax-efficient way of saving, though the business is the first priority for any spare cash.
Do you believe in giving something back to the community?
Yes, that is my life. We are making a difference to the community in so many different ways. In the past year, we have supported more than 200 local events, from offering free fruit at a children’s triathlon to raising thousands for the Sue Ryder Manorlands Hospice, where they do phenomenal work. We run apprenticeship schemes in our shops, our butchers and the restaurant within the shops.
At the two shops we have hosted 50 school visits a year to encourage healthy eating, and help children understand where their food comes from. It is astonishing how many primary pupils have no idea that a carrot grows underground and apples come from trees. We give free fruit and vegetable boxes to the local council-run gym, as part of a doctor’s referral programme to combat obesity.
Do you allow yourself the odd indulgence?
I like to dine out at new restaurants twice a week with my husband and family, enjoying anything from fish and chips to Michelin-starred menus. We all love travelling and I have been to more than 50 countries, including China and many African states. We never travel first-class. I prefer to get value for money but I do go first-class on the train to London because the table in the carriage is good for work. I love long weekends in London, shopping and going to the theatre with my daughters.
One of my guilty pleasures is the Affordable Art Fair at Battersea Park. I love to pick up pieces for £1,000 or less. Then it is interesting to see if the artists go anywhere. I am going there in March to buy something to celebrate the new phase of the business. Ten years ago I paid £500 for an original acrylic painting of a couple by Sam Toft called The Great Mustard Knee Trembler, and now her prints are in Ikea.
Do you believe in leaving everything to one’s children?
I made a will at 31, when my father had just died intestate. At the moment, everything is going to the family with some exceptions of people who have been really supportive on my journey. As Keelham’s turnover and profits increase we will create a company share scheme for the team.
Your most prudent investment?
It would be property. At 23 I started out with a one-bedroom basement flat in Putney, costing £100,000. Within 10 years I had progressed to a three-bedroom Victorian house in Highgate that I sold 14 years ago for just under £700,000. I used that money to buy a detached house in Yorkshire for a lot less, so I could afford to renovate it and put some cash back into the business as well.
How did you survive the recession?
We were growing during the recession because people still have to eat, but we had to slightly adapt our sales strategy. When people were no longer dining out we came up with an alternative dinner treat at home. We were offering two Yorkshire-matured rump steaks with vegetables, plus homemade desserts, for £10. During the worst year of the recession, 2009, our turnover increased by 44 per cent to £5.85m.
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