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Family business spotlight: how dynamic thinking is creating opportunities for Westmorland

Find out how strong governance and a nimble approach are driving success for roadside hospitality company Westmorland.

“It’s about understanding and articulating what’s important to you at the start, having an understanding of that across the business,” says Sarah, whose parents started the first family-run motorway services in 1972 when the M6 cut through their farm in Tebay, Cumbria. “If you’ve defined what matters, it’s easier to measure and improve.”

Family business management amid a pandemic

Sarah’s experience during the pandemic illustrates the dynamism inherent to Westmorland.

“Although Covid-19 was financially challenging – with huge pendulum swings of trade – even bad times bring opportunities,” she says. “We had the biggest staycation probably that we’ve ever known in this country over the past two summers, and the outlook for domestic tourism is strong in the medium term.”

While Covid-19 changed Westmorland’s sales mix, the move towards more flexible working is adding new energy and vigour to the 50-year-old business, which includes services in Gloucester and Lanarkshire, a truck stop, and a hotel adjacent to the original Tebay site.

“I think that will bring real opportunity for us with future recruitment,” she says. 

It’s about understanding and articulating what’s important to you at the start, having an understanding of that across the business. And then, if you’ve defined what matters, it’s easier to measure and improve

Sarah Dunning
MD, Westmorland

“It also taught us to be leaner and bolder and more agile, so nothing’s ever all bad. We learned a lot through that process. We really looked at our cost base, and we have a much leaner business now.”

How to manage governance and sustainability in a family business

Drawing on decades of well-managed growth has helped Westmorland establish a strong governance structure where decisions are debated and then acted on with speed and certainty. It’s a key element of the company’s success, as it makes a point of explaining to suppliers and partners how a family business differs from most commercial entities.

“From a bank point of view, the shareholder issue is different with family businesses,” says Sarah. “That relates to attitudes to risk, but also the way shareholders view the business from a growth perspective and how they see it moving forward.

“It’s important that banks understand how family business shareholders drive a business forward over the long term.”

Family business management and growth

By taking a longer-term view of growth and placing the business in the wider community context, Westmorland has grown into a force for good in its local community. It employs scores of staff in its farm shops and kitchens, supports local partners and encourages quality suppliers and others to work hard on embedding sustainability into everything they do.

Westmorland works with more than 90 producers from their local area and Scotland, in the process championing speciality produce and home-cooked fare.

“Business has both an opportunity and a responsibility, which is different from that of governments,” says Sarah. “As a family business in particular, we can play a part in pushing the sustainability agenda forward.”

Find more on family business management here.

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