There will be a fascinating story behind what it takes to run the principal residence of the Duke of Marlborough (currently Charles James Spencer-Churchill, the 12th Duke, whom you may remember as the Marquess of Blandford), we reasoned. And Blenheim Palace is by the picture-perfect Oxfordshire town of Woodstock, set in over 2,000 acres of parkland landscaped by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. With more than one million visitors in 2016, it’s a spectacular location. The pictures would look great, at least.
Hare is too modest. Before the senior executive role at Blenheim, he had a diverse and successful career in corporate finance and investment banking in London, and accountancy in Liverpool, and is a University of Oxford jurisprudence graduate by way of a comprehensive school on the banks of the Mersey. He may not want to blow his own trumpet but he’s a great storyteller, genial and articulate.
Hare refers to serendipity and luck a lot. But it’s evident he’s driven and on course. He may have been “blessed” to have great mentors, and praises the accountancy training model for its invaluable mentoring scheme, but he was always wise enough to ask questions, seize the moment, and make the difficult decisions.
He knew a legal career wasn’t for him – “I loved studying the law and knew I could not stand the idea of practicing it” – but he saw that accountancy would open similar doors and he needn’t be in London to start knocking. “I realised I could get an absolutely first-class, arguably best of breed, technical and commercial education,” recalls Hare. “You could make the argument, and I did, that if you were going to train then it was better to do it in the regions than in London. At KPMG in Liverpool, where I did it, I was in different places most weeks. A US conglomerate one week, a car hire company the next.”
He stayed there for seven years, starting off in insolvency and finishing in corporate finance, thanks to the first of many mentors – James Dow – needing a “sidekick”. Hare explains: “His ability to pitch an idea and the way he taught me to do that has been something I have come back to again and again.”
His next move – “somehow I landed a job with Paribas, a little French bank” – was into investment banking. Although small (this was before it merged with Banque National de Paris) it had an “outstanding” media and telecoms team operating at the heart of the cable TV and cellphone boom and, wouldn’t you know, Hare was asked to join. “I was walked into this hallowed circle,” he recalls, “and they gave me a huge amount of confidence to go out by myself and do things. We were successful and we knew we were, but we also knew it was a point in time and you couldn’t ever step back.”
Bathed in the “glow of Paribas”, Hare enjoyed the razzmatazz of this new world, the pinnacle of which was being asked to assist on a deal to “help a DJ called Chris Evans” buy Virgin Radio. “It’s luck,” says Hare, “but you’ve got to have the pace to run with it.” He worked flat out for 72 hours on the deal, and took away an important lesson: “If an opportunity comes your way, you don’t scribble a note to yourself to think about it the next day, or wonder who to call, you run with it. Investment banking is astonishingly proactive: if you’re in a successful firm you’ll get a certain amount of business, but if you want to outperform you have to go out and win it. And I was blessed by looking good because I’d had this amazing training at KPMG,” says Hare.
The glory didn’t end there. Hare followed one of his Paribas sponsors, “industry legend” Ken Goldsbrough, to Barclays Capital and worked on a massive deal helping Bob the Builder (HIT Entertainment) buy Thomas the Tank Engine (Gullane Entertainment). “It was at the end of my time at Barclays Capital, my children were four and five then, so I was their hero,” he recalls. In another quick-paced deal, he learned how to sell debt to a cagey audience. “It was about telling a successful media company there was something valuable they could invest or buy into that they didn’t have enough money for; debt made sense. It was about studying and finding the right idea and then running off to several people and saying: ‘you should buy this, you can’t afford it, but I can lend you the money’.”
All that running caught up with Hare though, and he decided to take a break to spend time with his children before looking for an FD role at a local business in Oxford. “I was a chartered accountant, an investment banker, who wouldn’t want me?” he thought. “It turns out there was quite a list of people who wouldn’t want me. I had zero experience, and I had picked up an investment banking trait of sending a pitch book of how I would transform their business, which didn’t go down terribly well. My approach to step up a level was so flawed I look back and shudder. I had reached the point of complete failure, resigning myself to going back to London, when I saw an advert in the Oxford Times for the FD role at Blenheim Palace. I emailed my CV and my pitch book and saw John Hoy, the chief executive, that day. Despite the pitch book and everything else, we got on like a house on fire and I never doubted I would get the call to come back.”
That was in 2003 and he started with a completely blank canvas. “There had never been a finance director before… the business didn’t really have any leadership before John was appointed.” Daunting, yes – “there were plenty of moments where I thought, ‘oh Lordy, what do people normally do about this?’” – but what an opportunity. Hare got to put in place all the systems needed while working with Hoy to set out a clear and sustainable strategy. He built a central management function to empower the employees and make the business more transparent; rebuilt the balance sheet; ironed out problems with the bank – “it’s probably unique to landed estates, their legal structures are often a shambolic mess” – launching an Unauthorised Unit Trust regulated by the FCA; and convinced the board of trustees the business needed an auditor (Grant Thornton, because it had an Oxford office). “If my time as FD working with John was spent on the process of helping the business be more outward-looking, the next phase was to find our place in the modern world.”
In some ways, the business is much like any other – new revenue streams, sustainability, engagement, community… But it is also unorthodox and complex. As Hare points out, if you ask yourself why a landed estate exists, it’s a difficult question to answer. “We’re here because a talented guy 300 years ago won a battle and was rewarded. What’s its purpose now other than what a duke wants? It’s not like Disney, whose purpose is to tell the world’s greatest stories. But we’re in a world where the asks we make of the communities living around us are much bigger than they ever were. When you realise that you have to start articulating your purpose to the outside world.”
And that’s where we meet Hare now: appointed this year as chief executive after Hoy announced he was leaving to join property consultancy Bidwells, he finds himself yanked away from the anonymity of the back-office geek role and in front of people like us, pushing a message. He’s cast his reticence aside to explain to the world why the business takes the decisions it does. “There’s no vision for a successful Blenheim Palace that doesn’t vitally depend on Woodstock and the community around us also being prosperous and flourishing. But the same is true in reverse; there is no way all the communities around us can flourish if Blenheim is going down the toilet,” states Hare.
That’s unlikely on his watch, especially now he feels the purpose has been defined. “We’re here to be the economic lifeblood of the community,” he says. “To enhance the lives of the people around us and to share this amazing place. It’s not about us being a charity, it’s explicitly saying we will choose the ways in which we make money to be ways that massively benefit the local community. We will work hard to triple our economic contribution to the area, measured consistently over 10 years.”
It’s a balancing act, but Hare is confident. “We have this amazing diversity, for example: foresters, farmers, marketing, finance, tourism, electricians, carpenters, household people, construction. But we’ve never sat down with local people and said, ‘we’re going to make sure your children can afford to live in this area by building affordable housing; we’ll offer apprenticeships so they can be trained’. It’s only recently we’ve turned our faces to that.”
The 12th Duke adds another dimension. If Hare wants any kind of legacy, rather heroically it’s that people associate the Duke with the way Blenheim has improved rather than with references to his past.
“He’d be the first to put his hand up and say that was awful,” says Hare. “I really want the world to look at him in 10 years’ time and say, ‘wow, what he has led at Blenheim is spectacular’.”
He adds: “I think estates tend to reflect their dukes. The 11th Duke was a private man, the 12th Duke you’ll often see posing for pictures with the visitors. This is a duke who is keen to make a difference. He is someone who wants not only the fabric of Blenheim to be in better condition, but who also wants its place in the world and its place in the community to be better. We have astonishingly long time frames, our legacy really matters to us.”
Which goes back to why the business is pushing out its 10-year vision: putting teeth on it; explaining the numbers (it’s a £25m turnover business); eventually sharing the annual report; describing how much sustainable energy it has generated; or why it might have fallen short of a target.
“And this isn’t new CEO, new ideas,” stresses Hare. “To set these goals even five years ago would have been complete pie in the sky. We’ve spent several years getting to this point.” This point being record visitor numbers (including a growing number of Chinese, including VIPs), record mineral water sales (sourced and bottled on the estate), record weddings, conferences and banqueting, record properties being built and let, record planning consents and, in February, a Gold Accolade as part of VisitEngland’s Visitor Attraction Quality Scheme.
All of this needs maintenance, and Hare is cultivating an experienced leadership team around him. He has the wisdom of the board of trustees, a combination of family members, professional advisers and a small group of “commercially very successful friends of the family” who are there to act as friend and counsel.
These include the aforementioned Sir Rocco and Sir Mark Weinberg (the founder of St James’s Place Wealth Management). “When you hear people like Sir Mark and Sir Rocco supporting you to take on a new challenge, if you’re having a wobble, you can take comfort in that.” And other landed estates he likes – Chatsworth, the Duchy of Cornwall, the Northumberland Estate, Hatfield House – keep in touch and share information.
You see why Dominic Hare tends to pinch himself every now and then. I wonder what event he’d like to see at Blenheim that would really set his pulse racing? “An RHS flower show would be brilliant. But I’d love to see King William’s coronation procession come through here,” he says. Well, the Prince of Wales’s Accounting for Sustainability project works with the global accounting community. Someone from the royal household might be reading…