To serve them all their days
Joël Lacey talks to some of the principals behind Bridport and West Bay’s longest-established businesses
Published in January ’15
Bridport is that rarest of things: a market town which has both a finger on the modern pulse and a wealth of history. Despite the new-found fame brought to it by Broadchurch, which starts its second series this month, there are a number of businesses whose connection to the town is rather less ephemeral.
In manufacturing, food and drink and even the service sector, Bridport and West Bay have some businesses that are about as far from fleeting as it is possible to get. We talked to some of those deeply involved with the area’s long-established businesses to find out what it is about the area that seems to encourage longevity, to discuss how the town and harbour have changed over the years and also to find out what the secrets of enduring in business are.
On 12 September this year, Richard Balson will celebrate a rather special anniversary: 500 continuous years of the Balson family being butchers in Bridport. The half-millennial anniversary has come round rather sooner than expected as, until last year, he thought the business had started in 1535, but following an appearance on television new documentation came to light proving that rather than a measly 479 years in business in 2014, the firm had achieved 499.
The family work ethic is one that runs deep: ‘My dad was still doing the VAT at 88,’ recalls Richard, the current head of the Balson butchering family, but as well as a deeply ingrained sense of work, there are other things to which he attributes the longevity of the business: ‘Keep it small, keep it family managed; that’s the secret,’ says Richard. ‘It’s no good getting too big too soon,’ he adds, although one wonders when, after 500 years, it will no longer be ‘too soon’.
‘Although we’re the oldest, it’s also very important to us to be one of the best. Some of that is getting the best local meat that we can – from field to fork – but it’s also the human side. For some people, I might be the only person they talk to each day, so I always try to have a laugh and a joke. If you give people quality meat, good service and at a reasonable price, people will come back to you.’
It certainly seems to be working so far. Roll on the year 2515 to see if they’ve got round to opening another branch.
In 1794, Samuel Gundry, a relation of the famous Dorset rope and net makers, built the Old Brewery on the banks of the River Brit, from which it still drew its power until 1930. In 1896, two Palmers brothers – John Cleeves and Robert Henry – bought the brewery and it became JC & RH Palmer.
The company’s Sales and Marketing Director, Cleeves Palmer, one of two great-grandsons of those original Palmers working in the company (his brother John is Chairman and MD) explains why the company is such a good fit for the town and vice versa: ‘It started with having a fantastic supply of spring water and good local population to support the company, both as customers and as a workforce. Bridport, like any market town has had its ups and downs, and it’s very much on the up at the moment.’
‘CAMRA (the CAMpaign for Real Ale) has also been around for 40 years now and that’s probably made the biggest difference to the business in our time with the company; there’s a renewed sense of interest in local ales, and when it comes to pubs, there’s now a huge range to chose from.
‘What I love about the town,’ Cleeves adds, ‘is that if you stand in the middle of it, you can see countryside all round it. Bridport’s always had a good array of local food and drink and that is probably truer today than ever. I’ve been with the company 34 years, and my brother for 45, and we’re both still passionate about the business and whilst it was something we were both born into, we couldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it.’
Billy Lintell has been at the the Bull Hotel since 2006, but the institution itself has been around just a little longer than she has, since the early 16th century, in fact. It was one of the stops on the famous Trafalgar Way – the route taken by Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotiere as he raced from Falmouth to the Admiralty with dispatches containing news of Nelson’s death and the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
The hotel was completely refurbished by the previous owners, Rich and Nikki Cooper – who, with partners Fullers, have now expanded their range of Stable pizza and cider restaurants (from the original at the back of the Bull, to seven) – bringing elements like the ballroom with its sprung floor to the fore.
According to Billy: ‘Bridport has changed just a little bit,’ over her time at the Bull, but the town remains ‘very supportive of local business and is very proud of its independence.’ There is, Billy adds, ‘a very adventurous spirit amongst the townspeople, and there’s a great cross-section of ages and cultural influences. The Bull is an important part of that Bridport community and, as a hotel, we’re able to be open much of the day seven days a week to cement that position.’
Groves Nurseries was founded in 1866, by Charlie Groves’s great-great-great grandfather in Piddletrenthide. 100 years later Charlie’s grandfather bought Bridport Football Club’s ground to turn it into a nursery and Charlie himself joined in 2000; he’d been to university (studying plant science) worked in Leeds, then came did a retail degree at Kingston Maurward before joining the company.
‘I guess a lot of my learning came about from growing up on site,’ he recalls. ‘Mum and Dad have had it very much as their way of life, rather than just being a job.
‘Even today they’re still down in the garden after hours. I liken it more to being a farming (not just 9-5) kind of culture than other businesses. The lifestyle is a way of life; it’s what we do.’
In terms of how the area has changed over the years, Charlie points to the building of the bypass in the 1980s – our biggest advantage is being right on the A35 – ‘ and it was then that the nursery added a garden centre and I guess from then on we’ve just grown it organically each year. The principle behind the success of the business is is doing what you are good at (plants) and then about steady growth adding bits here and there. In the past nurseries would have closed down during the off season, but now we have to keep looking at other things to do (as gardening is still very seasonal) when we’re out of season so, for example, we’ve added a pet shop and other ideas like that to make it a destination.
‘Over the last few years, Bridport’s got a bit cooler and it seems to be quite an interesting place to be compared to when I was born,’ says Charlie wistfully. ‘It’s far enough from any large town to need an economy of its own, and there are still a lot of independent businesses and it’s a lot healthier for that; in the past not having a high street crammed with the usual high street names might have been seen as a weakness, now it’s a strength.’
Another business using its out-of-centre positioning to its advantage is Heavers of Bridport, who have been trading for 55 years. Malcolm Heaver, who joined the family firm of builders in 1968 – taking over the business when his father retired in 1992 – believes that ‘we have the best location in the South West, and it’s a really nice place to live your life’.
In the cut-and-thrust world of home improvements, Malcolm believes that investing in machinery, staff and customer service – as well as having a reputation that goes back a long way is the secret to success: ‘Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it right,’ he says, adding that the factory has £250,000 worth of machinery and that the company directly employs 26 people.’
‘We’ve also been quick to adopt new technologies, whether in windows (as part of Network VEKA) or solar photo-voltaic. In a sector sometimes tainted by the here-today-gone-tomorrow attitude of some companies, the bulwark of trust fostered by over five decades of trading locally is an immeasurably valuable asset.
In West Bay, Arthur Watson has been running the Riverside restaurant for the last 50 years, four years after his family took it over. He has a good deal of insight into how the area, and the nature of customers, has changed over that period: ‘In the 1960s, Bridport was like something from the inter-war years,’ he remembers. ‘The majority of visitors came by coach for the day, or camped locally with few facilities, so they’d be eating out breakfast, lunch and tea. We’d be very busy during the school holidays, but as soon as the last coach or bus left for the day, the whole place practically closed.’
‘Dorset in general and Bridport and West Bay in particular,’ he adds, ‘didn’t really change until the mid-1980s, when people started buying holiday homes down here. Up to that point, we’d essentially been offering fisherman’s breakfasts, lunches and so on. From the mid-80s, we had to change what we offered to suit the more sophisticated tastes of those who’d bought second homes locally, or travelled down by car. We started offering more fish dishes – fishes like red mullet and John Dory, which hadn’t been seen in seaside restaurants before – and seafood dishes went from being 5% of the business in the 1980s to 90% of the business by 2000.’
In terms of the town, Arthur comments that ‘Bridport has changed from an old-style Dorset town to a western centre of the arts; there are hundreds of clubs and societies and there’s always something to do.’
As to his own continued success, he attributes that to his staff and his customers: ‘Six of our staff have been here 20-30 years and we’ve always had a partnership with our customers where we find out what it is they want, and provide it for them with great service.’
It all sounds so simple, but then again, ‘simple things done well’ could be the motto of Bridport and West Bay. ◗