Diversification bears fruit

Hill Place
Image Courtesy of Hill Place

By Arabella Youens

Branching out is a good thing, but in taking steps to avoid stepping on each other’s toes, it’s vital that important details don’t fall through the gaps

For a relatively modest-sized estate, Hill Place, in Hampshire’s Meon Valley, packs a mighty punch. But it wasn’t always the case. When Will Dobson and his wife Rebecca took over the running of his grandmother’s Grade II-listed house and its 100-acre fruit farm in 2009, they quickly realised that the concern needed to work harder in order to both cover running costs and remain commercially viable in the face of mounting pressure from the supermarkets.

Their first initiative was to turn Hill Place, which was bought by Will’s grandparents in 1977, into a venue for high-end holiday lets and weddings. The project was spearheaded by Rebecca, who gave up her job in order to focus on bringing the wiring, plumbing and decorative state of the house into the 21st century. Thought to have been designed by Sir John Soane, Hill Place was the subject of the Channel 4 documentary series Country House Rescue, which aired in April 2011. “It coincided with our first wedding season and since then we haven’t looked back,” explains Will.

Hill Place
Image Courtesy of Hill Place

Today, they host up to 25 weddings a year and Rebecca has handed over the running of events to an in-house team. “We offer the house as a ‘dry-hire venue’ and put clients in contact with local companies for everything else. But as Ann, our housekeeper, also operates a catering business on the farm, it works very well,” adds Will.

As a professional land agent, Will had already been involved with the commercial fruit farm before officially taking over. “The apple and pear orchards were established in the 1950s and bought by my grandmother in 2000. The previous farmer had set up a sideline juice business – Hill Farm Juice – to make good use of the non-supermarket-grade fruit. When he was looking to sell it in 2013, we stepped in as I could see the potential of ramping up the operations and adding a distillery to expand into spirits such as apple brandy.”

With several different strands of the business operating on the same site, insurance premiums were, according to Will, “pretty substantial”. As is often the case when estates diversify from their original activities, their insurance requirements had changed with the passage of time. “What we needed was someone to come in and rationalise the entire portfolio,” he says.

Having met Amanda Harman, Head of Aon Estates Practice, at the Historic Houses Association’s Wessex AGM last year, Will and Rebecca asked her to take a look at their insurance arrangements. “The process resulted in twin benefits,” explains Will. “Through consolidating as many elements as possible under one broker, our premiums have been slashed. But also, as a result of liaising with someone who has lots of experience seeing how other estates are being managed, we’ve been able to share ideas on diversification which, with a relatively small acreage, is critical in farming today.”

Hill Place
Image Courtesy of Hill Place

It is not uncommon across country estates for there to be disconnects between the separate elements of insurance, believes Harman. “The different pieces don’t always talk to each other, which can result in a number of problems, chief among them being duplication,” she explains. “A good broker will want to look at the whole picture to understand exactly what is being covered, in whose name and by whom. It’s about asking questions: are the excesses on the policies set at a sensible level? Can two policies be merged? Is the level of business interruption cover appropriate? That process of rationalisation and clarification can often lead to economic gains when it comes to premiums.”

One of the key factors to ascertain is that all entitles involved – that is, the different people or companies who have an interest in the policy – are actually named on it. “It sounds simple, but when things are held in trust and owned by different people things are complicated and wires can get crossed. If you haven’t got the right entities named, there’s a danger that the insurer won’t honour the policy,” adds Harman.

Something else to be aware of when using a house for commercial activities – be it hosting conferences, weddings or one-off events – is that the policy needs to specify this. “Otherwise, if someone has an accident and the liability isn’t there, there’s a strong possibility that the insurer could avoid paying out and, worst case, void the insurance policy altogether,” she says.

There’s a further angle to consider here, too: if the main house is being used as a venue for hire, the contents within that property are more at risk from damage or theft. So it is important to specify which pieces of furniture and art remain in the property and which are kept elsewhere. “The devil is in the detail,” believes Harman. “And these sorts of details have a direct impact on premiums.”

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