Hugh Fell, Managing Partner of George F White Group

A natural aptitude for all things rural and a love of the countryside led Hugh Fell into business consultancy work. The chairman of the George F White Group tells Aranda Rahbarkouhi why he is keen to embrace change in the industry

Hugh Fell of George F White
Hugh Fell of George F White

There was never a dull moment for Hugh Fell growing up on a farm. As the fourth son of a Lincolnshire farmer, he didn’t fancy the option of “the Church” as he puts it. Instead he helped his father at a young age develop the family business – buying and selling piglets.

Fell, 53, remembers his time on the farm fondly with his parents, Henry and Catherine and his siblings.

He said: “Traditionally, the fourth son usually went into the church, but I didn’t fancy that. I led a really rural life on a big arable and sheep farm, so I would spend all Easter lambing. In fact, I’d spend all my spare time on the farm, driving tractors or working machines.

“My earliest memories involve driving around on the tractor with my dad at the age of four.

“My mum, meanwhile, had her hands full running a household with four boys. We used to have Australian and Kenyan students working on the farm who would stay with us which was great.”

Fell describes his childhood as growing up in a very “male-dominated, lively household” where there was always a strong team ethos.

And the route he took meant that he earned while he learned – all by the age of 12.

“My father bought me a sow for my 14th birthday, she was called Priscilla. She had piglets and I’d feed them everyday when I got back from school. Then we would butcher them on the farm. In those days, I’d put an ad in the paper to sell them, then mum and I would load them into a pick-up and deliver them to people and sell them for cash - which you just couldn’t do now.

“We lived in a great place, a big Georgian house, and the farm was half a mile’s walk down a long drive. It was a fabulous place, so I guess I always wanted to work and live in that same rural environment.”

Cash was always quite tight for the family, so Fell had an appreciation of money and that it “didn’t grow on trees” from a young age.

He said: “I’d spend hours playing in the streams and in the woods – none of which cost anything. I grew up surrounded by 2,000 sheep, so from the age I could put a pair of wellies on, I was probably in a sheep pen.”

A lot of factors came together to encourage Fell to pursue a career in agriculture, namely his roots, which were firmly planted in the rural and agricultural sphere. At the same time, teachers at his school in Brigg, Lincolnshire, were encouraging him to think about pursuing nothing else but agriculture.

He said: “When I had a meeting with the careers teacher in the sixth form, he said to me ‘there’s no point in talking to you Fell, you’re going to go to the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester’. It was amazing when you look back on it that no one, even my parents, ever discussed with me whether I might like to go to university or do law. It was just perceived that I would go off to agricultural college.”

On reflection, Fell says he would have probably studied economics or law, but his teachers could see that he was better suited to agriculture.

“I guess I just worked at the level that I needed to in order to get into Cirencester,” said Fell.

“In retrospect, if I had my time again, I’d have looked at other opportunities. I’d like to have gone to a top-end university and interacted with a much broader range of people.”

The decision to go to the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester proved the key however in Fell’s life as it’s where he learned the art of rural estate management and the valuation of rural property between 1980 and 1983. Fell had a natural aptitude for both practical and theory-based learning. Free time would be spent taking up the role of chairman of the students’ union and chairman of the estate management club.

He said: “College was a massive cultural change and I had a great mentor who taught me how to write a good letter and stand up and communicate effectively. I met a great bunch of people there. I then went to Savills to work for two years where I qualified and learned a huge amount on marketing property there. But I decided I wanted to do my own thing and George White had been at college with my brother and so I asked him what I should do.”

After training as a chartered surveyor specialising in the rural economy, Fell moved to Northumberland in 1985 to join George White in partnership. And life up north presented a different learning curve.

“Back then, all the company did was providing consultancy services for the farming community. Effectively when I joined George, we were a two-man band with two secretaries. We then started to recruit some good, younger people into the business and it became clear that unless we grew faster, we wouldn’t be able to create the opportunities for those young people that would keep them on board.”

Fell describes building up the business as a “slow and organic” process. Over five years, the firm grew to a team of seven.

Now as chairman of the George F White Group, there is a great deal happening in terms of reshaping the company through its people.

A highlight for Fell was studying management training with an organisation called Vistage which he claims has had the biggest impact on him to date.

He said: “Once a month I’d meet with 12 other CEOs from different businesses in the region. We would get lectures from various speakers. I came away from them so revved up. There were a couple that had a really big impact on me. One was by Nigel Risner who wrote the book It’s A Zoo Around Here. In it he divides people up into four groups based on aptitude, rather than skills – which I feel is important. There are lions, monkeys, dolphins and elephants. It’s certainly worth a read.”

He added: “What’s really interesting is that you need lots of different types of people to make up a successful team. One thing I learned is that if you put the wrong people into the wrong job, their life can become a misery.”

Fell is passionate about building up his team, but there is always more work to be done and certain factors have led to the business having to diversify into other areas.

Fell knew managing the recession was going to be difficult – even before it happened.

He said: “I was lucky that in late 2007 one of the Vistage lecturers was an economist who convincingly predicted us all falling off the cliff in the middle of 2008. I went back to the office and said ‘guys I need to understand exactly what the business looks like going forward and how we are going to react if there are significant changes in market conditions’. We then had to become a lot more rigorous in how our cash flow was being generated.”

However, Fell’s answer was to go for growth rather than shrink the business.

He said: “One thing we knew was that we couldn’t stay as we were, but we looked at other areas of consultancy work for our clients who owned and occupied property. We looked at how we could generate further value for them.”

Fell decided that renewable energy was the way forward. At the time, the shift meant the business needed a huge amount of reshaping.

He said: “Two of us went to Austria in 2009 to look at anaerobic digestion plants which were big out there. It really set us thinking about how our client base, who owned and occupied land, could start to generate renewable energy.

“The challenge that we faced however was while people were really interested in it, it was a big thing for them to commit to. The project was far more complex than anyone had anticipated. We identified that we had to provide independent advice for clients. We sold our time – and that’s what made us successful.

Today Fell is responsible for the “rural code” as he puts it, in the running and culture of the George F White business leading a team of 100 people.

He believes that “transparency” combined with “an honest and straight-talking conversation” is key to success.

“Our team is both energetic and enthusiastic. We are very receptive to change and evolving.”

Fell, who has two daughters, Honor, 22, and Grace, 21, and is married to veterinarian Fiona, 50, admits that the reason he stayed in the North East is down to the quality environment in which he lives on the Northumberland coast.

He said: “It was important for me to live in a nice location and bring my children up in an environment that was similar to what I grew up in. I could probably make more money down south.”

After more than 28 years in the business, Fell has moved on from the landlord-tenant type work of the 1980s into niche areas such as energy, water and residential lettings. It’s a task that sees him travel between the Scottish Borders down to his routes in Lincolnshire and also London.

“We are expanding by diversifying the business to offer a broader range of services for clients such as the launch of GFW Letting last year.

“I think what most people don’t see is that the residential element is only a small part of our business.

“We have one client who has potentially got a layer of rock under his farm that represents one of the biggest gas storage facilities in the UK – but it’s 6,000ft underground.

“What our job involves is to understand the value of the property asset, which can be anything from a small house to 10,000 acres, and maximise it.

“But value can mean different things to different people. I have another client for example who simply wants to use their property to employ as many people as possible for the benefit of the local community.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?
VW Touareg

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Jolly Fisherman at Craster – food is local and great and the position is outstanding

Who or what makes you laugh?
Family, we laugh a lot

What’s your favourite book?
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

What was the last album you bought?
Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Lecturing on the transfer of knowledge

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
‘What does that mean 9am Monday morning’

What’s your greatest fear?
Failure to grip the decline of the educational system in the UK and the impact this has on developing young people

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Understand exactly what you want and the job profile when you recruit someone

And the worst?
Why change? Do it as it’s always been done

What’s your poison?
Pint of local brew at the Ship Inn in Seahouses

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Financial Times/Economist/The Week

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£70 at the age of 14 for selling piglets from the sow my dad bought me

How do you keep fit?
Cycling/swimming/horse riding

What’s your most irritating habit?
Juggling priorities and being late

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Sporting hobbies

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Nelson Mandela – forgive but not forget

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Ben Ainslie, Dali Lama, Michelangelo, Brian Cox

How would you most like to be remembered?
Helping young people to realise their potential.

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