Interview with James & Åsa Thompson

James and Åsa Thompson have been running the historic Sansaw Estate since 2005.

We have raised the standards of what people can expect from living and working on the estate

James Thompson

Seeing themselves as custodians of the Sansaw Estate, they are passionate about creating an estate that supports the needs of those who live and work here today, without compromising the needs of future generations.

Their contemporary approach has seen Sansaw evolve into a successful business, with diverse revenue streams managed alongside a holistic approach to the environment.

Q) The Sansaw Estate has developed over six generations. Did you have a vision for what you wanted to do here?

In simple terms our vision is to ensure we leave the Estate in better condition than when we took it on. This will never fundamentally change; how we achieve this has evolved and will continue to evolve as we develop our strategy together. When we arrived were ambitious and hungry and knew we wanted to make a difference.

Robin (James’ father) made huge progress during the 1970s and 80s, with investment in light industrial units and a refurbishment programme for cottages on the estate.

We have continued to consolidate the residential lettings side of the business and significantly developed the commercial offer with the development of the Pavilions in 2008.

We took a decision to move away from letting farms to farming ourselves. We started with pigs, vegetables, cereals and heifer rearing and over time this evolved into the largest grass based dairy farm in the country, milking circa 1500 cows.

We didn’t want to be a traditional estate, we wanted to develop sustainable income streams which would work together.

We love the properties on the Estate and felt that we could do more to maximise their full potential. As a team we have worked hard to improve our built environment and will continue to seek opportunities to bring older buildings back in to productive economic use.

Having a vision gives you a focus and a sense of direction but you have to be able to respond to opportunities and challenges that come along whether that is having a family or weathering a financial crisis.

Q) As well as raising a family together, you run the estate together. How do you work as a husband and wife team?

We are quite similar in many ways. We both have a lot of personal drive to achieve things and have a hands-on approach. Life at Sansaw is extremely busy. We are always living in the business even at weekends and there is always something that needs doing. We even stopped going for walks together, because we would be pointing things out and arguing about them! But we are a good team. We look out for each other and when things are overwhelming, try to remember what’s most important. The children are also great at keeping us in check and reminding us not to talk business over dinner.

It’s great to be able to tick things off – to see the completion of a cottage refurbishment or to get the cows dried off at the end of their lactation. It’s a never ending cycle of activity and over the years we have learnt to enjoy the process itself. In your thirties everything is such a rush but as we get older, we are starting to take a more measured approach to the future. It’s a 24/7 business and it can sometimes be very hard to stand back, take a breath and think about things. In that sense Covid came at just the right time for us. It gave us a chance to stabilise, plan ahead a bit more and invest in our team.

I love seeing progress, but I am forensic about asking the difficult questions, including ‘what could we have done better?

Åsa Thompson

Q) How important is your team to helping you achieve what you have set out to do at Sansaw?

Absolutely critical. We have great people here who share our values. From our herds men and women to our maintenance and Estate Office teams, we know that our people care as much about doing a good job as we do. We want our staff to have autonomy in their work and feel motivated. We are part of the process and work towards common goals. But we can also share our frustrations and be honest with each other, and that helps build trust and understanding.

Our teams get to see the wider context of their work on the estate. Everything is connected. Beautifully maintained properties attract good tenants which helps generate more revenue for investment elsewhere on the Estate – it is a never ending cycle. In that sense it means there is respect here for everybody’s individual contribution to the bigger picture.

Sansaw is a series of teams – a husband and wife, a family, a workforce and a community. We happen to be the ones who own it but we all build it together and we all share in its success, enhancing the land and buildings for future generations.

We are really keen to invest in our team and love it when young people in particular decide to stay here longer and develop their skills before they branch out on their own.

Q) Looking back on what you have achieved so far, what do you think your legacy to the next generation will be?

Planning for the future means being flexible. We don’t know what challenges or opportunities our children will face or how their experiences will differ from ours. All we can do is make sure that during our time as custodians of Sansaw we do our best to improve things, and that includes taking care of our natural and built environment for future generations.

We have developed new income streams as well as consolidated old ones. We have aspired to ensure that everything across the estate is proactively managed. From the cottages to the soil to the woodland to the commercial property. In essence we are physically and metaphorically planting trees that we will not see to full maturity but we know they will be there for the next generation, and that we are going to leave an estate with a better, stronger heart.