Rewind 15 years and James Thompson was commanding 45 soldiers as a Royal Marines mountain leader in Afghanistan, preparing for a further tour in Iraq.
Now running Sansaw Estate with 36 staff – 25 more than when he took over – James has some altogether different challenges ahead.
“Life couldn’t be more removed from those days in the Royal Marines but a lot of the things I learned are put into practice here,” explains James. “The business is constantly evolving and we have to keep pace with that.
“I always wanted to join the Royal Marines from when I was a teenager, and I signed up as a young officer in May 1998. They were some of the toughest yet rewarding days of my life, despite the dangers.”
The perils hit home in 2002 after he married his wife Åsa.
“I literally got married and spent my honeymoon on a ship out to Afghanistan. It was there where I began thinking about what the next chapter would be. It was post-9/11 and having previously been operating in a benign environment from a military perspective there was suddenly a lot more going on. My family just felt more important.”
James’s career change came in 2005, when he left the forces and both he and Åsa moved back to Sansaw to support his father, Robin, who was at the helm.
“I definitely came back with a drive to make things happen,” James said. “We began working on the Pavilions project at the start of 2006, after putting the strategy together the year before.
“There had been an article about estate-wide development plans that interested me. The estate had always run from cashflow and no debt, but the low income meant it wasn’t growing or developing. Out of this plan came the Pavilions – I’m a great believer of making your assets sweat.”
In order to continue expanding his knowledge, James and Robin enrolled onto a Business Growth Programme at Cranfield University.
“The course allowed us to put pen to paper and write down everything we wanted to get out of the business. It was quite cathartic really – we had some frank discussions which enabled us to formulate a comprehensive five-year business plan.
“I’ve never been afraid of a challenge and in order to develop the business we needed a change of emphasis and direction,” James continues, referring to the immense refurbishment the estate went under 10 years ago and the ongoing works needed to keep it ahead of the competition.
Sansaw Business Park is now home to a dozen firms including global veterinary pharmaceuticals firm Dechra at the Pavilions, with the building receiving recognition from the Royal Institute of British Architects for its design in 2008.
As the conversation continues, the focus expands on the future and James’s plans for the wider estate. The vision is as detailed as the development plans.
“We are the largest grass-based dairy farm in the UK and running these businesses means having really high-quality people in post,” he explains. “We have a clear vision and with the right team we can achieve great things.
“The dairy took a lot of planning and reconnaissance before we committed to it but it was the staff who needed to make it hum. It was vital we had the right people to implement the vision, and the same goes for the rest of the estate. I always talk about there being three legs of the Sansaw stool – the dairy, the residential properties and the commercial portfolio.”
Part of that vision looks at the estate from an environmental perspective, but James is conscious that Sansaw also takes the lead in implementing new technologies across the estate. It’s part of his plan to encourage the best talent to this part of Shropshire.
“As an estate we want to attract great individuals who are ready to work within a productive and effective team. My time in the Royal Marines underlined the strength of the team -something that’s bigger than the individual – and we want an environment where staff cover each other’s backs.
“We want to be at the forefront of dairy innovation in order to face the challenges that the sector faces continually, whether that’s the rise of veganism or the health of dairy products.
“My own family have become more involved in the direction of the estate too, whether that’s Åsa keeping us accountable for some of the grander visions such as sustainability or ensuring our property developments are properly thought through, or preparing for the return at some stage of our four boys. The next generation is always key to the survival of the estate and we are already embarking on a programme to ensure a smooth succession.”
James is a clear advocate of getting quality in to get quality out at the other side.
“That message is clear in all that we do – we invest in great staff, high-quality cows, in our old farm buildings and in the community at large. By utilising the older farm buildings, the team and I can make economic use out of them. We’d also like to connect with other areas of industry, like wellbeing and leisure, however it’s about finding the right balance.”
Sansaw’s place in the community has never been in doubt geographically but James is keen for it to have more significance as the years go on.
“We’re at the heart of a vibrant community and we understand our sense of place,” he says. “Our ethos has always been to help and to serve and there are lots of things that go on behind the scenes which underline that, from maintenance of public areas to the restoration of Hadnall Moat. We do talk to the community to discuss estate-related issues and we are passionate about creating a great environment to live and work.
“People like living in and around Sansaw because it’s well looked after – the hedges are cut early, our cows don’t halt the traffic because of the underpasses we put in, there are wild flowers being sown and trees being planted.
“At the end of the day it comes down to three things – financial, social and environmental responsibility. We want to leave a legacy that our grandchildren can be proud of. There’s a lot of work to do to achieve this but we’re here for the long haul.”