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Navigating the Crisis

Jonathan Russell on leading Cowdray through Covid-19

"We have witnessed a greater appreciation for our local environment and spaces and arguably an impact of the crisis will be to shorten our horizons and enjoy the memorable and authentic experiences that special UK destinations such as Cowdray can offer." In today's 'Lockdown Leader' profile, we meet Jonathan Russell, CEO of the West-Sussex based Cowdray Estate. With a history dating back to the early 1500s, the Estate has been 'built on fundamentals of resilience and caution', and is therefore well prepared to weather the current - and any future - crisis.
1st Jun 2020
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Navigating the Crisis  Jonathan Russell on leading Cowdray through Covid-19

How are you navigating your business through the current COVID-19 crisis?

Cowdray is a diversified business where we balance traditional activities with more modern retail, leisure and hospitality enterprises. Some of our enterprises, such as farming, have continued relatively unaffected albeit with no less concerns and worries for our staff who operate them.

Other enterprises such as our Farm Shop have dealt with a huge surge in demand which has allowed us to implement new services such as deliveries and, click and collect. We have also witnessed an unprecedented demand for let houses in rural locations.

However a significant number of our activities were switched off overnight and now, like others, we continue to plan for when and how they will re-open. This is unquestionably the most challenging time as we balance the desire to re-open against the fundamental requirement of protecting our staff’s health and ensuring there is a clear commercial justification.

Seeing golfers return to the Golf Club and polo players back on the pitches, albeit individually, has been a great boost.

What has the situation taught you about leadership?

It has been an interesting experience and arguably there has been a need for different skills and focus as we have evolved through the phases of crisis management, lockdown and now the push to both re-open the enterprises once permitted, in addition to identifying new and novel ways to promote our activities and our incredible location.

My role is made significantly easier by Michael and Marina Cowdray’s passion for what we do, their support and their consistent calmness in leading the business.

We are also fortunate to have a highly engaged and committed team who all make a contribution to our success.

However unquestionably there have been leadership challenges and remotely managing a business which traditionally has been highly visual and experiential creates challenges. Whilst an overused expression, communication is fundamental to ensuring that our teams are engaged and have a clear understanding as to what steps the management teams are taking to get to the point where many can return.

And what has it taught you about your business?

The business has existed for hundreds of years and is built on fundamentals of resilience and caution. The creation of diversified enterprises and activities for traditional Estates has been a brave and entrepreneurial evolvement driven by many Estate owners. However the balance this creates will stand us in good stead for now and in future.

The business has a long-term multi-generational approach and strategy, and whilst there will be short-term impacts, Michael and Marina’s commitment to custodianship and sustainability, have proved to be absolutely correct and will ensure that we overcome challenges both now and in the future.

Whilst not new, the crisis has highlighted just how fortunate we are to have such a committed, selfless and supportive team. Cowdray is an unusual business in so much that the majority of staff live either on the estate or within a few miles. As such the place is engrained within us and we all feel a great sense of loss at this current time when we would be entering in to our peak period of sporting activities, weddings and events together with welcoming visitors from around the world to share the unique Cowdray experience.

How are you – and the wider business – supporting your people?

Michael and Marina’s priority from the outset was to both protect our staff’s health and to ensure, where possible, that we could support everyone financially. This has been understandably welcomed and forms part of our ongoing long-term commitment to our teams, some of whose families have worked on the estate for generations.

Cowdray further supports a significant number of businesses and occupiers who all contribute to our destination approach whether it be a Brewery or Asparagus grower through to our award-winning clay shooting school or the Bear Grylls Academy. There have been many sensitive discussions over the past months with our partners however we remain committed to the long-term sustainability of the environment we wish to create.

We have been delighted to support a number of local charities and have been touched by the number of our staff who are supporting the community with pharmacy deliveries and other much needed services.

What do you see as the potential long-lasting changes to your business?

Whilst we have been committed to being a highly visible business we have demonstrated that we can operate the administration and management of it remotely. That being said, it is likely that once it is safe to do so our teams will return to enjoy the special place that Cowdray is.

We have witnessed a greater appreciation for our local environment and spaces and arguably an impact of the crisis will be to shorten our horizons and enjoy the memorable and authentic experiences that special UK destinations such as Cowdray can offer.

Whilst the majority of our activities are likely to continue largely unchanged in the long term, we are currently focussed on immediate opportunities such as drive in cinemas, glamping and alfresco hospitality all of which we can hope be undertaken in accordance with Government guidelines.

How are you, on a personal level, dealing with lockdown?

I have witnessed the extremes of lockdown. Sadly a close family member contracted the virus and was hospitalised in a critical condition. The feeling of helplessness and detachment was overwhelming however fortunately they are now making a strong and miraculous recovery.

At the other extreme has been the benefits of spending more time with my family and having less interruptions so as to be more reflective on the challenges and how our business will learn from the crisis. That being said I am itching to get going again and we hope that the days of a late afternoon drink in the sunshine watching polo on the world-famous Lawns is not too far away.