26 March 1999

HER GOOD

HEAD FOR

FARM AND

BUSINESS…

Business is a way of life for

Lucy McGibbon but farming

is a passion, Tessa Gates

met her at the Northants

conference centre where

delegates dine on

home-produced meat

LUCY McGibbon is resources director of a successful conference centre but needs little encouragement and even less time to swap her smart office clothes for wellies and waterproofs so she can show you her livestock.

It is something she is practised in for she is a farmer at heart and rears pedigree beef and sheep in the 10ha (25 acres) of grounds surrounding the centre Highgate House, at Creaton, Northants, and a further 40.46 ha (100 acres) rented nearby.

Highgate House was built in the 17th century as a coaching inn and by the time Lucys parents bought it as a family home for their eight children 35 years ago it was in a poor state, virtually derelict. "To make ends meet mum used to do B&B. She was incredible, with so much energy, and gradually it grew into a conference centre. The conferences started in a converted barn," says Lucy, whose co-directors are her brother Tim Chudley and sister Jo Thornberg

Today Highgate House is a magnificent dedicated conference centre suffused with an air of calm efficiency that only years of experience and 100 willing staff can bring to such an establishment. It has 32 meeting rooms, five private dining rooms, 95 bedrooms, swimming pool, fitness room, tennis court and more – and the surprising plus of the farm.

&#42 Riding competitions

"I used to ride competitively so I was responsible for the land because of the animals but it was my mother who came home with the first sheep, five Jacob ewes all in lamb, Now we have a flock of Jacobs with a consistent 200% lambing rate," explains Lucy who also has 45 cattle on the FABL registered farm, and a few free-range pigs.

"I went for Aberdeen-Angus and good bloodlines with the cattle. I bought them from Willie McLaren (past president of the Aberdeen-Angus Society) and flew up to Scotland and chose the ones I wanted from the fields. I change the bull every three years so I can keep back good heifers."

The animals are beautifully kept and delegates at the centre enjoy seeing them, but they are not reared for decoration. "The farm is an asset as it is working providing the meat for the conference centre. Our stock goes to South Kilworth abattoir, which is nearby so there is no trauma. I used to handle the carcasses myself and had a butchers shop but now they go to Mr Gilling in Daventry who prepares them to order for our chefs. He also makes sausages to our recipe.

"We have to be professional about what we do, our guests have very high standard," says Lucy. "I think the type of meat, the way it is produced and killed, is the way of the future. We have traceability from conception to consumption."

Lucy, who is married and has a five-year-old son, loves the farming side of the business and is quietly expanding it. The conference business has grown with two more centres, in Guildford, Surrey, and Kenilworth, Warks. "Woodside, our private residential corporate centre at Kenilworth has 40 acres so I have 14 cattle tucked away on there and we make hay there, too," says Lucy, adding that Sundial Group conference centres now have a £6.5m turnover.

&#42 Business acumen

It is a staggering amount but business acumen is a family trait, (her sister Victorias shoe business featured in Farmlife last week) Between them, her father Michael Chudley and his eight children run companies with sales of £30m/year and employ 600 people. The family will be featured regularly this year on BBC 2s Money Programme and in the financial pages of the Daily Mail as their businesses are used as a barometer of the economy.

But while business is undoubtedly in Lucys blood, her heart belongs to farming.

"I used to think I would marry a farmer but I became one," she says, quickly adding, "But I am very happy with that, and with my husband."