[Podcast] A 16th Generation Family Legacy

Image courtesy of Viscount William Stormont

On the border to the Scottish Highlands, stands Scone Palace. Today, a historic five-star tourism attraction, Scone’s history traces back at least to the 9th century, claiming its fame for being the crowning-place of the Kings of Scots and home to the Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny. It was believed at the time that no king was allowed to reign over Scotland before being crowned at Scone upon the Stone of Scone.

In this podcast episode, Tharawat Magazine speaks to Viscount William Stormont, the future Earl of Mansfield and the one-day Steward of Scone Palace, to discuss what it is like to be the heir to a 16th generation legacy, and the challenges and opportunities he faces in thriving in a 21st century business climate.

You can read the full family business profile in our Issue 34 of Tharawat Magazine.

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[Interview Transcript]

Many people might find it hard to believe that your family business goes back 16 generations. Can you give us a little bit of insight in to how your family has gotten here?

It’s all very confusing because we have different names so it’s quite a useful place to start. I am now Viscount Stormont, my father is the Earl of Mansfield, just to confuse, but our actual surname or clan name, what my sisters are called, is actually Murray, like the tennis player Andy Murray. So we’re from the Murray clan. We are not the chieftains of the clan; we are cousins who did exceptionally well for ourselves. In terms of the Murray’s, and there is much debate on this front, we can trace our heritage back to 1100 or so. Essentially with the Conqueror coming over with the Norman invasion and we’ve been in this area for 900 or so years.

Our family, our branch of the Murray’s, we made a leap up in the 1600s when a certain sir David Murray of Gospertite, and there is much debate again on this front, supposedly foiled a plot and saved the king from being kidnapped and probably murdered. And because of that, he was rewarded greatly. And that’s when he was given the title Lord Scone and was given what was previously an Abby as his secular Lordship and we’ve been here for 400 years ever since.

So Scone wasn’t a Lordship until your ancestor was given his title, it was an Abby? Can you tell us a little more about that?

The really interesting thing about Scone is although my family has some interesting history, the reason people come to Scone is not really because of us. It’s really because Scone was the crowning place of Scottish kings, and also the first site of recorded Parliament in Scotland. There’s a huge wealth of history here at Scone which goes far beyond our family and our achievements. There are so many great names and Scottish history, Macbeth and Robert the Bruce. Regarding Macbeth, the last word in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is ‘Scone’. MacDuff, the man who killed Macbeth, says ‘thanks to all and one for coming to see me crowned here at Scone’. And that’s quite cool. Scone is of immense importance in terms of Scotland’s national history because it was the seat of power essentially, and where many believe the Scottish nation was built from. The first date that can be attached a Scone is about 840.

Wow so this is a rich heritage not just in terms of your family yourself, but the place itself holds a huge legacy and a lot of mystique. Tell us a little bit more about what you meant when you said your branch of the family has done particularly well for itself. Does this relate to how you’ve grown your fortunes and expanded to business activity?

It’s an interesting story, there’s been lots of ups and downs and ins and outs. We have only very recently, in my understanding, become a business family. It’s really been less than one century. Previously, we were politicians, peers and the landed. This meant ruling over various parts of Scotland and assisting the King to do that. I said there were a lot of ins and outs and ups and downs. For a long time, we decided to back the wrong kings, the kings that were expelled – the Jacobites. For this, we were severely reprimanded on several occasions and Scone at that time was actually uninhabitable. There were holes in the roof and so our family was rich in name and nothing else.

It was about a hundred or so years after we first came to Scone that a fourth son of the family really picked up his game. He went to London at a very young age and he was a very intelligent individual. He decided not to get into politics because you couldn’t make so much money there. It would’ve been very hard for him to shine there because the press would’ve been all over him because his family supported the wrong people etc. etc. So instead, he decided to go into the judiciary and be a lawyer and that’s when our family regained its fortune. He did extraordinarily well for himself, became the Lord Chief Justice and was described on quite a few occasions as being the second most powerful man in the British Empire, second to the King. So we came out with a bang.

The second one was the ambassador in Paris, he was the number one diplomat in his generation. The third Earl was a stalwart member of Court and Parliament. And it was at that generation where children were godsons and things like that of the Royals and so there was a real connection there. So we came back with a big bang. That’s when we established a real estate up in Scotland which was highly traditional, it had forestry and agriculture and the like. The third Earl supposedly planted 3 ½ million trees which I don’t know if it’s a lot, but it sounds like an awful lot to me. The third Earl died in I believe 1840. He sponsored a man named David Douglas who was the head gardener here and he famously went to Canada and brought back various species of trees. So the first Douglas fir is actually right here on the grounds. That was one of the major legacy pieces of our family.

Through Douglas’ work the forestry commission here in Great Britain was started. And although there were elements of business then, the first Earl being a lawyer obviously had to be very business minded in ways, I think our family didn’t really make a transition for a long time. It’s not that they weren’t business minded, it’s more that they were the ruling elite and not businessmen. And I would say that didn’t change until very recently. I believe it’s fair to say that this change of mindset was a struggle.

So hopefully come September, I will be the first member of my family to get a proper business education which is quite interesting after 16 generations. My ancestors were very intelligent people, very articulate, they spoke many languages including useful things like Greek and Latin and they were all incredibly intelligent and all had incredible hobbies. My great-grandfather was an ornithologist; he was president of the association in Great Britain. My father is a great bee keeper but no one knew business, I will be the first. So that has been a strange evolution going on for a long time.

Let’s talk about that for a second. I think it’s interesting that your family has done so well without a formal business education. They excel by being experts at things so expertise seems to be running at a very high level for all of you. Was it the perception of what it meant to be in business that held your family back from considering themselves a business family for so long? That as a peer, you shouldn’t be meddling in business-like activities?

It’s very, very interesting that you point that out because I’ve often considered that and there was an element of that. Or maybe if it wasn’t that, they thought there was a greater calling in the calling was to serve in these various areas. Whether it was in the judiciary, or in diplomacy, or as a politician, I think that may have been it. There was no particular need to go into business, things were being looked after. There was a landed estate but there wasn’t what you would call an operating business running day to day. Of course today you would look at an operating an estate as a running business but in those days, it was definitely not a pet project, but it was not what you would call a modern operating business. So they would spend their time furthering themselves and, hopefully, the nation and the community around them by becoming real experts in their fields.

So as your family transitioned, what did you feel was the perception towards you and your family? Have your peers accepted this transition? Did they go to their own earlier?

I always feel like I’m behind the curve, it’s just part of who I am. And so I sadly paint my family as that way as well. But I’ve been assured by various advisers of ours though, that we are ahead of the curve in many situations. There are some particular families who just have this knack for doing it and maybe it’s because they’ve always been in business that I’ve always wanted to model our family on. So maybe that’s why I’ve always been so hard on myself. But I think we’re doing a good job to keep up in what is a very rapidly changing world, so I shouldn’t be too harsh on the ancestors.

Your nuclear family, your mother and father live here at Scone and you have three sisters living and working in London so how does the family business work right now tell us a little bit more about that.

To date, and it is to date, we’ve stuck by the traditional primogeniture. So my grandfather to my father and then to me and that’s the transition that’s actively happening now. My grandfather passed away in October 2015 and I think my father has an eye on retirement quite soon. And as you say, I have three sisters in London but going by the system of primogeniture, even though siblings and aunts and uncles are involved in a branch of the business structure, the main asset is preserved by the three or two living male heirs. And it’s been like that for 400 years. Having worked in America in family business, there is a dilemma. There is a complex in my mind now that sees that as being antiquated and, in many ways, it is a system that carries a lot of liability. There are one or two individuals who have a lot to live up to and if things don’t go well, then it can all go very wrong very quickly. So currently, although my sisters are not as actively involved as my father, my mother, and myself, they are very supportive in many ways and that is one of the things that we really encourage. That supportive family where all members of the family, if not actively involved, are at least in someway engaged in the process.

So they know what’s going on in business and they try to support you with decisions is it like a family council that’s already been formed or are you in the process of putting this family institution in place?

We have a family board, but there’s no family council beyond that. What tends to happen is that sisters and or brothers tend to marry others and get caught up in what they’re doing. I have a great aunt, for instance, who married the Earl of Murray so they’re very busy up there in Inverness. She frankly probably doesn’t have the time to look at what we’re doing. But overall, the family is very supportive and they feed ideas in. This is what I look forward to in my future is how do we continue to transition and modernize as a family? And what does that mean in terms of future generations? If I have only girls, what does that mean? Who picks up the mantle, who takes the pressure on in the future? The title would probably die, there’s nothing I can do about that, that’s the law. But the family would continue and Scone would continue so we need to shape that. Obviously, the Royal Family has taken the lead there because I believe the first born girl would be the Monarch over a son. The times are changing, you got to keep up with them.

So tell us more about how you transitioned into a business? And can you tell us how this links into what your family has always been doing and how that has informed your choices of the industry that you are today active in?

So we’ve been here for 400 years and for 400 years, we’ve essentially been farm operators. So we’re Scottish farmers essentially. This is a very great area of the world to do it. It’s a great area to grow fruit and things like raspberries and gooseberries. So we have an extensive agricultural estate with arable land leading up into a pastoral area with cattle and lamb and other things like that. So that is what we’ve been doing for a very, very long time. Alongside that, we do forestry. That game has changed over the last 20 or 30 years like many businesses have. So we’re not doing it on the scale that we used to and we have contractors coming to do it, there is still forestry operating on the estate. There is some sort of traditional activity still going on such as shooting and fishing.

With the modern day, and I’m another big proponent of this, we’re getting into renewable energies. Very soon we will put in our first solar field which is now viable in Scotland because of the new technology so that’s quite exciting. And beyond that, there are some slightly different operations going on like Scotland’s largest race course which isn’t saying much, it is Scotland. Of course, that’s horses and not cars. And then central to it all is the palace activity in the tourism activities and then there’s rock concerts and things like that on the grounds as well.

So it sounds like everything that you do as a business centres around Scone and Scotland and your heritage. Are you planning to globalize some of this activity?

I have a global mind so yes, I definitely have longer term ambitions to extend our business activities elsewhere. Where that leads to, I don’t know. There’s a lot of education going on now whether this will go into sectors and industries we’re already used to like agriculture and real estate elsewhere? Probably, but you have to diversify so this probably will lead to other operations elsewhere. So yes, the MBA is to prepare me for my future whatever that may be and whatever opportunity so we’ll see.

Can you talk about the difficult balance you have to strike between having this beautiful historic place here but also having to commercialize its use?

That’s a very good question. I’d say we’ve taken our time, rightly so. But if we supplanted and put it in the USA, it would be some huge theme park right now. It would be very different. So we’ve struck that balance between Downton Abbey of still being family as well as being an attraction. The thing about Scone is that the history here is just too much for it not to be accessible by the public, really. In a way, it would be very selfish for people not to have access to it. So we often talk about how we’re stewarding Scone into the future. Yes, it’s our property and it’s private property and we can enjoy it for that but yet, we are also stewards of Scone and we have to take that legacy forward.

And it’s not about being forgetful of ourselves but striking that balance, as you put it. I think we’ve done it in ways and I think we are accelerating the process now. I think there will be changes in the coming years, we’ll see what those are where we expand upon what we’re doing now. I’m quite ambitious so for me, it’s like number one or go home. So I want to see Scone as being an absolute phenomenal destination, forget about profits and things like that. I want to see Scone being the landmark place that people have to come to when they come to Scotland. And hopefully, to receive all kinds of awards for innovation and things like that to really make history come alive. That’s a life ambition of mine.

But there is a balance that you will need to find between it being family and making it public and commercial. And there are quite a few examples of families in this country that manage to find that same balance. Fortunately, they’re pretty big building so you can squirrel away in parts of it and not really have any idea that tourists are here. But I think other families have struggled with that but once you have gone into it, you can’t really go back. And I think it’s right for us to continue down this road.

When you say there’ve been some have been very successful at that other one example that immediately come to mind?

There are some real standout examples. The Devonshires at Chatsworth, they have a very famous name as well so there’s that public recognition but they’ve also been highly innovative and have done so from the very earliest era of the tourism sector. They’ve not been afraid to make changes and so you’ll see a lot of modern art on the grounds. They manage to marry the old and the new so the Devonshires are one for sure. Lord March at Goodwood of the car festival is another example of where even though it has nothing to do with the family or the property, they’ve found a way to put the property to great use and they’ve really capitalized on that initiative.

Lord March in particular understands the pressure of restoring and maintaining alongside the commercial. I think he is now president of the Historic Houses Association. He gave a speech a few years ago where he’d drop in the phrase ‘the beast still needs feeding’. And it’s a fact, you cannot run away from that. The beast will still need feeding. So in a way, you have to be incredibly entrepreneurial. Every day is a new day with new opportunities, and keep building really. For example, we’re starting a new Halloween event. I was in New York for the last two or three years and went to Sleepy Hollow and was inspired by an event there. I want to re-create a similar thing here and that’s just one of the many initiatives that you have to capitalize on.

This idea that you mentioned, marrying the old and the new is really something that a lot of family businesses are trying to do right now as every generation faces a new transition. What do you see is the place of a place like Scone Palace and a family like yours or even the aristocracy in general in a world that seems to be taken over by technology and progress?

It’s very easy to divorce technology from the old world and aristocracy as you put it, but technology has reached everything and touched everything and is changing everything. So even if we tried to put up barriers all around, it would still change our world. So you basically have to drop the barriers and be open to it. As I said, I want Scone to be a modern and exciting attraction, so it’s going to be digital and it’s going to happen. In terms of the rate of change and what our role is there and what the future holds, at some point the world is changing so quickly that you just need to put that in a box in a way and just continue to do what you’re doing because otherwise you just get swept away by that.

Having said that, obviously you need to be very proactive and try to get a grasp of what’s happening. You can do that by just generally reading up on things and asking your advisers and also by speaking to people who are in a similar position as you, I think that’s really Important. So for us to speak to other people in agriculture or other people and tourism is of vital importance. You can all muddle through together in ways. The rate of change is extraordinary. In terms of the business of a family of wealth, I think that classification is of vital importance and so diversifying, diversifying and keep diversifying. I also think going global is very important.

So it’s not to be afraid to go outside your comfort zone.

That’s one great trait of Scottish families actually. Partly because Scotland has always been slightly behind England and at times and, dare I say, there was a little bit of oppression here, and for political reasons and also purely for financial reasons, Scottish sons were taught to go out and make your fortune and so they ended up all over the world. They went to America, and Canada, Australia, and other places. And there’s some business families that are very famous that had this incredible knack in generation after generation of just re-creating themselves while preserving the old. They re-create themselves generation after generation and that is a really important thing because in terms of succession from generation to generation it is to allow the younger generation to participate in a meaningful way at as young in age as possible.

It should not be a case where you’re allowed to sit in the driver’s seat but you’re not given the key to the car. When you do get the key to the car, that’s the question but in my view younger is better. It’s about gentle empowerment and gradual responsibility. But the fresh impetus that the next generation often brings is the key to survival and the key to growth. To delay that or to crush that enthusiasm is I believe very bad. That leads to a lot of stagnation in family businesses. So the thing to do is even if the values are slightly different, and I’m sure every generation look at the next generation says ‘Ooh my God who is this person?’ The thing to do is find any commonalties and capture that with a maximum of encouragement and the minimum of interference. Give them the keys to the car and tell them when they going off the road, otherwise just let them drive.