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Among the traditional male dominated “trades”, it is not uncommon to see “& Son” across the vans of plumbers, electricians and building as fathers and sons join forces in the family business. But what about “& Daughter”? According to an article in the Growth Business there is evidence to suggest that the “& Daughter” business are growing with some 15,600 building firms in the UK headed by females inspired by their fathers to go into the notoriously male dominated sector.

In March 2019, Forbes reported that in the States, female owned family businesses have increased by 58% since 2007; almost a quarter are led by a female CEO or president and there are women in top management positions within 60% of family businesses.

One of the most famous “Father/Daughter” pairings of late is that of the Donald and Ivanka Trump and one can only imagine the added and different pressures that come into play when your father is known the world over. 

So what is it like when the head of your family business is not only your father, but also a legend the world over …. and it was never your intention to take over the reins?

For Leonora Surtees, daughter of John Surtees CBE, Formula 1 Champion and 7-time motorcycle champion and legend in the world of motorsport,  joining the family business has certainly been a rollercoaster as she explained when we caught up with her.

Although Surtees was aware of her father’s reputation, as for all children, he was first and foremost her dad:

“I had an appreciation of his incredible achievements but until I saw him in the context of what he meant to the motorsport world, it didn’t really hit home. I think he wasn’t just a legend in terms of motorsport – he was just a complete legend as a dad. To me, that was the most important part.”

By the time Surtees was born, the major part of her father’s career was over which meant he was around for the formative years for both herself and her brother and sister. Family was very important and Surtees recalls weekends where she, her mother and sister would head off to the local Pony Club event while her father and brother went in the opposite direction in a van with the go-kart in the back.

As a successful sportsman, it’s no surprise that Surtees lists focus and determination as two of key traits of her father – the same two of the qualities successful business owners possess. Although no longer actively racing, he remained involved in motorsport as a consultant and also ran a commercial property management business during Surtees’ childhood. It was time spent in and around this business generally as well as providing cover for his PA during the summer holidays that sparked her own interest in business.

Surtees is very aware that she was fortunate to have had the upbringing she did but it was important to her that she had her own independence and was able to lead her own life. In many family-run businesses, particularly for the first generation, everyone is acutely aware of the sacrifices and hard work involved when setting up and building a business if it is to be successful. As the business becomes established and ownership transfers from the second to the third generation, the awareness of the sacrifices and connection to the founding generation becomes more remote. This can sometimes lead to a sense of ‘entitlement.’ Not so for Surtees:

“I think having those values instilled, not being spoiled – as lucky as we were with our upbringing, we weren’t spoiled as such and I’m really appreciative of that because myself and my sister are both really hard working. We’ve wanted to really forge our own careers and that’s definitely a product of that upbringing.”

Determined to make her own way in life, Surtees chose to pursue a business management degree in Newcastle because, in her own words, “it was the furthest away from home that [she] could get!”. She acknowledged to herself that she would most likely work in London post-university since job opportunities would be greater and so she would be close to her family. Knowing this, Surtees recognised university would most likely be the only time when she would live a substantive amount of time away from them. 

Unfortunately, Surtees’ time in Newcastle was to be scarred by the death of her younger brother at the age of 18 in a freak racing accident which devasted the whole family. Describing the tragedy as ‘a very blunt end to what had been a blissful childhood’, Surtees reflected that, at the time, she lost her zest for life, became introverted and, for the first time, experienced anxiety. Entering her final year, Surtees threw herself into her studies as a way of distracting herself from the pain of her brother’s death and was rewarded with a first class degree which seemed irrelevant given the circumstances.

Although time is undoubtedly a great healer, 10 years on, Surtees misses her brother daily but tries to focus on things that makes her feel better and to appreciate what she has rather than what she has lost which she finds helps. A foundation set up by the family following her brother’s untimely death, The Henry Surtees Foundation, provides an opportunity to help those whose lives have been impacted by incident or accident by helping them rehabilitate back to normal life. For example, they have worked with Air Ambulance providing them with equipment for their “Blood on Board Scheme”. The Blood on Board scheme is really about providing the best possible level of care and, really, hospital care at the site of the accident which should help to save that person ideally but also more importantly to save as much of that person as possible – so to save as much of their quality of life as possible. They have then also worked with organisation that provide different activities such as wheelchair rugby.

With her father also being the most focused and determined person she have ever met in her life, she also attributes these traits within herself as coming from him:

I do think that, as I’ve become older, and as I’ve been tested through really challenging times, I’ve realised that I’ve probably got more of that than I may have thought previously. I always try to dig deep and think ‘well, dad’s my dad, so I must have it somewhere’. That does actually bring me a lot of comfort in challenging times.

After leaving university, Surtees had no immediate desire or intention to work in her father’s business, choosing instead to work firstly in HR and retail, working at Kurt Gieger and Tiffany & Co. So what was it that brought her into the business and specifically to become involved at Buckmore Park Karting Circuit in Kent? 

Initially keen to transfer the long hours she was working for Tiffany into a business that she was passionate about and which meant more to her personally, Surtees was contemplating setting up in business for herself. Despite having a business management degree and with six or seven years’ experience, she was feeling insecure and unsure of her own ability to go it alone. Her father had just bought Buckmore Park and suggested she join him and manage it for him.

Family business are often accused of nepotism but is it not just good business sense – after all, no-one has as much as a vested interest in the business than the family members that own it? Provided the family member is given adequate training (if needed) to do the job and wants to do the job, surely we would all do the same for our children if we had an opportunity to do so?

Surtees joined Buckmore Park in 2015 in a general management role, acting as a sounding board for her father as well as his eyes and ears on the ground while he was running his other businesses. As they were undertaking a large improvement and transformation programme across the business, Surtees was able to get fully involved and learn the business from the inside out.

But what happens to a family business when the head of the family is no longer there, either through retirement or, in the case of Surtees through death? In 2017 Surtees father sadly passed away and, by her own admission, Buckmore Park had a bit of a crisis in leadership. On purchasing the business, Surtees’ father had concerns over its viability but it had been showing signs of improvement but not at the rate needed to build a sustainable business. It would have been an understandable decision had the family decided to cut their losses following the death of the racing legend. If the business was to continue and survive, it would need someone that had a personal investment to turn it around. Showing that steely determination inherited from her father, Surtees, with the support of the other members of the Board (her mother, sister and husband), took up the mantle of Managing Director and a turnaround plan was instigated:

“It’s been a very, very challenging time but I think sometimes it’s the old cliché of that actually when you don’t seek out leadership, you are perhaps the better suited person for it. I think in my situation, it wasn’t the aspiration that I had to be Managing Director of Buckmore but I had to really take on the role and I ran with it, made it work and I can’t speak highly enough of the team and how they have adapted to the things that I’ve wanted to put in place. They’ve really come along with me and it’s been really challenging and there’s still a lot we want to achieve but, yes, it’s definitely been a challenging but rewarding eighteen months.”

Surtees’ efforts and those of her team saw Buckmore Park awarded the accolade of “Best Tourism Experience in the South East” in 2018 which is a huge achievement given the competition includes venues such as Blenheim House. Teamwork is a word that is mentioned frequently by Surtees when talking about the work being done at Buckmore Park:

I think my main learning from my previous experiences has been that business really is about your team and your people. We’ve tried to do as much with the team as possible to make them feel valued and part of the team so that they can really come along on the journey with us” Clearly the decision to focus on the team is proving to be the right one as results have surpassed expectations. 

The make-up and balance of any team is important but for Surtees, the overriding consideration around equality should not be focused on gender, rather it should be focused about giving people access to the same opportunity and appointing the best person for the job. The Operations Manager at Buckmore Park is female but is not something Surtees rarely thinks about unless asked the question.

Although there is now a “W” series for female drivers, driving makes up such a small part of the motorsport industry:

“I do think that there are equal opportunities but it’s about girls opening up their minds to the fact that motorsport is a huge industry in the UK and across the world; there are so many opportunities but it is not until they start to see role models that it hits home that it’s not just something which is dominated by boys or men and that they will consider it as an option.” 

Being a female working in an industry very much dominated by men and with the added pressure of the family name as well, Surtees admitted that when she started work in the family business in a general management role, she felt she would have to do twice as well as previous post holder to be considered just as good. It is not uncommon for women to experience the same feelings even when not working in a family run business and when you add in the ‘nepotism’ factor, you can understand why it is tough for women looking to make it in the family firm. 

My mindset is that you will always be judged on what you actually do but also what you actually achieve. For me the fact I’m a woman is irrelevant: I’m just here to do my job. The most important thing is that I don’t want to be the best female motor circuit MD in the country I want to be the best MD of a motor circuit in the country.”

With such a determination and mindset, it’s clearly a case of “like father, like daughter’’ for Surtees who is definitely succeeding in this family business.

Suzanna Bailes
Correspondent

Listen to the full interview with Leonora on KWIB Radio only available on the KWIB App – download today on the App Store or Google Play.

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