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Paul:
Welcome to KWIB Radio. This morning we are at Buckmore Park talking to Leonora Surtees, daughter of John Surtees CBE, Formula 1 Champion and 7-time motorcycle champion. Leonora – hello!

Leonora:
Hi Paul!

Paul:
Leonora, can I start by asking you what it’s like having a father who is a legend?

Leonora:
Well, I haven’t known anything different so it was absolutely incredible. It felt very fortunate to have such an inspirational man as my father but, to me, he really was just dad and then, later on, when I went to events like Goodwood, I would realise ‘wow, he really is quite a legend to so many people’. 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.

Paul:
I’ve read that you were very close to your father.

Leonora:
Yes, really close. We not only were very close personally in terms of our relationship as dad and daughter, but we also obviously worked together latterly so it would be very common for us to speak on the phone at least three, four or five times a day in constant communication. So, yes, extremely close!

Paul:
Obviously, he must have had a bit of steel running through him as you don’t achieve all he achieved without that headstrong desire to win. Has any of that rubbed off on you?

Leonora:
I agree – he was the most focused and determined person I have ever met in my life. 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. And, thankfully, because it’s really held me in good stead to get through what have been some really challenging times. I think for me it’s that focus and dedication that 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. So, yes – it has definitely rubbed off on me!

Paul:
We’re all shaped by our parents and their values. What values had an impression on you and shaped your early life?

Leonora:
So I think both my mum and dad were exceptionally family focused. They both came from very different family backgrounds but that was something that was incredibly important to them, so we spent a lot of time together as a family. It was really important. It was also one of the benefits of having a slightly older father in that he’d obviously been through the main part of his career by the time we were born. He would generally be home from the office about four or five pm; he would always be around on the evenings and at the weekends. Yes – he did still travel a lot, but often we did travel with him as well. So, he had an incredible focus. From both of them, also really encouraging to be independent and to be our own people and I think that’s something that’s really important to me as I get older; kind of finding my own independence and leading my own life. That was something that was really important to me – being able to look after myself, provide for myself. I was very fortunate with the upbringing that I had, but it was always really important to me that I would be able to be independent and find my own way through life so 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.

Paul:
A strong work ethic.

Leonora:
Absolutely.

Paul:
Being surrounded by motorsport, you didn’t get the bug to race?

Leonora:
No… I did do some racing when I was much younger. We all started karting around the same time actually at Buckmore Park so I would probably have been around nine or ten at the time. But, I was very quickly diverted by equestrian sports; my sister and I actually went down the equestrian route and the Pony Club route…

Paul:
That’s quite scary though because a car has got a brake and a horse hasn’t!

Leonora:
Exactly! So those really were the days when we were children and my mum, sister and I would be going out of the house one way with the horses and my dad and brother would be going out the other way with the little van with the go-kart in the back. Those were the days but, no, I never caught the bug to pursue racing seriously.

Paul:
Later on, as you finished school and then went on to University and studied at Newcastle, what made you decide on the subject of business management?

Leonora:
I’d always been really interested in business and my father was a really successful businessman. Not only had he obviously worked in the motorsport in consulting but he also had a property management business – predominantly to do with commercial property. I had sort of worked in his office for the summer holidays, covered for his PA and I’d always just found the working of the office and understanding how a business runs quite interesting but I didn’t know what I wanted to do specifically. I decided to do a business management degree to give me a good grounding, knowing that it would be a broad degree to enable me to go into lots of different areas and I chose Newcastle because it was the furthest away from home that I could get! But only because I knew that I wanted to be near my family when I was older and working. I knew that I wanted to live in London and obviously there were more jobs available in London at that time and I thought ‘do you know what, this is probably the only opportunity I’ll have to live a substantial amount of time in a really different city in a really different part of the country’. It was slightly daunting going to the other end of the country but I had the most amazing time up there.

Paul:
They’re quite friendly people up there aren’t they!

Leonora:
Yes definitely.

Paul:
It was while studying in Newcastle that your brother tragically died after a racing accident at Brands Hatch. That must have had a terrible effect on you.

Leonora:
Yes. It did have an effect on me and my whole family. It was between my second and third year at Uni so for me personally, it was a very difficult time. I think it is always challenging when you deal with that level of trauma of something that is so unexpected because obviously the shock of something like that happening and it being such a freak accident is so incredibly cruel. I think for me in some ways it was quite good that I had the focus of university to go back to. It was difficult because being at university in Newcastle I was quite far away from home so that made it challenging because my parents needed my support as well. And, it probably had a detrimental affect across all areas of my life because I think that anyone who has experienced anything similar will totally understand what I mean by that. I’d just turned twenty when the accident happened and, as most people will appreciate, at twenty, you are still very much in your formative years and you’re still very much a child in some ways as much as you are obviously grown up and have lots of responsibilities. For me, it was just a very blunt end to what had been a blissful childhood. So that was very, very difficult and things like my social life became non-existent and I really threw myself into my studies because that was a way of distracting myself from the pain of the situation. I came out of my third year of university with a first class degree so it was good that I’d had that level of application and that had come with a positive result but obviously in the context of everything else that was going on, it wasn’t particularly important.

Paul:
What effect did that have on your outlook on life because that must have had a big impact?

Leonora:
Absolutely. I definitely lost some friends at that time; you’re a difficult person to be around when you’re going through something like that. I had always been very, very confident – sometimes maybe too confident – very outgoing and very independent. I probably just lost my zest for life really. That was the biggest impact: I became a lot more introverted, I suffered from anxiety which was not something that I’d experienced before. It was almost like I’d been living in a happy bubble. Yes, I’d had my challenges like everyone has growing up, but then it was just popped in the most brutal fashion possible. I think for me, it had a massive knock-on impact and it’s been a number of years (although I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever fully come to terms with) – now I’m 30 so 10 years down the line from that situation but obviously I still miss Henry daily and I don’t think I will ever come to terms with it but time does help. For me, it’s about focussing on things I know make me feel better and also appreciating what I have rather than what I don’t have. I think that when you’ve been through a traumatic experience, it’s very easy to become very focused on the past, thinking about what you don’t have. Actually, when some time does pass and you have the ability to think more clearly, focussing on what you do have and focussing on the future, I think for me, has been really helpful.

Paul:
You and your father set up a foundation for Henry. Can you tell us what the foundation does?

Leonora:
So, the foundation has a few different aims but the primary aim is that we help individuals who have been impacted by incident or accident to rehabilitate back into normal life. That means quite a few different things: we work with loads of different charities and partners including Air Ambulance for example. This is obviously at the very incidence of the injury or accident taking place. It’s about providing the Air Ambulance with equipment – providing them with 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. Then we work with organisations all the way then to the rehabilitation from accident all the way to actually if someone is impacted by an accident (so perhaps they’ve had a spinal injury, they’ve been disabled and are now in a wheelchair) working with organisations that are really excellent at providing different activities and very inclusive activities such as wheelchair rugby. It’s all very personal for us and a lot of it has been about obviously creating a legacy for Henry but also thinking that actually, ideally, we don’t want other families to go through what we’ve been through. If we can support an amazing charity like the Air Ambulance to help more people survive accidents, but also if they are impacted by accidents. For us, if Henry had been in a wheelchair for example, he would have loved to do something like wheelchair rugby. That’s why we support the breadth of organisations that we do. We are just a very small family charity and we all just run it as volunteers. We absolutely have no cost base – that was something my dad was passionate about. All of the funds that we raise go directly to these projects and we always buy equipment so for us, there is no administrative pot that money goes into. We can always tell people who support us exactly where their money has gone.

Paul:
Quite rewarding work I imagine?

Leonora:
It is rewarding and also definitely challenging because obviously it’s very focused around Henry and his legacy. Realistically that is sometimes tough for me to do but, it is very worthwhile and my father was really passionate about the work as well. It was a great way for him to feel like he was still working with my brother as well. I’m very fortunate in that I get to go and visit a lot of the organisations that we work with. It’s so worthwhile. If I’m ever having a bit of a down day, it’s actually when I’m able to go and talk to or visit one of our organisations that we support, it definitely makes it all worthwhile.

Paul:
Makes you realise what life’s about I guess.

Leonora:
Yes.

Paul:
Coming back to your role as Managing Director at Buckmore Park. Before taking on the role, you previously worked in HR and retail working at Kurt Geiger and Tiffany & Co. Why did you take on the role at Buckmore Park and were you nervous about doing so?

Leonora:
I took on the role as Managing Director, a little bit out of necessity I’d say. It wasn’t strictly speaking in my plan. I’ve been at Buckmore Park now for just over three years and I’ve been Managing Director for 18 months so I’ve been in the business for a little while. That really came about because I was at Tiffany & Co which was a very interesting business to work for. Obviously it’s an American business so that does present some challenges with the different cultures. I was running part of their HR team and working on some big scale projects but I just felt that really what I wanted to do was to run my own business. I was putting so many hours into Tiffany which was great and it was rewarding in its own way but I thought ‘imagine what I could achieve if I put this amount of time into something that I’m really passionate about and means more to me’. So I spoke to my father and explained my circumstances and said I was thinking about stepping away from big business and starting my own business but my only problem is that I didn’t feel that even though I’ve got my business degree and I had, at the time, six or seven years’ experience, I didn’t feel that I had the experience necessarily to run a small business. It coincided with the time my father had just bought Buckmore Park. He said “I’ve got a brilliant idea! Why don’t you come and manage Buckmore Park for me?” So at the time, we had a Managing Director in place so I came in on a broad management role and we were doing a huge improvement and transformation across the whole business so I really took that and ran with it. I worked very closely with the whole management team with the big project we had going on here. Obviously it was a good sounding board for my father for some of the things he wanted to do and I was able to execute his ideas and be his kind of eyes and ears on the ground as he was running his other business as well so was only able to be here a couple of days a week. And then following the death of my father in March 2017, we really had a bit of a crisis in leadership. The business was starting to fail; it was loss-making and we had been concerned about the business since we bought it in 2015 but things were slowly getting better but not at the rate needed to build a sustainable business. So, it really happened that then within six months, I was Managing Director and I just felt at the time, and obviously with the board’s support, that we really needed someone that had that personal investment to turn Buckmore Park around. So, that’s what we did! Together with the board – we’re a family business, so the board is my myself, my husband, my mother and my sister (so very much a family business!) – we put in place a turnaround plan of what we wanted to achieve in the business. We’ve executed on that over the last eighteen months and actually the results have surpassed our expectations which has been phenomenal. So 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.

Paul:
So without giving away too many confidential things, what did you do to turn the business round and did any of your previous experiences in other jobs help?

Leonora:
So, a lot of it was a common sense approach really – reviewing every single part of the business, seeing what we could be doing better, seeing what efficiencies we could make. On a high level, fundamentally looking at how we could invest in the right areas so that we see growth but also see efficiencies and do some cost cutting as well. So for us, it’s been about taking department by department reviewing everything and working very closely with my managers. Really working on communication within the business, teamwork and bringing my team with me as I think my main learning from my previous experiences has been that business really is about your team and your people. In a business like Buckmore, it’s so important because our vision is that we strive every day to make an exceptional experience for our customers. Actually if our team aren’t interested in what they are doing and aren’t engaged and they can’t see the point in what they are doing, they’re not going to provide that experience to our customers. So for me, it’s all about the team. Even though the business has been struggling, we’ve put in reward schemes – both experience type schemes and also financial awards. 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.

Paul:
Giving them a stake to a certain degree in what’s happening.

Leonora:
Exactly. I think giving people a lot more ownership. Previously the managers didn’t have a lot of ownership over their departments and the decisions were made very much at the highest level. So by devolving quite a lot of that responsibility down to the managers so that they feel responsible for their departments, I think that automatically makes them feel more bought into what we are trying to achieve as a business. I obviously make it sound quite easy – none of this stuff is easy! Obviously the very nature of a business when you are working with people is that that can often be the most challenging part of it! So for me personally, the thing that I’ve found works the best is just having down to earth conversations with my team; whether that’s the whole team, or in a one on one, just lots of communication with the team. That’s seen as the soft approach to management but fundamentally I’m doing it for the same reason because I’m building a profitable business but I just want to do it in my way which is very much building the team as by building the team, I’ll build the business. For us, it is working which is great and we are seeing the results consistently improving here at Buckmore. I think for me, I’ve been offered lots of advice along the way by people that love to give you advice! I think the biggest learning curve for me is knowing how to filter the advice. The biggest mistakes I’ve probably made is when I’ve gone against my gut feeling and what my experience was telling me and that I’ve gone for something that maybe was seen as a being a bit more conventional and what had been done in the past. For me, the biggest learning curve has been following my gut feeling, filtering the advice I get and doing it my own way. I remember clearly a conversation with my dad a few years ago and I was arguing with him about something at Buckmore and he just turned round and said “well I guess you’ll just do it your way”.

Paul:
He obviously knew you very well! I read that you want Buckmore to be the best karting circuit. I was wondering what that means. Is this about more leisure focused business or creating a legacy that ensures the next motor racing stars… or is it both?

Leonora:
Ideally both is what we are striving for. When we had to make some of the difficult decisions that I referred to earlier because of the situation in the business, one of them was that we had to shut down our owner/driver racing club. So owner/drivers are still very welcome at Buckmore but what it means is that they have to actually hire the circuit to do it. We still have our motorsport UK licence but we don’t run our own club. That was really just for financial reasons because it was loss-making unfortunately at the time. I’ve always been very open about the fact that actually once we get the business on the straight and narrow, it’s something that we will consider doing again. Understandably at the time, it was a very unpopular decision to close it.

Paul:
But you might not be here if you’d not made that decision.

Leonora:
Exactly. I think hindsight is a great thing and it would be lovely to say to people if we don’t close the club, the business might not be here. When the business is going through turbulent times obviously you can’t put that out in the press because it’s not appropriate. So, we made that decision which, at the time, was the right thing to do. Now we are building a much more stable business, it is something that we will consider but I think importantly, actually through what we do with our own racing – so this is our own club racing using our karts – we are already seeing other drivers coming through and being successful then in motorsports – a great example recently is Michael Crease. He’s now racing in the world touring car championship. His only background prior to world touring cars is that he went into Ginetta and he won that prize by doing an event here at Buckmore Park on our karts. Prior to that his only experience was karting on our leisure karts here at Buckmore. The reality is that motorsport is quite broad and you can get into motorsport through different areas. We have a very successful junior club that we run and some juniors decide to come into our club with the leisure karts; some decide to go on to owner/driver carting so we feel we are still nurturing that next generation of drivers. Yes, it would be nice to have more on the owner/driver front but that’s something we need to make a decision about financially. Importantly, for us to build a business, we have to have a really strong presence in the leisure market. As I mentioned, we actually won an award last year for the best tourism experience in the South East. That was a massive accolade for us because that really spells out our transition from being pigeon holed as just a motor sport circuit to actually we are now considered on an equal footing with other massive tourist venues in a category against venues like Blenheim Castle – or actually Blenheim House, I think it is. It’s massive for us. So I think the focus is on both but even within our current capacity, I think we can do both but yes, it would be nice to do some stuff on the owner/driver as well.

Paul:
Obviously motorsport has been perceived as a male dominated sector but you’re running it as a female. Do you have any processes or have you put in any place at Buckmore to ensure gender equality and diversity in your team?

Leonora:
We obviously have our HR processes already and we have a big piece around gender equality in our handbook as it is something that’s important to us as a business. It’s obviously something we consider carefully as we’re going through the recruitment process. But for us, it’s quite fundamental in that it’s always the best person for the job whether that’s looking at who we are bringing on board to the business or whether we are looking to promote internally. If we take our senior leader team, we’ve got 11 managers and senior managers within the business so it’s pretty much an even split.

Paul:
Better than the average…

Leonora:
I’d say so but it’s great because in motorsport women do traditionally hold roles that are perhaps more on the HR side or marketing side or hospitality side of things. Here actually, our Operations Manager is a female and, until I almost get asked the question, that’s not even something I even think about. 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. It’s important that we obviously encourage more women but I think that automatically happens when you have more women in leadership positions. You provide girls with something to aspire to and even by women in other sectors. I think motorsport is a little behind other business areas where it is a lot more common to see female leaders. But even if we look across motorsport – Susie Wolff for example recently taking up her team management role in Formula E. I think all of these things are positive moves forward. I think there is equality in motorsport but it does still need to be a mind shift amongst girls and boys about where they see the opportunities being in motorsport. 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.

Paul:
So you have packages to encourage children to race at Buckmore Park. Do you have the same number of boys as girls coming along?

Leonora:
We definitely will have more boys coming along to the karting events. We are seeing a shift as time goes by. I think what’s most important to me is that girls feel that whatever it is they want to do, that they have an opportunity to pursue that and that opportunity should be the same as for the boys. That really starts at home so when, obviously boy and girl siblings sit with their parents, actually if the girls want to kart, there shouldn’t be any reason why they can’t as with their brothers potentially. That’s the benefit I had when growing up in that I was able to focus on whatever I wanted to do – gender didn’t even come into it. That’s where it’s about encouraging girls from a very young age that actually whatever it is that they are interested in is okay. They can pursue that and there aren’t any barriers. Obviously the same for boys even if it is that perhaps something that might be considered more of a girl’s area. So, I think that is something we have seen feeding in a little to Buckmore. In the junior club for example, there are more girls coming through. But there is not an even split but I don’t think that it’s necessarily initiatives we need to put in place. I think by having things like the W series that they are implementing for women only, by are opening their girls’ eyes to the opportunities that there are for women and also saying they may only see boys or men racing in motorsport but that’s not because women can’t do it, it’s just because of where we are at this time. I think it is about encouraging but also recognising that driving and being a driver makes up such a small part of the industry. We have a lot more women coming through here for example who are coming in to our operations team and they’re perhaps interested in engineering but are particularly interested in motorsport, that’s really important as well; to make girls recognise that there’s a huge industry out there with lots of job opportunities and it’s pretty innovative, very interesting and fast moving. Just because we so often see men leading, that shouldn’t be a barrier. I think by having more women in leadership roles that can only encourage that change.

Paul:
You’ve been around motorsport a lot – you mentioned the women’s W series. I recently met a young lady Esmee Hawkey who competes in the W series but also in the Porsche Carrera Cup which is both men and women. I wondered how long it will be, or if there will ever be a time when motorsport will be gender neutral?

Leonora:
I think that’s a really difficult question to answer. I think we have so much inequality when it comes to men and women in the workplace in general that still needs to be addressed. Again, a completely different industry but if you take Theresa May for example, whatever you may think of her as a Prime Minister, no other prime minister other than perhaps Margaret Thatcher, has been judged based on what shoes she’s wearing. I think that’s an extreme example but actually as a woman in a workplace, a sense I got when I started my role was that I felt I would have to do twice as well as my predecessor to be considered just as good. There is little bit of a pre-conception and some of that is actually just for me personally not something I paid attention to, I just got on with it. 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 regardless: I’m just here to do my job. Unfortunately lots of women don’t have the opportunity that I’ve had. Motorsport is a good example of that, especially when it comes to drivers. When it comes to female drivers in motorsport, if we are able to get some to the point where they are able to be competitive with some of the more junior formulas [which is happening now], they are going to be sought after in terms of a sponsorship perspective and so will probably benefit from that. But exactly when we will achieve equality is difficult to say. Motorsport has developed over so many years now as a very male dominated industry, I think it will take a huge amount of time to undo some of that and to change some of the attitudes. It might be something to do with an existing generation that are involved in motorsport and motorsport management, as and when they get to retirement age and younger people and more women are coming into leadership and attitudes change over time. So I think realistically it’s going to take time and I don’t think it will probably be in my lifetime to achieve true equality but I think we will see more equality.

Paul:
I think you’re right. Is it also about the fact motorsport is linked to finance because motorsport is financially expensive and that is also a very male dominated sector?

Leonora:
That’s also a wider issue that actually if we took gender out of it for a moment, and look at pure talent, we know that the most talented drivers don’t make it to Formula 1. I’m not denying that everyone in Formula 1 is incredibly talented but what about all of the other drivers that are just as talented but don’t have the financial backing? That was always something my father always struggled with because there were so many drivers he saw along the way who were so special but who just would never get there because they didn’t have that financial backing.

Paul:
You mentioned to did a bit of karting before you decided to go and get on a horse which I think is really brave as I’d never get on a horse because it’s got no brakes! Have you actually gone back round Buckmore in a kart?

Leonora:
I have over the years but I tell my team that I’m now retired because I honestly don’t like to do something unless I can do properly and try to be the best. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing which means that that’s where my slightly negative side of my competitive streak comes out. So, I did actually recently have to go karting at a different circuit for a hen do. Thankfully I won as it would have been really embarrassing if I didn’t!

Paul:
So you’re ruthless on the track are you?

Leonora:
A little bit but it does bring out the negative side of me so I prefer to watch the karting rather than take part myself. I was quite competitive back in the day.

Paul:
Your dad was very good with cars and bikes. Which do you prefer – have you ridden a bike?

Leonora:
I have. So we actually had some little off road bikes when we were growing up. They were such fun. We had three little bikes, one for me, my brother and sister; we had all the kit and it was really fun. Over the years I’ve ridden a few interesting bikes including a bultaco and for anyone who know what that is, it’s a bit of a beast to ride to say the least! I didn’t particularly love bikes. I definitely prefer cars but I’ve never been competitive in either so it would be difficult for me to say. But in terms of the experience I have had, I would say cars.

Paul:
If I gave you a million pounds tomorrow to buy a car, what would it be?

Leonora:
Hmm.. difficult to say; probably that Ferrari 488 that I was talking about earlier that I had the opportunity to drive a couple of years ago.

Paul:
In red?

Leonora:
It’s got to be red – Ferrari and red – it’s got to be!

Paul:
So when you’re not working, what do you do to relax?

Leonora:
I really love travelling and I try to travel as much as I possibly can. One of the benefits of putting some really great systems in place has been actually that I can run the business from anywhere. My preference would be to be here with the team but it does allow me to do a lot of weekends travelling and exploring which me and my husband really enjoy doing. Also I am a big kind of exercise nut. I do like to exercise every day which, for me, is something that I enjoy doing but also just for my own mental health and also for my efficiency as well as I do find that days that I train, I’m so much more efficient in my role. I really show up and give it 100% in the office – I’m an energetic person so probably does me good to burn off a bit of energy before I come into the office! Just spending time with friends and family which is something that’s been instilled in me from my family and with my dad, his kind of dream day would actually be spending time with us. I do just love spending time with my husband, friends and family.

Paul:
Leonora it was a pleasure to talk to you today, thank you for sharing your time with us today. Thank you!

Leonora:
Thank you

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