How the owners of Peckforton Castle fought back from adversity

PUBLISHED: 15:07 03 April 2012 | UPDATED: 22:03 04 October 2012

The Naylor family: Kate, Tony, Gina and Chris outside Peckforton Castle

The Naylor family: Kate, Tony, Gina and Chris outside Peckforton Castle

The owners of Peckforton Castle, near Tarporley, watched part of their business at the Grade 1 listed venue go up in smoke. But the family fought back. Here's how they rose from the ashes WORDS BY ALLISON DICKINSON PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS

On June 20 last year, a disgruntled groom set fire to curtains in the drawing room of Peckforton Castle on his wedding night after a series of rows with staff over a bar tab.

The resulting blaze caused 2.5m of damage to the East Wing, but director Tony Naylor was determined not to let the incident destroy the business that he and his family had built up over the last five years.
He said: I was standing out there at 6am, watching the flames leap out of the windows and all I could think was: This looks like its going to be our next challenge.

It took just eight months to restore the damaged wing, during which time business went on as normal (almost) using a marquee in the grounds. A glitzy party to celebrate five years of ownership went ahead the day after the blaze and just six brides cancelled their bookings. As a result, business interruption was kept to around 1m.

Tony, 63, explained: The normal programme of works giving the architect time to draw up a scheme before sending it out to competitive tender, then allowing at least two or three weeks lead-on time for the builders would have meant a huge delay.

But English Heritage said we could drip-feed information to the architects and the insurers agreed to do a negotiated tender which meant we were able to start on July 15.

We spent 2.5m in five months but had we approached it the other way, it would have been at least 1m more. The insurance company, RSA, didnt believe we could do it in the timescale, but I knew we could. We dont do failure.

Tony and wife Gina, 61, together with son Chris, 33, and daughter-in-law Kate, 30, are company directors. The couples other sons Matthew, 21, and Daniel, 30, also work for the business while daughter Hannah, 29, a mother of three, has a career with BMI.

Before buying the castle, Tony and Chris were directors of BDC Designs, an architects practice which refurbished hotels, theatres, bars, restaurants and golf clubs but Chris was looking for something new.

He explained: Our biggest client, Boddingtons, was bought out by Greenhalls, which in turn was bought out by Scottish and Newcastle, which got bought out by Punch. The client base was shrinking and in the aftermath of 9/11, hoteliers just werent spending money.

The opportunity came along when Chris and Kate were married at the castle in December 2005 and they discovered that the elderly owner, Evelyn Greybill, wanted to sell.

Chris said: One financial advisor told us, I wouldnt give you a million pounds if I was given that place. But I wanted to push on because I saw the potential. Dad probably did slightly, Kate and Mum did as well, but it was a big ask.

So, with capital raised from re-mortgaging existing properties, investment from other businesses and a bank loan, the family bought the castle and 11-acre estate for 5m on June 20, 2006.

It took just three months to spend 1m and Chris and Kate even moved in to one of the rooms because they were spending so much time there.
Tony explained: We needed to get the interior to a standard where we could generate more business, but 1m isnt a lot for a property this size and only 40%-50% of it was useable at that time.

The rooms were the priority, but we also wanted to do leisure and conferences and they didnt have any equipment, not even chairs to sit on.

In 2010, the family added value to the business by restoring the derelict Bell Tower and West Wing, which provided space for a brasserie, spa, 10 executive bedrooms, a lift and a fully-fledged bridal suite. But while the 1.8m spend proved to be a worthwhile investment, it came at a heavy price for Chris and Kate, who separated soon afterwards.

Chris explained: Barclays had lost its appetite for the industry and we ended up funding a large part of it ourselves, so when we opened in July 2010 we had only signed the contract with Santander to fund it the month before. We also had a 750,000 hedge fund with Barclays which we had to buy out. The stress took its toll on our marriage.

But from a business point of view, the move paid off and the castle is now worth around 18m. Wedding bookings have gone from 60 to 180 a year, generating 3.5m. The two-rosette restaurant which has 80 covers has gone from zero to 450,000. Leisure provides 1.2m, conferences have gone from zero to 750,000 and falconry adds a further 90,000.

Tony jokes that the story has more ups and downs than a blockbuster movie. When asked who would play him, the family laugh and say David Niven, which is something of a nickname. He brushes it off, adding: People just think I have a likeness.

The print version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Cheshire Life

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