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Meet Leeds Castle’s chief executive Sir David Steel

PUBLISHED: 13:14 16 January 2017

Sir David Steele

Sir David Steele

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

He left a stellar career in the navy to head up the top job at Leeds Castle. Kent Life catches up with Sir David Steel 18 months into his role as chief executive

Appointed by the trustees of the Leeds Castle Foundation 18 months ago to take on the role vacated by Victoria Wallace, Leeds Castle’s new chief executive is growing increasingly fond of both his borrowed county and a very different career.

Vice Admiral Sir David Steel served 36 years in the Royal Navy, most recently as the Second Sea Lord, before retiring at the grand old age of 54 and taking on the top job at the “loveliest castle in the world.”

“When you’ve served 36 years in the navy it’s really difficult to get it out of your blood,” the Hampshire lad admits. “But rather quietly, over time I confess that I am beginning to get my feet into Kent, and that’s largely because of the passion of the people I’ve met here.”

Leeds Castle was not unknown to David; he attended two formal dinners here during his time in the Navy and his memories of the welcome he received at every level stayed with him.

Lara Rudd and Alex Seth-Smith of The Textile Conservancy Co Ltd, just outside Tenterden at work on the dining room tapestries, which have been restored to their former gloryLara Rudd and Alex Seth-Smith of The Textile Conservancy Co Ltd, just outside Tenterden at work on the dining room tapestries, which have been restored to their former glory

He tells me: “That’s why, when Victoria Wallace, who had done the most amazing things in her 10 years as chief executive, rang me up and said ‘David, I know how much you like the castle, please be aware that I am moving on’, I applied and went through the interview process. It was a huge change for me, having come from the navy to somewhere that is quite a long way from the sea!

“But a big part of my role in the navy was looking after naval heritage, especially when I was a naval base commander in Portsmouth, so coming to a heritage site has not been such a huge leap for me and leaving the navy to come into civilian life has not been as hard a transition as it might have been.

“I love the Navy passionately and when I left I honestly thought I would never be able to find an organisation that had as many loyal and dedicated people in it as I had there. I was quite wrong. The 300 people who work here are so completely and utterly devoted to what they are doing, it makes you feel as if you’re part of a family – as the navy did. That was a family, a rather large one, but wherever you went you found people who were passionate about their job. Here we may be a smaller family, but there’s no less passion and pride.”

David is also increasingly impressed by the role Leeds Castle pays within the county and how central it is not only to Kent but also to the Borough of Maidstone: “I see us as the jewel in Maidstone Borough’s heritage crown.”

The wooden panelling in the Thorpe Hall Drawing room comes from Thorpe Hall in Cambridgeshire. The panels were taken out of the house in 1928 and sold, so the walls are 200 years older than the roomThe wooden panelling in the Thorpe Hall Drawing room comes from Thorpe Hall in Cambridgeshire. The panels were taken out of the house in 1928 and sold, so the walls are 200 years older than the room

There are many facts to back up the bold claim. As an organisation Leeds Castle welcomes 600,000 visitors a year, plus around another 60,000 people to different events throughout the year and another 16,000 who stay a night for weddings, conferences or simply want a B&B with a difference.

Leeds is the third most-visited private castle or stately home in the country, just behind Blenheim and Chatsworth, while a whole range of businesses in the local area totally or in part gain an income because Leeds Castle exists. These range from butchers, bakers, food and drink suppliers to event organisers, electricians, plumbers, florists and more – Leeds Castle contributes in the region of £12m a year to the local economy. Its staff payroll alone is some £4m a year.

There is another important point to remember. “It’s sometimes very easy to overlook that although we’re a business we are a charity and we don’t make any profit. It all goes back into the castle to enable us to survive and we survive against some huge competition in the local area.

“However, every other attraction rather complements us, because people come from a long way to visit Kent, they don’t just come to see Leeds Castle, they’ve also come to see places like Canterbury Cathedral and Dover Castle.”

The Yellow Room is to be re-hung with new silkThe Yellow Room is to be re-hung with new silk

David is quick to praise the work of Visit Kent in promoting Kent as a destination rather than a route from its ports and the M20 to the rest of England – and how the award-winning organisation has brought together tourism and the hospitality trade like no other county.

“It is a county that pulls together and I have quickly found that working with the other heritage sites, across the board everyone has been willing to work together to promote Kent. There is huge pride in the county and that has rubbed off on me too.”

I am interested to hear if visitor numbers have suffered in a post-Brexit era and David tells me that factors ranging from terrorism on the continent and especially in France, plus a UK-wide shortage of coach drivers, has had a significant effect on the number of group visitors. And Leeds Castle is not alone.

“Canterbury Cathedral is 20 per cent down on group visitors this year and all the heritage centres are finding the same decline because of lack of group numbers,” he reveals.

The library has been redecorated in Lady Baillie's original coloursThe library has been redecorated in Lady Baillie's original colours

However, on the plus side, nearly half the total number of visitors are repeat visitors. “Which is wonderful,” beams David. “Because it’s the local population who have ‘done’ the castle a hundred times, they just want to come in, enjoy the tranquillity and security. Mums and dads in the Maidstone area who are not fortunate enough to have 100-acre gardens can come here and treat ours as their own.”

He adds: “But you have to keep changing what you have on offer because you don’t just want to come back to the same thing over and over again. I have an events team who put on great things all the time – like Motors by the Moat, a new initiative for us – and we are also improving the estate, with 24 B&B rooms and our restaurant, which is now fabulous.”

One of David’s major plans for 2017 is the start of a six-year programme of investment to improve the parkland, so that from the moment visitors arrive at the main gate and come though the woodland walk, they are wowed by the colours and the trees.

“We are going to have six different areas of the woodland, with different themes. Our head gardener Andrew McCoryn and our head groundsman Martin Leach are working together to make Leeds Castle be known in the future not just as a castle on an island but also for its wonderful gardens as well.”

While the role is full-time, absorbing and sees David living on site during the week and many weekends when key events such as the Festival of Flowers of Fireworks Spectacular are taking place, he also has other commitments outside the county. These include being a Deputy Lieutenant of Hampshire, a Director of Portsmouth Cultural Trust, a Trustee of the Marine Society & Sea Cadets, a Trustee of the Boleh Trust and an ambassador for the Woodland Trust.

“I am lucky that I am supported by an outstanding team of managers so when I have to go off to Hampshire to carry out Deputy Lieutenant duties, or be in London for a charity meeting, they are all backing me up and carrying on,” he says.

David, who was born in London but moved as a baby to Manchester, where his father was an architect and his mother a charity worker, was educated at Rossall School in Lancashire. He read law at Durham University, graduating in 1983 and was called to the bar in 1988.

He joined the Royal Navy in 1979 and his early career was spent in a variety of both sea and shore appointments, including as the Fleet Legal Adviser. With no naval history in his family at all (his father was a sergeant in the Army during the very end of the Second World War), I am interested where the call of the sea first came from – and the answer is Kent.

“My parents took me on a holiday which started from Dover on a Townsend Thoresen ferry to Calais and I can honestly tell you I was smitten from that stage and knew I wanted to be at sea,” he smiles.

David’s role as Second Sea Lord, the second most senior person in the navy responsible for all people and training across the navy, has stood him in very good stead at Leeds Castle, with its ‘family’ of 300 and whole host of supporting players.

A real ‘people person’, he has kept a teddy bear in his office ever since he learnt that it helps visitors who might be a bit nervous meeting someone like a chief executive realise that he or she has a softer side to them.

The present incumbent is a very smart bear called Albert, presented to David by the Royal Navy Theatre Association, of which he was President. But it’s hard to imagine his new ‘family’ needing Albert’s protection; the boss knows and greets every single member of staff by name as we walk from the estate offices to the castle to see at close hand the renovation work that has been going on.

While his predecessor concentrated on diversifying the business in her 10 years here, introducing the concept of overnight B&B accommodation inevitably took a lot of the available funds and redecoration and restoration had to go on the back burner.

A rolling programme of improvements is now in place, from renovating the magnificent tapestries in the dining room (a two-year project that has seen them sent away to Brussels for specialist cleaning and repairs before re-hanging) to stripping off and replacing the silk wallcoverings in The Yellow Room with new silk made by the same company, Jensen in Paris, that Lady Baillie used when it was first decorated in 1938.

In another project, Battle Hall, a 14th-century hall on the extremities of the estate is being renovated and turned into a hospitality venue for more weddings and conferences.

“Because we’re an independent charity we get no money from anywhere else and that’s why we let out the castle for weddings and corporate functions,” explains David.

“So this is very much a working castle. Nearly every day of the week, every evening there will be people sitting in these chairs, in front of a fire, at the end of a wedding, party or conference, and they bring in the income that allows us to keep renovating.

“Lady Baillie created the Leeds Castle Foundation Trust and said ‘I want this to be a living castle, I don’t want it to be a museum’ – so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

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