To the Powerscourt born: ‘I love the place. It suits my personality’
Sarah Slazenger on the challenges of running the family-owned Powerscourt estate in Enniskerry, plans for climate change intitiatives and a new whiskey distillery
Sarah Slazenger at Powerscourt Estate and Gardens in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
“That’s the west golf course out there,” says Sarah Slazenger from one side of the magnificent ballroom in Powerscourt House in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.
It’s a sunny, if breezy Tuesday morning and we’re on a whirlwind tour of the 1,000-acre estate and gardens that she manages on behalf of a family trust. On the other side of the room, there’s an even better view of the world-famous Powerscourt Gardens, spread out over 47 acres. It was voted number three in the world’s top 10 gardens by National Geographic in 2014.
The house was restored by Slazenger’s family in the mid-1990s at a cost of about €6.3 million, having been gutted by fire two decades earlier. Nowadays, it hosts about 60 weddings a year and other functions, is home to a variety of shops, and is the gateway to the splendid gardens.
Slazenger is the third generation of her family to run the estate, after her grandfather Ralph bought it from Lord Powerscourt in 1961.
She’s coy about the annual running expenses, but it is a lot. Abridged accounts for Powerscourt Estates Ltd show that it had accumulated profits of €21.1 million at the end of 2016.
In 1990, Michael Slazenger, Sarah’s father, took a sabbatical from his work as an anaesthetist to take on the mammoth task oF rebuilding the house following the 1974 fire.
He asked Sarah, a graduate in economics and politics, to help him. They sold an unused quarry at the front of the estate for housing, which gave them cash to refurbish the house and gardens.
Maintaining the vast estate is a never-ending task, requiring strong cash flows. A couple of years ago, the tops of the walled garden were repaired.
“Nobody looks at the tops of the walls, but we had two people all summer just working their way around doing the work.”
Slazenger is always looking at new ways of generating cash, to ensure the long-term future of the estate. Two new elements are being added this year, one of which is an interactive climate change initiative called Cool Planet, which was the brainchild of tenant Norman Crowley.
What about the estate’s own carbon footprint, given that it hosts 500,000 visitors a year? It must cost a fortune to heat the house.
“We have the advantage of having lots of trees, which offsets some of it and we’ve planted in excess of 10,000 hardwood trees over the past 20 years.”
Slazenger has also made all the obvious changes in terms of energy efficiency and lighting.
“We are looking at solar as well,” she says. “ We’re also going to be putting in some e-car charging points this year. It’s all about trying to do your best. If you can find a better way to do things, then do it.”
The other new element, a whiskey distillery, is being developed with some private investors. “That used to be a grain store but now it’s going to be a warehouse for our distillery,” Slazenger explains as we drive through the yard.
The new distillery is located towards the back of the estate, just beyond the garden centre and visitor car park that will be familiar to many. “It’s close enough that it will be part of the estate but not too close that it will interfere.”
The stills have just arrived and the front of the building will accommodate a visitor centre, with the production at the rear. The plan is to begin production in April or May, with the facility to open to the public in the summer.
It will be three years before Powerscourt actually has its own Irish whiskey to sell. Until then, it will use third-party hooch under its own brand. The Slazengers will be majority shareholders in the project, with about €6 million raised to date.
Slazenger believes Powerscourt whiskey can be a huge success. “It has a great location, it’s a well-established name, we’re using our own water from the estate, which is certified mineral water. We grow barley on the estate, so we have a lot of the ingredients.”
Does she like whiskey?
“I’m acquiring a taste for it but I don’t play golf either and I’m not even a great horticulturist. If you have good people around you and they have the expertise, it can work.”
By her own admission, Slazenger lives in something of a bubble. Her normal routine is to go for a 6:30am ride out on her horse, to get a feel about what’s going on in the estate. She lives on the property in a secluded eight-sided, single-storey house designed by her husband, and is on call every second weekend to deal with any issues.
Slazenger is responsible for about 1,000 acres, which includes the main estate on the edge of Enniskerry village, and the nearby waterfall. The estate comprises two golf courses (with about 1,000 members), a clubhouse, garden centre, the house and gardens, the distillery and Cool Planet.
She has 70 staff, with the estate employing about 350 overall when the hotel and various traders are included.
It is also home to the five-star Powerscourt Hotel (formerly the Ritz-Carlton), although that is owned and operated by Tetrarch Capital.
It was originally opened by Treasury Holdings 10 years ago at a reported cost of €120 million before that company was forced out of business following the property crash. Tetrarch acquired it in 2013 at a fraction of the build cost.
“I know Johnny [Ronan] and Richard [Barrett] and Treasury had a chequered history, but we do have to be grateful to them because they took the punt and decided to build a hotel in that location. No expense was spared on the fit-out.
“From Powerscourt’s view, it has been a great success because it gave us the accommodation that we didn’t otherwise have.”
At one point, it looked as if the Slazengers might have to take control of the hotel themselves. “It looked like that might happen but we felt we had enough on our plate besides taking on the management of a hotel. We were pleased that the [Tetrarch] guys came along to take it over. They have done a great job.”
Powerscourt had a strong 2017, with visitor numbers up 7 per cent to about 500,000, a new record. It is a favourite spot for day-tripping Dubliners, but the number of international visitors has grown substantially in recent years.
“The domestic market was really strong for us last year . . . but the thing that has been fascinating has been the growth in the Chinese market. It’s now our third-biggest market. We had about 30,000 Chinese, which is bizarre.
“We have plans afoot to light the house up in red for the EU-China year of tourism. And we have audio guides now in Chinese as well.
“What we’re anticipating is more of the independent Chinese travellers because what we’ve had up to now is coach tours organised through Britain, with the shared visa. Now that we are getting direct flights [from Hong Kong] in the summer, we would be looking to get more independent travellers.”
On the flip side, the number of British visitors is down about 20 per cent since sterling took a hit against the euro post-Brexit. “The traditional British market has dried up substantially,” she says.
Sarah is one of about 50 Slazengers involved in the Isle of Man-based family trust.
The Slazenger sports equipment business was sold off before her grandparents moved to Powerscourt. “I do remember going to Wimbledon and seeing the Slazenger name. And when I see people with a Slazenger sports bag, I go, ‘oh, that’s nice really.’ But that’s the extent of it.”
She grew up in Ballsbridge but much of her childhood was spent with her grandparents in Powerscourt. “I was one of those pony-mad teenagers. I came and stayed with my grandparents every weekend and I had a half day from school on a Wednesday and I would be here. I love the place, it fits with my personality. I’m not into jet-setting around the world or great social occasions. I feel comfortable in the environment here.”
Slim and well-spoken, Slazenger is far from the lady of the manor as portrayed with comic effect by Penelope Keith in the BBC comedy To the Manor Born.
And while Powerscourt has brought much joy and pride into her life, it has also been the scene of personal grief. Her father died in 2010 when his plane crashed while trying to land on an airstrip in the estate.
She’s worked on the estate for the past 25 years, eight of them as managing director. Her cousin Alex Slazenger is the head gardener.
“Our retirement age is 65 so I’ll be thrown out at that point,” she jokes.
Given the family legacy, is there added pressure for her in running the estate?
“My job is to pass it on in a better state that I got it in, if you like, and to make sure it’s sustainable in the long term. So many of these estates just fall apart, they go to wrack and ruin, and then they’re sold off for housing. You’d hate to see Powerscourt broken up in that sort of way.
“The challenge has always been how can we make it work, how can we make it viable, what are the things that fit and work? I might be quite cautious in my approach to certain things and I would always be thinking about the long term.”
Might an outsider succeed her in the role?
“Possibly, but I would think that the family would take an interest at the board level.”
What might the Powerscourt estate look like in 50 years’ time?
“I think the trees will have grown up so the landscape will look different. And the gardens will evolve. But the Sugar Loaf will still be there, the waterfall won’t look any different, and there’s great reassurance about that.
“It’s then a question of finding things to move with the times. Whether it’s making the estate carbon-neutral, having a role to play in climate change and heritage and the environment.”
Powerscourt has also proved to be a popular venue for film and TV makers, with Badlands, The Tudors and Vikings all shooting there.
“It’s a wonderful source of revenue for the estate . . . we have very good relationships with locations managers in this country.”
The 2002 film The Count of Monte Cristo was also shot there, which led to a Simpsons spoof called “The Count of Monte Fatso”. “On the screen comes up Powerscourt,” Slazenger chuckles. “They animated it with the winged horses and the house and everything. I reckoned at that point that we’d made it.”
She is positive about the outlook for this year. “We’re hoping that the Chinese market will continue to perform. We’re fairly optimistic in terms of the golf. We’re up on our membership and green fees so far this year and we’re hoping that will continue. The new attractions will generate interest. Our bookings are looking reasonably healthy.
“But Brexit is obviously a concern and while you have that uncertainty you can’t be tremendously optimistic. It may not be [growth of] 7 per cent but we hope it will be up there.”
Name: Sarah Slazenger
Job: Managing director, Powerscourt estate
Lives: In an eight-sided house on the estate in Enniskerry
Family: Married with three children
Hobbies: Horse riding and skiing
Something we might expect: “I am passionate about Powerscourt and this is where I feel most at home.”
Something that might surprise: “I was on the long list for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 for the Irish three-day eventing team. I didn’t make the cut. Things didn’t go my way at the final trial. My horse got heat exhaustion and had a fall.”