Guiding the ‘large ship’ Castle Leslie through the generations

Future Proof: Sammy Leslie, Castle Leslie

Sammy Leslie is the trustee of Castle Leslie, the 1,000-acre estate in Co Monaghan which houses a multi-award winning hotel, a world-class equestrian centre, a converted hunting lodge, self-catering cottages, spa and restaurants.

Leslie refers to Castle Leslie as a “large ship which must be guided through the generations” and, while there are many stakeholders in the trust-run estate, it is she, the dyslexic, cancer-surviving winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award who is currently ship’s captain.

Leslie describes herself as stubborn, determined, and as a dyslexic who sees in 3D, and it is she who has fashioned the turnaround of the estate from crumbling edifice.

“I was always planning things from a very early age – it was about bringing things back to life. I hated to see things crumble and gardens overgrown, plasterwork falling off, so I had a real determination to make things better and I was always a very stubborn child.”

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It is this productive stubbornness that has facilitated change at the estate. “It depends on whether you see stubbornness as a positive or a negative,” says Leslie. “But that ‘stickability’ – the determination to get things done – is vital in most achievements. You do need to temper it with making sure you are doing the right thing for the right reasons.”

Leslie is philosophical about decision-making: “There are things you look at that you did and you think, ‘I shouldn’t have done that’, and then you look years later at the knock-on effect and realise it was the right decision. It is how you constantly react at times to opportunity and challenges.”

Regeneration of the estate, a family home since the 16th century, has been a combination of master planning and the minutiae for the past 20 years.

“As the Chinese say, ‘the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time’, so we do a lot of work here where we expand ideas out to the absolute max and then we bring it back down to bite-size pieces,” says Leslie.

Such developments have included the restoration of the castle to provide luxury accommodation, the development of the lodge for further accommodation, the transformation of 18th-century stables into 12 cottages, 62 new homes for private purchase in the village, a world-class equestrian centre with financial assistance from Fáilte Ireland, a cookery school and spa. Not bad for someone who went through nine schools before finally leaving to ride horses, aged 15.

While much of the estate’s development has been privately funded since Leslie sold her father’s car while he holidayed in France, she says early funding from the County Enterprise Board gave her not only financial support (opening first a tearoom) but also more kudos.

“Without the early funding and support, we probably wouldn’t have got here. It wasn’t just the funding, it was the fact that somebody else believed in you so that when we went to the bank we were more credible,” she says.

Fáilte Ireland has provided invaluable support in the creation of the equestrian centre as well as cross-Border project Interreg IIIA.

Leslie says the development of the right leadership team at the estate has been vital as the business has grown. “I’ve let go essentially on a day-to-day basis to look at the bigger picture and you need a fabulous team to be able to do that.”

She credits her general manager, financial controller, equestrian manager, head chef, spa manager and many other department heads, but also says: “It’s unfair to single people out as there are 160- something staff members – it’s a big team and they are all working so hard.”

Getting breast cancer three years ago didn’t put a stop to Leslie’s gallop and was, she says, the impetus to hand over some of the running of the facilities to her staff.

“I was very hands-on, but the place was getting so big that I needed to let go a bit, to let the team grow and get on with it. Getting breast cancer forced me to do that and, when I stepped back, they were brilliant – better than me. The adage of surrounding yourself with people who are better than you is so true.”

Sustainability remains key to the development of Castle Leslie.

“If you are in a position to do the right thing I don’t really see why you wouldn’t,” says Leslie. She speaks of the alumni of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year with high praise. “There are about 350 of us now and a lot of them are doing incredible things but very quietly.

“I met the World Entrepreneur of the Year last year who said CSR was a turbo-boost for his business. It’s a win-win all round. Also this is my community, it’s my home, I couldn’t do it any other way.”

Leslie laughs at the notion that the future for Castle Leslie revolves around maintaining the work already done. “Much of the work is nowhere near done, we are only half-way there,” she says. “We’re having a look at what we can do over the next five years in business and the next 100 years in heritage.

"We are constantly changing and adapting – all the people who have lived here produced an income and spent it on different things, but I reckon we are where Downton Abbey will be when it gets to series 12." castleleslie.com