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Business for good: the Pickwell story | Susannah Baker [ANVIL vol 33 issue 1]

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Susannah Baker
Susannah Baker lives and works at Pickwell Manor, N. Devon. She runs a foundation, is involved in a few businesses and a social enterprise she founded - 'one:retreat', a weekend for couples.

We are two families, the Bakers and the Elliotts. We will have lived together, at Pickwell Manor, North Devon, for nine years this August. At the beginning our children were 5,4,3, and 2. This is our story.

The little village of Croyde in North Devon was always a favorite holiday destination. One year, when our children were very small, we found Pickwell Manor, which ran as a loose holiday and weddings business. It was in a poor state with a sad feel to it.

Steve and I had been avidly reading books about new ways of ‘doing Church’ and had decided that living more communally and sharing resources was definitely the way forward. Our close friends, Tracey and Richard, had just come out of living in a communal house at the time. We had shared many conversations with them and felt inspired to do the same.

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Business for Good
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Shortly after discovering Pickwell Manor, it came onto the market. We realized that commercially it was fairly priced, and thought we could enhance the property through renovation and modernizing; and through adding a number of extra apartments converting lofts and outside storage spaces. We also researched the local holiday market and established that demand was strong. We calculated our assets, did some maths and borrowed a lot of money to buy it but felt that the risk was worth taking.

We put in an offer, had it accepted and then asked Richard and Tracey if they would come in on it with us, give up their jobs and move with their children to a place they had never visited. They said “yes”. Between Exchange and Completion we had eight months. This gave us a wonderful opportunity to look at our core values and work out how they would influence the way we were going to live and run our business together.

Our values have been essential in us making our lives work together. Some examples of our values are: marriage, family, community – local and global – the environment, social justice and welcoming difference. We also attended a course together. This focused on who we were and what we were passionate about and it really helped us to realize that we wanted to try to enable each other to be the best that we could be.  We also made a commitment that we would walk through whatever there was to come relationally. We also agreed a five-year review point that would allow the option for either family to exit. I believe that the exit discussion is crucial for going into a lifestyle like this. Before we moved in, we hosted a dedication feast with close friends and family to celebrate and dedicate the house and our work to God.

We talked about money and made a decision to try to live within a framework of ‘enough’. In reality this meant we set a budget for each family that we would draw monthly, and then if and when there were any surplus we would try and give this away for something socially useful. We also applied this principle to running the business at Pickwell Manor. We would aim to take a certain level of gross financial income – enough to cover all costs, and then look to gift or offer accommodation at cost to groups and charities seeking to create social impact. This decision has really enabled us to live free of wanting for more of everything.

Despite the fact that we had known each other for many years, you soon realize through living, working and socializing together that you really didn’t know each other as well as you thought! Our first year was a bumpy ride. For an individual to grow and acclimatize to living with another individual is one thing. To then have to repeat that process with two other individuals is even trickier. It’s well known that there are stages to how communities develop. Scott Peck identifies four [1] - pseudo-community, chaos, emptiness and true community, all of which we went through.

To make the money work is always part of a business challenge and the crash happened around the time we bought which didn’t help. We calculated that the holiday lets were one good business but we would need more income so also ran weddings through the summer months of the year. This was very successful but really hard work. To make the numbers add up Steve started his own company in serviced offices in London, a sector he had experience in and we were all the shareholders of the company. This company grew and grew, winning two awards in the Fast Track 100. This generated the money needed to invest in building work in particular and it took us five years to refurbish the house with a constant team of builders who would suddenly appear in between all our guests. After only six years we decided to sell the office business which enabled us to pay down our debt and not feel the financial pressure for the first time in our lives which was amazing.  At this point we also decided to stop weddings so we could put energy into things we were more passionate about.

In 2014 we started The Pickwell Foundation with profits from the various enterprises. By this time we were confident that the surplus income was steady, and growing, and therefore we felt that having an established charitable entity would be the best way to make grants. We have identified that the two areas that we feel most passionate about are ‘displaced’ people and Climate Change.  So these are the areas we are now researching, growing in knowledge in, networking, and financially supporting. 

We have also started two further enterprises which align with our passions. Eden Sustainable is a renewable energy business and Homemade is a social housing organization initially providing housing we hope for Syrian refugees. Together with Pickwell Manor holiday lets we now find ourselves running three enterprises and one grant making trust. We love the idea of business for good, business that makes a positive change in the world undergirded by our faith. We are passionate about trying to use our resources to create social impact, and try to encourage others to do the same.

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[1] M Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (Simon & Schuster, 1987)