From Jordans Cereals to Pensthorpe Natural Park: Bill and Deb Jordans’ life in business
PUBLISHED: 13:18 31 August 2017 | UPDATED: 14:07 31 August 2017
From growing up on the family mill and turning it into a multi-million pound business, to returning the corn crake’s call to the fields of Norfolk, Bill Jordan has written a few tales with his life.
After building up Jordans Cereals alongside his brother David, inspired by the discovery of granola while touring with a band in America, Mr Jordan traded leading an international business for an idyllic life on a Norfolk nature reserve.
Now, alongside his wife Deb, herself a Ringstead farmer’s daughter turned fashion model, he has made their home at Pensthorpe Natural Park.
The tourist attraction has pulled together many of their passions, from nature and wildlife to food and farming – but it is far from a retirement project.
While managing 700 acres might not quite be on the scale of overseeing a multi-million pound food firm, Mr Jordan tries to keep the same principles running throughout.
“We rather naively thought it was quite a small business so it would be easy to run,” Mr Jordan said. “When Pensthorpe came up [in 2003] it was a chance for us to do what we had been encouraging farmers to do in the business. It was putting our money where our mouth is.”
The scale of the task soon became clear, when the managers they wanted to run the site decided not to emigrate from Australia. That meant Mrs Jordan taking up residence there while her husband continued to run the cereals business. She said: “I would be the one who had to get up first thing to feed the corn crakes because there was no one else here. I would have to put my daughter in the car while I propped up a poorly flamingo, even though I had been told it was going to die.”
It is that stubbornness to succeed which has helped drive the business forward with Pensthorpe now welcoming 100,000 visitors a year – almost triple the number when the Jordans took over.
They feel the key to keeping visitors coming back is to tell a good story, something learnt from the cereals business – as well as their former guests BBC show Springwatch, which was filmed at Pensthorpe for three years.
Corn crakes, great cranes and other species have been bred at the reserve and released into the wild and visitors can now hear their stories as well as their calls floating across the water.
Mr Jordan said: “Business-wise, it is the stories that appeal to people and get them to come back.
“They like to hear the positive stories about what is happening here: it gives them a warm feeling inside.
“We learnt quite a bit from Springwatch – we learnt that our role here is to tell a good story.”
One of the reserve’s biggest challenges is a lack of interest in and understanding of nature among the youth, say the pair – but they believe it is the older generation they must target.
To illustrate the point, Mrs Jordan relates the story of a father dismissing his children’s excited pleas to feed the ducks at the reserve, telling them “We’ll do the boring bit later”.
With that in mind, plans are being drawn up with the aim of making the reserve appeal to visitors who are not interested in strolling through nature, with proposals to improve the cafe and shop with the aim of generating year round business.
Mr Jordan said: “We have got to acknowledge we are built to be seasonal but if you can establish a good hub, the shop and the cafe, you can create somewhere people want to come every day rather than once a month.”
One of the main lessons carried through from Jordans, which Mr Jordan left in 2008 and is now owned by Associated British Foods, is the need to take your time and learn.
“Clearly a business does not become an overnight success,” Mr Jordan said. “It took 40 years for the cereals business to take off.
“Pensthorpe is 30 years old, and it can take much longer if you don’t have a big marketing budget.”
Something old and something new
A challenge to Pensthorpe’s business is keeping its traditional visitors, who come for the wildlife, happy while modernising facilities to attract others.
It is a tension felt by Bill and Deb Jordan themselves, even after more than 30 years of marriage.
Mr Jordan said: “For the first eight years we were here we struggled to bring children in. We were thought of as the place with the ducks.”
Investing in children’s play areas, made from wood in keeping with the natural atmosphere at the park, has started to pay dividends, although it did create some anger among the bird watching community.
Mrs Jordan said: “There was a big debate with the traditional community being against it, and that included Bill.
“But the team pushed for
it and I could see the value of it – luckily it has gone well. We did have a couple of years where we were on different sides of the fence which was difficult.”
Life on the farm
Sustainable agriculture has never been too far away from the Jordans’ story, both in the cereals company and at Pensthorpe, as well as in both their childhoods.
Of the 700 acres that form part of the estate slightly more than half is conservation grade farmland which Bill Jordan oversees – one of the major attractions for him to take on the site.
“We grow conservation oats for the old company and barley for Crisp Maltings,” Mr Jordan said.
“The other cash crop is taking people around the farm to see how it all works.”
With funding for farming post-Brexit still up in the air there are concerns that farmers may find it too expensive to keep up the conservation aspect of their business, but Mr Jordan said he hoped the consumer would drive demand for environmental consideration.
He said: “I think there is enough support from voters and taxpayers who think we should be doing more to protect wildlife.”