CIDER WITH HELEN
PUBLISHED: 16:23 18 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:48 20 February 2013
Helen Thomas grew up in her family's cider business, and now she is the boss. Corinne Westacott went to meet her. Photographs by Shaun Thompson.
In 1878 Henry Weston came to the Bounds Farm at Much Marcle as a tenant farmer. In those days most farmers made their own cider but Henry's brew went down particularly well. Encouraged by locals, he began buying in more fruit from his friends and started a modest business. The rest, as they say, is history.
Henry's great grand-daughter, Helen Thomas, is now in charge of the family firm. Westons Cider boasts an annual turnover of £24 million and exports to 25 countries from the idyllic Herefordshire base where it first began all those years ago.
The company is certainly fortunate in its rural site, nestling as it does just below Marcle Ridge. The old stone farm buildings have been restored; an award-winning garden, featuring Henry's original stone cider press, fills the courtyard; and the surrounding countryside of orchards and hills is Herefordshire at its most bucolic. The air here is infused with the scent of tipsy apples.
To Helen this business is home from home. She was born within walking distance of The Bounds. She lives in the same farmhouse where she, and her father before her, were born. Cider was part of her childhood. "We used to pick up fruit as children to earn pocket money to buy Christmas presents. Then we would help out in the factory when people were sick, or in the hot summer holidays. And when it was snowing we used to have snowball fights with the men."
She has two brothers and two sisters and they were all treated the same. "Being a girl made no difference. You still had to go and unload the lorries at night or load up because the lorries had come back late. So I've got boy's hands really."
Despite the ingrained training she says it was never written in stone that she would automatically work for the company. She went to Hereford Technical College to do business studies and then did an HNC at Worcester. "I looked in the Hereford Times and actually got a job, and then when I told my father he said, 'What? You can't do that! Aren't you going to come and work here?' So I came and worked in the accounts office under Mr Thomas, who was a lovely gentleman - very proper and right - excellent training for a young girl coming into business."
The work ethic was always strong in the Weston family and Helen worked her way up to the top job from a secretarial position. She now knows the business inside out, having grafted in most areas of the factory. Two of her brothers and one son are also currently involved and, when it came to deciding in 1996 who would become managing director, she says they had to consider dispassionately who would be the best fit for the job.
"We are first and foremost a business, and we have to make the right business decisions. If you mess that up you are not going to be able to carry on." She is keenly aware of herself as a custodian for future generations of her own family and the larger one beyond the gates. "It's an extended family. There's not only my immediate family - I've got 150 families employed by us as well. We are their livelihood and you can't ignore that, it's so important. It's a burden but it's also fun. We work as a team." That's a team which includes loyal employees like Doreen Pocknell, aged 80, who has worked at Westons for 40 years.
Helen points out that the area benefits from the fact that the company needs people with lots of different skills. "We are still farmers, but we have the rare breeds farm, a play area, picnic area, factory tours. We have the restaurant and the shop, the museum, the farm walks and a wetland system for those interested in birds." The company also has its own fleet of delivery lorries and its own mechanics. And that's on top of all the people needed for the cider production itself.
Helen oozes energy, excitement and enthusiasm, having found her destiny on home turf. She says it is vital, though, to keep work and family absolutely separate. "At home you may be my son, my brother, my sister. But at work you're there to do a job and we expect that of you, regardless of who you are. Otherwise you can't do your job properly."
She says she needs to be a good facilitator. "You can't do everything yourself; you have to manage through your people, so you've got to make sure you've got the right people in the right places. You are only as good as your people." She is visibly proud of the fact that the company has launched the Westons Academy - in-house training and development for all staff. "So if you've only worked for Westons it doesn't mean that you can't get anywhere. A lot of people come here straight from school, so I think it's very important that they can continue their development."
In recent years a lot of capital investment has gone into the development of the Much Marcle site. 70 acres of new orchards have been planted, with another 100 planned, including a perry orchard which will not mature for at least ten years. The company has made 50 acres of its old standard orchards organic and is in the process of doing the same with the pasture land where they raise Hereford cattle and sheep.
Helen sees this as a sensible move to consolidate current success. She has been in charge during one of the most exciting times for the cider industry in Britain. Cider, which used to be the drink of the park bench or the student party, has recently gone up in the world. Since Magners launched their trendy advertising campaign for iced cider a few years ago cider has enjoyed a boom. "Sales were increasing year on year anyway," she explains, "but our sales have gone through the roof. It's lovely." She praises Magners for the good they have done for the industry.
"There are a lot more small cider makers too, which is really good, and we have the Three Counties Cider and Perry Association. If they need any help we are here for them, because a long time ago we were like that, just starting out, and it's really important to help each other achieve our goals."
Helen obviously has a very generous style of management. On the wall of her office are several framed awards, including that of Finalist in the Business Woman of the Year. But awards seem to be relatively unimportant to her in the general scheme of things: in order to tell me what the various accolades were she had to go over to the wall to peer at them. Being the face of the company is not her favourite part of the job. "I hate having my photo taken and doing this sort of thing (the interview). I prefer being behind the scenes."
Another difficult thing is getting the work/home balance right. Her first marriage faltered in the 1980s. "It just didn't work out. I think I put too much time into work. So it had a cost. But I was very committed to what the company was doing."
She has since remarried a local man, the big brother of a childhood friend she used to play with. "We both married different people and both got divorced, so met again afterwards. It's quite strange really that we are together now." Her husband is a builder, and it was he who converted the old cattle barn at The Bounds into offices. "He's very supportive," says Helen ruefully, "but I'm sure he'd like to see a bit more of me."
She likes to relax by riding her horses up on the ridge or by taking early morning swims in Ledbury pool. She also has a new grandson whose presence helps to remind her that there is a life outside work. After Christmas tends to be when she takes a break. This year she and her husband went to Kenya to relax and get some sun.
Otherwise she is very much based in Herefordshire, a county she loves. "Herefordshire is like the Secret Garden. It's off the beaten track but also very central. The countryside is beautiful, the people are lovely and we've got Wales just down the road. It's a lovely place to live."
Her proudest moment, she says, was when Westons celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2005. "We invited all our suppliers and we showed off our site and we had a ball afterwards. That was a lovely feeling, thinking 'Here we all are after 125 years of being in business.' " And how would great grandfather feel if he could see the company today? Helen's face lights up. "I think he'd be chuffed," she says. "Really chuffed."