Karen Lowthrop: Challenging the concept of business

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Doing ‘business unusual’ has become a way of life for Karen Lowthrop after taking on the challenge to turn Hill Holt Woods near Lincoln into a thriving social enterprise. Producing an eco-friendly, self-sustaining business has not been an easy task but it is exactly what she has aspired to and achieved.

Being a social entrepreneur has not always been a priority in Karen’s life. As a high-end business woman in Dublin, she worked for a multi-national drug company where the main mission was the bottom line.

“That was a really good grounding that I got in business acumen. They were an innovative company. My job within that was Executive Assistant to the General Manager. I learned a huge amount about standard operation procedure and running a business.

“It wasn’t until I met my husband on a blind date that I realised there was a different way of doing business. Business unusual.”

In 1991, Karen’s husband Nigel told her on their first date that he was going to buy a wood in England and she believed him. Seven weeks later the couple had set up a company, Economic Conservation. In 1994 Karen took a leap of faith, leaving Dublin behind and moving into a caravan in the 34-acre Hill Holt Wood, where they had their son, Harry.

“I am a city girl, so coming to live in a Lincolnshire 34-acre woodland without water or electricity was quite a challenge, but one that I rose to and thoroughly enjoyed.”

They looked forward to what they could do starting their adventure into a socially minded business, which is now supporting a turnover of £1.2 million.” Since 2002, we have never failed to turn a profit, which for any business is quite applaudable.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Challenging the stereotype

Since then, Karen has made it her mission to help people understand what social enterprise is, how they operate and how it’s not that different to running any other business.

“The main difference between myself and a limited company is that all of our profits can only go one way, back into the community business. We look to our profits benefitting the many and not the few. Our profits benefit our stakeholders and not our shareholders.

“We are registered on Companies House, we have 40 staff. Nigel and I no longer own the 22 acres that the business operates from. I have a salary and all of my staff are salaried.

“Challenging the stereotype has been a real challenge for us. I am a business woman and I adore making money. I love it. Because of what I am doing, it doesn’t mean that I am lesser paid or I have lower aspirations.

“A lot of people judge their success in terms of material things. What car you drive, how big a house you’ve got. Us social entrepreneurs don’t think like that.”

Like other social enterprises such as Eden Park in Cornwall and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant, Karen’s mission is for Hill Holt to help the community and environment. “They all run on the very same principles – business, business, business as a means to sustaining social and environmental principles.”

Although Karen has built up Hill Holt Woods to be a place of education and nature which is free for visitors to explore, a business requires income and a social enterprise is no different. The income comes from providing managing services for other woodland around the area, and contracts will local councils to provide countryside services.

“We look after the picking up of the litter on the A17, notifying of fly tips and we also manage about 700 acres of land in Lincolnshire for private owners, for the Woodland Trust and Forestry Commission and various other customers. We also sell our services in terms of consultation of that as well.”

They have also expanded to have a small architecture design sector which specialises in green and eco-builds. “The newest income stream is eco-burials. We have a second woodlands which is 40-acres of woodland about 2 miles from here, where we are just about to formally launch our eco-burials.

“It is a complete mixed-bag, diverse income stream, but no mission grift. All of our income comes back to wanting to have at the heart of all of our decision making a good environmental impact.”

“The point of business is to make profit. There is no other reason why you would run a business. It is how you interpret the profit. We are building community profit and not individual profit.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Making an impression

Karen is thrilled with what she has achieved for Lincolnshire and social enterprises. She is also Deputy Chairman of Social Enterprise UK, and Hill Holt Wood has done her proud.

“We have not gone unnoticed. We have won a major award for each leg of sustainability, an international award for our business model, the Royal Forestry award for how we manage our forests and the Social Enterprise of the Year Award.”

By getting the public involved, Karen has managed to entice big names to come and visit the woods including Sir Brian Bender, David Cameron, Prince Edward and Prince Charles.

“We’ve had Lords and Ladies and Dukes and Barrons and all sorts, they just turn up. We are dutifully respectful of them but we don’t do anything special. Prince Charles was heard to say ‘I’m delighted I don’t smell fresh paint!'”

Karen has built up a reputation re-educating young adults in long-term unemployment. “We were so successful with that, then we started to get business through education and training. We are in the top three social enterprises in the UK. I’m a past winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, I sit on three national charities. We have a high profile outside of Lincoln.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

A sustainable future

Being the Deputy Chairperson on the Board of Social Enterprise UK, Karen still has many ideas for the future. “I am fortunate. I have a good volunteer board of trustees, our chairman is Warren Glover from Lindum Construction, the University of Lincoln and Lincolnshire Co-operative. These are all people who value what we do.”

As eco-conscious as Karen is now, she is aware that the world can not live off social enterprise alone; she knows that there needs to be a healthy mix of all types of business, but she will stand up for what she believes.

“Nigel and I, as a couple, do not believe in accumulating individual wealth, but it doesn’t also mean that we are going to live in a shack. It is about, as a business person, what we want for the future for generations to come.”

Karen has long since moved out of the caravan and now lives in a house built by her husband, son and herself, which is worthy of being featured on Grand Designs — it includes a section specially designed for her step-daughter Jenny, as well as Karen’s own little reading hut, which was a birthday present from her husband.

“I say that I can only drive one car at one time, I have a beautiful car, I have a beautiful home to live in. I don’t feel that there is any compromise. But as a business woman, I now want to do business unusual. I want to do business where I am not leaving a will, I am leaving a legacy.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 24 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.