The medieval pile that gave the Bees a lesson in management

Rachelle Thackray meets a downshifting couple for whom the work kept on coming in
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FOR most people who have made their pile and are fed-up with city life, the option of downshifting or retiring to the country is appealing. But for management trainers Roland and Frances Bee, the work didn't stop after they moved to a hamlet near Stowmarket in Suffolk.

In fact, when they bought a derelict 15th-century cottage at auction three years ago - planning to combine its renovation with their London- based consultancy for companies such as Tesco and the University of Westminster - the hard graft was just about to begin.

But the overhaul, pretty much from scratch, is nearing completion, and the Bees' version of Arcadia will be complete when the two flower meadows and 1,200 trees they have planted nearby start to blossom. Meanwhile, consultancy work has not gone to ground; it has been thriving, despite the extra workload. "Buying the cottage coincided with our best year in business. It goes to show that if you want something done, give it to a busy person. We were not turning away work, because we were conscious of the cost of refurbishments," says Frances Bee, who met Roland, 61, at Henley Management College. She was previously a finance director and operational manager at John Lewis, and before that, was on the team which planned developments in the Docklands.

Her husband, who founded their consultancy in the mid-1980s, says: "We were real townies, but we believed there was more to life than what we were doing previously. Being in training makes you aware of the need to keep learning yourself. You have to have a vision of what something will be like in ten years' time. It's been interesting how the work we have done on the house creates vivid metaphors and lessons in the training field."

The cottage was encased by a Victorian brick shell, which the Bees were anxious to get rid of. Underneath, they found oak beams and delicately- plastered walls. "It was absolutely incredible to walk through the door: it was like a tardis. You walked into this dilapidated country cottage and there were these massive beams, and paint that hadn't been touched for years. There were beautiful brick-tiled floors hidden under old carpets and linoleum," says Roland. But despite having no sewage system, and no electricity, the couple moved into the barn next door as they began to renovate. They also brought in a local builder, whom they taught to use project management software.

The move was planned in the same way as any of their management projects, they claim. "We gave ourselves a specification for a particular type of property, which ideally would not be remote but in a fairly sparsely-populated rural environment. We brought in the business principle of deciding where we wanted to be before we ever set off on the path. How inventive, thoughtful and creative can you be in getting from where you are to where you want to be, at the same time keeping an eye on the costs?" asks Roland. "You've got to keep filling this black hole of costs, because you don't want to go back and have to sell it."

What the Bees hadn't bargained on was the amount of time they ploughed into their new project, which quickly became addictive. But they found that evening classes on medieval social history were a worthwhile investment, giving them a unique new angle on management principles.

"The whole thing - the cottage, the trees, the meadow - has given us a wealth of new examples," says Roland, citing the case of medieval artisans in Lavenham, who at one stage were like the IT contractors of modern times. "It was so prosperous there were several equivalents of Bill Gates living there. But they took their eye off the commercial ball and it only lasted for a relatively short period."

They are finding a two-way flow of influence between their housing project and consultancy work. "One of our skills is in research, and we've made a point of finding out about old methods of manufacturing," says Frances, who has also co-authored several books on management training with her husband.

"You need different perspectives in your life, and I have no doubt that my ability to think creatively and see links and look ahead has improved as a result of broadening our spectrum," says Roland. "In our team-building training, we try to get people to relate to the real issues they are facing, and we ourselves have been facing such issues. We have come through as a stronger team."

In addition, their project has attracted clients. "It's created quite a lot of interest, and people we work with are keen to come out and look at it. As we're progressing, it is easier to get around the site, and we can at least give people the opportunity to go to the loo: we couldn't before," says Roland. "It has given them another dimension on us - we are not just these boring old business consultants."

For more information about management training, contact Roland and Frances Bee on 01284 828284.