Earl of March: A glorious example of the landed classes

The Business Interview: Sean O'Grady meets a petrol-blooded aristocrat who has turned his estate into an innovative business

"Something one's obligated to do, really." There aren't many business folk who take their responsibilities quite as seriously, or express them in such old-fashioned terms of duty, as Charles, Earl of March.

It would have been so easy for this entrepreneurial aristocrat to follow the dissolute ways of some of his peer group and, frankly, snort the lot up his nostrils. Not this earl. For that reason, at least, he is an admirable figure; and he has done more than simply stuff some lions or a fun fair on his grounds to raise cash, and views such a prospect with horror – "Lions? It would get me here," he says, pushing an imaginary dagger to his heart. He has turned his "English institution" into a successful business.

Having spent the early part of his youth after Eton ("I hated every minute" of it) he trained as photographer and worked with Stanley Kubrick. At 40 though, in line with family tradition, he took over the management of the estate. He points out that "with a lot of these estates, you know, when the patriarch won't go – the old guy goes out in his box, and the son's 70 and got no energy – and it's all over". Thus, since the early 1990s, he has exploited the considerable assets of the Gordon-Lennox family, including their 2,800-acre estate in Goodwood, for his father, the 10th Duke of Richmond, with an almost evangelical sense of mission to defend the family's property from predation, waste and vulgarity. And the recession, which is making its presence felt in the Sussex countryside as much as it is anywhere.

The horseracing meet, "Glorious Goodwood", for example, is galloping along nicely, but a little less gloriously than in previous years, financially at least. A drop in corporate bookings helped to push first-day attendance down by 9.4 per cent, though there are still plenty of punters turning up – 13,800, compared with 15,239 on the same day last year. Altogether they'll consume 21,000 bottles of champagne, 7,655 meals, 2,200 punnets of strawberries and 30,000 teas and coffees. It's a pattern that cannot surprise the 54-year-old CEO of Goodwood, as something pretty similar befell the Festival of Speed a few weeks ago, a celebration of all things automotive that pulled in about 150,000 visitors, and an event he himself pioneered from very small beginnings 15 years ago. Britain's "alternative motor show" has survived in a way that the official British International Motor Show has not (due next year, it has had to be cancelled). But it has taken a hit from the drop in corporate hospitality spending.

Lord March says: "It was just inevitable, really. It was small to medium sized companies who buy a couple of tables, say, spending around £300 per head on hospitality. The message we were getting just after the Budget and before Christmas, when we were planning, was that people wanted to take a year out and they wanted to come back the following year, because they still love the experience. So we said 'let's be realistic', and we took 20 to 25 per cent of the corporate space out and revised our forecasts."

There also seemed to be a sense that companies didn't want to be seen to be indulging themselves while sacking their workers. Some 40 per cent of the public tickets for the festival are sold in the month before it begins, and Lord March nervously watched his sales graph to see if the traditional pattern would be repeated.

It was: the sales went "phwarr", he says. "Hospitality doesn't make much money, so for us to make an early decision meant very little on the top line and the total bottom line was about the same as last year," Lord March adds.

In economic terms, what the Earl of March has done is to leverage Goodwood's formidable competitive advantages – the things that cannot be replicated elsewhere (except by other landed families, presumably): vast (and beautiful) space and a magnificent stately home. He has also made the most of all the sporting pursuits the family has enjoyed over the years, turning them to commercial, but tasteful, advantage.

The old foxhunting "kennels", for example, have been converted into an elegant clubhouse; the 3rd Duke's passion for the gee-gees gave us the first public horse racing meet in 1801 (yielding £6.7m in revenues now); the golf course created for the 7th Duke's children in 1901 has now been revived as a Top 100 course with a scheme to make the game "young and sexy" (you can wear what you like). The motor racing circuit, meanwhile, was founded by his grandfather in 1948. Even if they wanted to, it is difficult to imagine any company, oligarch or Middle Eastern princeling acquiring such an enormous chunk of southern England in 2009, and the heritage is priceless. The fact is that the family was set up in its current splendour in 1675 by Charles II, who wished to make provision (farming rental income) for Charles Lennox, his illegitimate son by a French noblewoman named Louise de Kérouaille. You can't replicate that nowadays. But the agricultural side doesn't bring in enough.

"It isn't like you own a few nice squares in W1 and sit back and let the rents roll in. Basically, we needed an extra million quid a year," says this vague look-alike for Hugh Grant.

So, being a motor sport enthusiast (he's president of the British Automobile Racing Club), he came up with the idea of motor sport and the Festival of Speed was born in 1993, an old-style hill climb in the grounds and tickets on sale at the local post office.

A fatality on the first morning of the very first hill climb almost finished the project before it began. Yet they persevered. In five years revenues had climbed to £3m, and on to £8.3m last year. Added to that must be the proceeds of the eccentric Revival, where everyone gets togged out in 1960s gear, a gig more oriented to families – some £8.8m, up from £2m a decade ago.

Throw in golf, the hotel, an aerodrome, and we have a respectably sized business. The Earl employs some 500 staff, from butlers to flying instructors and marketing types, and revenue from the key events came to about £50m last year.

Profit? "around 10 per cent Ebitda," he says, adding that he is also pleased that Rolls-Royce leases land to build their cars on his estate. Soon, he says, he will unveil another major event, though he acknowledges he has to be careful that the Goodwood "brand" doesn't grow too complicated to manage.

Lord March has rarely lacked guts or, it seems, judgement, except, that is, when he was 17 and took his mum's MG 1100 out for a joy ride round the estate and "stuck it into a tree".

He spent four months in hospital. Maybe not such an unusual aristocrat, after all.

Driving force: On the road from Eton

* His full handle is Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, Earl of March and Kinrara. His previous "courtesy title" was Lord Settrington. He is heir apparent to his father, the 10th Duke of Richmond, 10th Duke of Lennox and 5th Duke of Gordon.

* He was "hardly educated" at Eton, and left at 16 because they were not interested in supporting his film and photographic ambitions.

* He took over the running of the estate and started the Festival of Speed in 1993. The Goodwood Revival followed in 1998, launched 50 years to the day after the old circuit opened. This year's, in September, celebrates 50 years of the Mini.

* The record time for the Festival of Speed hill climb was set in 1999 by Nick Heidfeld, who drove a McLaren F1 car up the hill in 41.6 seconds, reaching speeds of 160mph.

* Goodwood boasts the world's oldest set of written rules for cricket (1727).

* Major Goodwood sponsors and supporters include Audi, Toyota, Veuve Clicquot, BGC Partners and Cartier.

* In 2008 Goodwood House catered for 26,000 guests, and washed up 90,000 plates and 90,000 glasses.

* The Goodwood estate costs about £2m a year to run.

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