Face to Face with Tim Light

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If fortune smiles on the brave, maybe it is quite appropriate that Tim Light is in a job he clearly loves.

Nestled down by banks of the Fal, there cannot be many more beautiful places on earth, let alone Cornwall, to run a company’s business.

After a long career spent in various parts of the globe with Her Majesty’s armed forces, Light sits at the very heart of Cornwall’s developing marine transport sector.

Managing director of one of Cornwall’s most iconic companies, the King Harry Ferry, Light enjoys a similar role with sister company Cornwall Ferries Ltd, and is also a director and founder member of Fal River Links, a project aimed at integrating local river, road and rail transport.

Among a range of topics, Light explains his plans for a sustainable transport strategy, his frustrations with how the Cornish tourism sector is funded, and why it is so important to love what you do.

So how did all this come about?

Tim Light: I was in the army until 1999. I had a young family and decided to move down here to Cornwall. I didn’t know what I was going to do, run a sailing school perhaps, and the King Harry Just turned up really. Serendipity!

That probably doesn’t happen too often?

No. It was formed in 1888, and 2001 was the first time it was sold. We became involved along with five families in total, two on the Roseland and three on this side including me, and that was it. It was a complete shock really. I was about to be a consultant in the security industry, doing some bits and pieces around the world, so this worked out rather well.

And those families are still involved with you running the day to day business?

Yes.

How has the business evolved since you took it over?

Previously, it was a rather inward looking, old fashioned company I would suggest, not that that is a bad thing necessarily. I think what’s changed as far as we’re concerned is we’ve tried to increase the overall popularity of the service, making people think more about it. In the King Harry’s point of view, that’s using it as a service for commuters. And the St Mawes Ferry and the Park and Float, about getting people to think about using the river more.

I wouldn’t say we’ve modernised it, modernising isn’t always better, we’ve just tried to make the business more customer focused.

How do you view it? Is it a transport business or a tourist business?

I believe it sits in three sectors. One is marine transport, one is the visitor economy, and the other is marketing Cornwall. Primarily it is transport, but in the summer months we rely on the visitors’ business to keep us running through the winter.

Is it a very seasonal business then?

This one, the King Harry, isn’t seasonal so much. It does have a seasonality, if we didn’t make good profits in the summer, we would be running at a loss. The other services primarily don’t run at a profit in the winter at all and are subsidised. The St Mawes Ferry, for example, in the winter is subsidised by Cornwall Council.

So it’s viewed as an essential link for local people?

Absolutely. The King Harry, for example, saves between five and a half and six million road miles a year and the St Mawes Ferry, I don’t know, probably about a million, something like that. This can really help out with congestion and pollution, and also we like to think this makes part of the journey the enjoyment. We like to think of this as ‘Travel as a Treat’

How many people do you employ across the various operations?

In the summer about 50, in the winter this drops down to about 25.

Since you’ve taken over you’ve broadened the whole marketing aspect, including publishing the King Harry’s Cornwall guide book.

We started that in 2001, with the help of Unlocking Cornish Potential, which I think is a fabulous project. We also run the Fal River Links project as a totally separate company, working with other operators such as the trains, buses and attractions.

And the hope for Fal River Links is that we produce something called the Fal Oyster card, which will be rather like the London Transport Oyster card, but very much based on locals, aimed at making those that can leave their cars behind, to do so. And making the timetables of the buses, boats and trains reasonably similar, so you don’t get stuck somewhere. Simple things like that really.

What is the motivation behind such schemes. A kind of duty?

A duty sounds quite strong, but I suppose it is really. I rather like being involved with things that are good. Obviously making money is important as well, but I like being involved with projects that make good things happen. None of what we do is rocket science, it is also fun, making the staff feel part of it. There is a fascinating history here, there has been some form of ferry running here for over 500 years, this used to be part of the Pilgrims Way and we all enjoy being part of these historical services.

The King Harry Ferry is obviously the cornerstone of the business, when did St Mawes Ferries come into the equation?

The King Harry business is a totally separate business from Cornwall Ferries Ltd. Cornwall Ferries has the same directors, but while the shareholders are similar, they are not exactly the same, so it is run as a totally separate business. There is no direct connection although I manage both, but there is a separate operations manager for Cornwall Ferries Ltd.

How many boats are on the Cornwall Ferries operation?

Seven in total. Three large ferries on the St Mawes route, two on the Park and Float, and we also operate the Orca Sea Safari and the little Place ferry. We bought the Orca Sea Safari two years ago, effectively from bankruptcy.

Is that summer only?

No, we try and run the sea safaris all year round. The thing with seasonality is that if you shut, you will definitely be seasonal because people can’t use you, but if you stay open… Also, you can’t really have staff to be that specialist and only employ them for six months of the year. So we try and cover our costs in the winter and make our money in the summer. It doesn’t always work, of course, and Orca is quite a challenging business!

Is that in part because it was such a poor summer last year?

That and also the fact that the boat was an absolute terror. We have had to rebuild it from the hull upwards, new engines, completely rewired. It has been a massive project.

You had a new ferry built last year, by Cockwells. Do you try to keep all such work local?

Where we can. I think it just makes common sense really. And apart from anything else, in my opinion Cockwells is the best boat yard you could possibly find. Their skills are unbelievable, but also they are really nice people to deal with. The old King Harry ferry was built at the place we had the new ferry built. While there’s a nice historical touch to that, also there are such great local skills, the Cornwall economy is blessed by having some very clever people. Also, we sell green tickets, concession tickets, we give them to campsite and hotels, and when they sell the ticket for us we give them a percentage, so it becomes a virtual circle, it helps us and it helps them. I believe the business term for that is ‘enlightened self interest’, whatever that means!

The proverbial win-win.

And the whole sustainability of this whole thing is rather nice. We are now sourcing 50% vegetable oil, so all of our ferries can run on vegetable oil and instead of the token 5% you get at garages, we can now do that at 50%, which does make a big difference. We’ve got a chap in Falmouth trying to source it for us, but the next thing I think will be to grow the crop locally ourselves. Because I’m sure at the moment all the vegetable oil comes from somewhere far away.

Does the King Harry ferry need much maintenance and upkeep?

When we built it, we designed it to require the minimum maintenance and indeed, the engineers who look after it, were involved in its design. But things like the chains, they wear out quickly and they’re the best part of nine grand each to replace. And of course you get metal wear, and engines need servicing. Just like any ferry bridge, these things need looking after. We’re lucky, really, that we’re not a ship, we’re a ferry bridge, so there’s no issues with rudders and free flowing motors and such.

So you’re exempt of the same regulations as well?

Yes, it’s a totally separate class.

How many visitors do you get across your various operations?

King Harry gets about 300,000 cars a year and about 1.75 million people use our services every year, including the Cornwall Ferries companies.

Are you optimistic for a good season this year?

Very. I think it will be good. The weather forecasters say it’s going to be a good summer, and you’ve also got the Euro factor, although the secondary spend may be somewhat limited. But you can never be too sure about these things.

What are your views concerning all the changes at Visit Cornwall and the new Cornwall Development Company?

I’m not sure how Visit Cornwall will pan out with the new Cornwall Development Company, but it’s important it’s sorted out soon, because if Cornwall is going to fight the recession, as I know it will, it will need the visitors’ economy to help make that happen. And I don’t think, right from our political members to our county officers, we really give the tourism economy the credit it deserves for the amount of income that is brought into the county.

I would guess something like 30% of Cornwall’s GDP comes from the visitor economy and there’s also a huge amount of jobs, something like 25%-30% of the jobs in the county are related to the visitor economy.

Do you think the focus of the Cornish economy is turning away from tourism too much towards the so-called Knowledge economy?

Cornwall wants to think that without traditional industries like mining and fishing, it can move back into some high-end manufacturing and specialisation. They call it the knowledge economy, but I would argue very strongly that you can have the knowledge economy in any sector including marine transport and the visitor economy, because if you’re using your brains, that is the knowledge economy!

But I totally support the idea of the knowledge economy and the university, for instance, is now a fantastic facility. I mentioned the UCP earlier – a brilliant scheme, and run by a great team.

What does a typical day for Tim Light involve?

I normally start here at the King Harry and walk the dogs around Trelissick, a beautiful way to start the day and get the heart pumping! Then I tend to start work in the office here, a bit of mundane, boring stuff, and then if I can, get off and visit the staff and people and maybe try and do all the ferries. Also at the moment, I’m looking at opportunities for the business, a bit of business development. I think there are a lot of opportunities out there. So I need to make sure our services maximise their potential.

And what is the potential?

It’s massive, it really is. We’ve taken five years to start getting this whole idea of using water transport more popular. We now need to work with the transport providers to get integrated ticketing, buses, trains and boats, buy a five day travel pass like they have in Sydney, Copenhagen, Vancouver or London, even, and include attractions and shopping. And I think there’s a lot of potential there.

And are there other areas you can expand into?

There are. I can’t say too much at the moment specifically, but there are transport related things we’re looking at, and not just around here, but in other areas of the county as well.

Are you a big supporter of the airport?

I am actually. It’s a difficult one, as there are obviously issues with air transport, but frankly the number of car journeys in and out of the county it saves is significant. I think what we have to try and do is maximise their utilisation, bums of seats, and that’s down to good marketing. I think it was a very brave move for the council to buy the airport, it’s not their core task, but I’m a big fan.

How’s Cornwall marketed out of county? Is it done well do you think?

The great unfortunate thing is you have Wales, Ireland and Scotland with massive budgets for the visitor economy and we have just a piddly little budget. We have some very good staff working and very good private businesses. For instance, look at what’s being done by some of the big hotels and surf industry who independently spend a huge amount of their own wealth marketing Cornwall. I just think sometimes our council officers and politicians fail to understand the tangible benefits and potential the visitor economy offers and until we have that we will never be resourced accordingly. And why aren’t we doing travel shows in Europe at the other end of the new services into Newquay Airport? Why isn’t Cornwall hooking and jabbing with the best of them? We’re losing out.

And can the airport help here, with more European routes?

Absolutely, and it’s not just the charter routes. Charters are brilliant but what we really want is central European, three times a week flights. And those people that come in are perfect guests in many ways. They haven’t come in their cars right across England and they’re probably quite high spend. It just makes sense really.

I’ve no idea of the perception Cornwall has abroad as a holiday destination. Is there much awareness beyond Holland, where we’ve long been popular for some reason?

If you think about Flushing, it’s called Flushing because of the sea wall built by the Dutch. It used to be called Nankersey, of course. There’s always been a strong connection with the Dutch and also Germany.

Rosamunde Pilcher is a pretty good ambassador for Cornwall, but we’ve also got great things going on like the Du Maurier festival and the Fal River festival, which make Cornwall an attractive place to come and visit.

And the greatest thing Cornwall has is its unique natural environment. The longest coastline of any county; it is very diverse, and it still has its distinctiveness.

Has the business plan developed as you had hoped?

We’re where we want to be. We can always do better, evolve different services, make them attractive and also stay focused to what our customers’ want – which is good value and trust. They want to depend on our services that they work well.

What sort of pressure are you under from shareholders to add return to the bottom line?

It’s not really that sort of business. When people think of shareholders they think of people in suits in London. The shareholders here are local people who share the desire and ambition as we do, which is to make a reasonable profit, but also to make the service reasonable and relevant for our customers. And also to have fun doing it, there’s not much point being in a business you don’t enjoy.

How much does the business turnover?

Off the top of my head I can’t think what Cornwall Ferries does, but the King Harry, and the holiday cottages here which we rent out, we turnover about £1 million.

And we’ve seen an incredible increase in bookings this year. A lot of people are having short breaks, opposed to their whole three-week summer holiday.

Your administrative centre is here, in the King Harry cottages. A lovely place to work.

We also have one in Falmouth which looks after Cornwall Ferries Ltd, but this is the hub I suppose. And everyone brings their dogs to work, and we take it turns to walk them around. It’s a really happy place to work. As Mountbatten said, ‘a happy ship is an efficient ship!’ I believe all benefit if you can create an environment where your staff feel happy and trusted.

Is this one of your great beliefs in running a business?

I think it is. Of course you still have to set standards and I’m not saying you should suffer fools, but I do think if you don’t create an environment where people can feel valued and trusted, certainly from my immediate military experience, you’ll fail, because your competitors will out think you and out manoeuvre you.

Talking about competitors, you have no direct competition I guess?

Not with the King Harry no, apart from the road, of course. But when setting our prices, we always have to think what does it cost to drive the 27 miles people would have to do otherwise.

You seem very forward thinking in your marketing, particularly with your website and guide.

Marketing is important. I’m not going to get too theoretical, I’ve no formal business training, but to me it seems important that you let people know what they are going to get and what you’re offering and how it separates you from others. So if it’s the St Mawes ferry, what separates us from other boat trips, why is St Mawes nice? Why is this area nice?

We market internationally as well as nationally, to try and let people know what so special about this place. We do that with our partners in King Harry’s Cornwall from the Eden Project right down to the beautiful gardens of the National Trust, the hotels and restaurants. And we all share the same aim of wanting people to enjoy their stay so they come back.

How long were you in the army for?

20 years. I was a regular officer in the Kings Regiment, which is no more.

What would you be doing if this hadn’t come along?

I was sort of in the security business, so I’d probably be a consultant somewhere in security.

I imagine this is a lot more pleasurable?

And a lot less dangerous as well! I don’t know, if I wasn’t doing this maybe I’d be doing something to do with sailing. I’m a very keen sailor, not a very good one in terms of racing, but I love sailing which goes back to my army days. I was based in Antarctica for six months and a lot of our work was on ribs and boats. And I gained a real love for the sea and the wildlife, being based in South Georgia. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

You’ve had, I don’t know quite how to term it, an ‘interesting’ career. People make their own luck in life, but must feel almost ‘blessed’!

There’s a saying, the harder you try, the luckier you get. But I do believe fate also has a hand. If opportunity presents itself you have got to take it. You’ve got to take risks and we have taken some big risks. Just rebuilding the King Harry was £3 million! And we’ve got to be able to make it work commercially. We were lucky enough to get some Objective One funding, but we still have to convince the bank it was the right thing to do, and the shareholders that they would still get a return, and we’ve been able to do that. And that in itself has been great fun, a great challenge.

What lesson have you taken from the army which has helped you most here?

Firstly never march on Moscow!…Trusting people and also being determined and not letting the system play foul with you. In this country, and I think in business terms, we are heavily taxed and regulated, which imposes serious constraints on entrepreneurial spirit, investment and business growth.

And business growth creates wealth, creates employment. And sometimes I think you have got to stand up and be counted and do it in such a way that you’re still listening to the system, to their issues, but when you are right, not to let go. And in that situation, I will not let go.

And also, just trying to make things fun. Life is quite short and if you don’t do what you want to do occasionally, and enjoy the sun, then it’s all rather tedious.