In Conversation: Emma Manners, Duchess of Rutland – CEO of Belvoir Castle

In Conversation

After spending a relaxed Wednesday morning on a cup of peppermint tea and the obligatory – always prolonged – scroll through Instagram, I telephoned Her Grace Emma Manners, Duchess of Rutland, to talk with her about her work as CEO of Belvoir Castle and ask her some questions about successful – and unsuccessful – business failures, her favourite objects in the Duchy’s extensive collection, and the next generation of Manners estate managers. 

CEO of the Belvoir Castle estate, The Duchess has been described as “the UK’s most business-minded aristocrat” and, no stranger to Instagram herself, Emma Rutland uses the platform to promote many of her business ventures, which range from Belvoir Gin to womenswear boutiques, all encapsulated in a pleasing country aesthetic of tweed, misty fields and colourful rails of clothing and handbags in the recently-built Engine Yard.  

Your significant development of the Duchy – you host many wonderful events and have created the impressive Engine Yard (a retail development on the estate) – is undoubtedly bringing the estate into modern times; would you say that your efforts to ‘open up’ the estate were solely business decisions, or is it that you naturally enjoy working on large projects?

You’re always having to make decisions to keep these estates being fundamentally run in a practical, yet business way; I think that my ‘bottom line’ is can it be – because we don’t take any public funding whatsoever, as you know – you have to be very practical and very grounded about keeping heritage together in the 21st century and running it in tune with the buildings and the surrounding areas and making business decisions that are sympathetic to the cause, which is really about retaining heritage in (hopefully) a better state in that it was handed on to you; so that’s more core belief.

The Engine Yard was a natural progression – they were redundant buildings for our works department, because we’ve outsourced all the work that’s been done on our properties on the estate to a local builder and his men (because I’ve always believed in sourcing local) and they sort of asked to be [developed]. I’m very guided by the buildings; it almost asked to be public space. There was a lot of talk about them being turned into flats or offices, but they seemed to just speak to me. It’s been a leap of faith – the whole project has – and a very expensive one, that’s cost nearly £4 million to prepare those buildings, so it’s going to take a long time to pay the money back on that. You always should have a sense of responsibility to your  surrounding area. 

It’s cost nearly £4 million to prepare those buildings, so it’s going to take a long time to pay the money back on that.

Marrying into the aristocracy – and proudly from a non-aristocratic background – how did you initially perceive the environment/circles in which you found yourself? How does this compare to now – in what ways do you think the aristocracy has changed over these past decades?

I married into the aristocracy from a farming background; I think the similarities between my upbringing and – hopefully – how I brought my children up is there’s a sense of responsibility for the surroundings and for the buildings they will one day take on, there’s a sense of pride, but they know there’s work, business. It’s something that, if you’ve grown up in this environment, you just taken on; it’s almost in your DNA.  

I think the British aristocracy has changed; we’re one of the most adaptable institutions – along with the Royal Family; [the aristocrats in] Russia, France – they became too out of touch. The British aristocracy has been very clever at adapting. 

Given the present troubles of the world – poverty across parts of the UK, climate change, etc. – should the aristocracy (who own billions of pounds worth of land and property) be doing more to help solve these crises?

I think we’ve got to just all be responsible for our bit of the world that we’re custodians of; if we sort our own issues out in our own communities, and everyone’s accountable, the world would be a better place. I have done charity work in Africa, and yet, we have many homeless in Grantham. If we look after our local areas, we’ll be contributing. 

I think we’ve got to just all be responsible for our bit of the world that we’re custodians of; if we sort our own issues out in our own communities, and everyone’s accountable, the world would be a better place.

What is the most surprising or unexpected business success the estate has had?

The Engine Yard, really; I can’t believe how we’ve hardly marketed it, and yet, people seem to adore it; that’s been a real surprise!

What has been the most tedious or dull venture you’ve tried out?

I’ve created many many things; my father always used to say ‘you’ll have ten businesses, and one might come on’; I was desperate to do a rose with Peter Beales, who owns the rose company, but that didn’t come off… I took on a pub in the village of Knipton, soon after we’d moved in, and it was a complete flop called The Manners Arms; that was very disappointing.

And what has been your best moment?

The best moment is the arrival of each of my children, which is always the highlight of my life!

How are you preparing the next generation to run the estate? What is the most valuable advice you’ve given them? 

I’m just trying to get them to work; it doesn’t matter what they do – just get out and work! I can’t bare people coming here from universities with long degrees and thinking they’re jobsworhty; I start them at the bottom, and just want to see them rolling up their sleeves and making them practical. 

Through their modelling, business and creative ventures, your daughters are especially instilled with your focus and ‘business drive’; in what ways have you encouraged them to be independent women with a modern, progressive outlook on society?

I hope so; I think you’re right. They’re all independent. Funnily enough, they’re looking at writing a book as we speak, about three of their ancestors who grew up at the beginning of the 1900s: that would be Lady Diana Manners – she became Cooper – Margery and Lettie, and they’re all following each and every one of them.

You must need also some time to relax! Do you find much time for television? What shows are you currently watching/have enjoyed recently? 

I hardly ever watch television, and I hardly ever read the press! I think both are sent to make us miserable and sad, and I generally work on my own intuition on most things that I do. I’m very badly briefed on what’s going on in the world, but I do know that Boris is our Prime Minister right now! But that’s about as far as it goes…

I hardly ever watch television, and I hardly ever read the press! I think both are sent to make us miserable and sad, and I generally work on my own intuition on most things that I do.

The castle is an art lover’s heaven; what’s your favourite piece from the collection and why?

We’ve got lots and lots of portraits by Stubbs of family dogs; always, family members seem happier to paint their dogs than their wives – we’ve got acres of Stubbs paintings here!

What is the one most significant sentimental/personal item or object in the castle?

It would be the statue of the 5th Duchess in the Elizabeth Saloon; it’s a marble statue that was done of her after she died – the castle was completed after she died. But Elizabeth is on my shoulder all the time; I believe she found me to do the job here for her. That’s my favourite. 

Image credit: @duchessrutland, Instagram