Colin Mustoe: Putting on a show

By Ged Henderson

14 May 2024

Colin Mustoe

“If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Colin Mustoe is sharing his thoughts on business life as he pores over the brightly coloured maps scattered on his desk.

It is a mantra that he brings to his current task, working on the layout of this summer’s Royal Lancashire Agricultural Show.

The 78-year-old entrepreneur is fully committed to making the show, which can trace its history back to 1767, a success. He has been since taking over as its chairman some seven years ago, at a time when its very future was in doubt.

The organisation that runs it was beset with troubles. With the view that it was too important to the county’s rural communities to die, he threw himself into the task or reviving it along with a small team of dedicated volunteers.

Today he describes the show’s condition as “stable” with money in the bank. This year’s event is set to attract more than 25,000 people over three days in July and once again will take place at the showground on Colin’s rolling Salesbury Hall estate near Ribchester.

The show’s HQ and nerve centre is also about to move into new offices at the swish Manor Court business park that Colin has created by converting old farm buildings in the grounds of the estate.

Returning to the show theme he adds: “Seven years ago the farming community had lost interest, we had to build it up again, go out and talk to them; engage. Last year we had 1,300 animals plus horses on the show field, it is becoming one of the most prominent agricultural shows around.

“I’m a southerner by birth but I’ve lived a lot longer here than down there so this is my way of putting something back. It’s the history and the heritage.”

He adds: “You have to do it properly and it has to be professional. Also, like any business, you have to drive it.”

Driving business forward and doing things properly is something Colin has been doing all his professional life. A native of south London he began his career in insurance before switching to a role with an office furniture business.

He relocated to its office in Darwen before deciding he wanted to be his own boss and setting up the company that is today known as The Senator Group in 1976, initially working from his bedroom.

In the early days of the company’s existence, he would build and deliver the products to customers himself. Today Senator remains one of Lancashire’s best-known businesses, with its headquarters at Altham Business Park in Accrington.

Family-owned, Senator designs and  manufactures office furniture, employing 1,500 people, with a £220m annual turnover and a global reach. At this year’s Red Rose Awards it won both the ESG and export categories.

The panel judging the export award said of Senator: “The team presented a clear, strong strategy for growth in export and have delivered innovative solutions through challenges to continue the story.”

The ESG category judges added: “An impressive commitment to each aspect of ESG runs throughout the business and its operations, embodied throughout the culture of the organisation.”

Colin explains: “We run Senator as a small business in terms of its ethics and attitude but with big company resources.”

He remains company chairman but has handed over the running of the business to his son Robert, who has the same, if not greater, work ethic than his father.

The pair travelled to America to watch the Masters golf tournament at Augusta this year and Colin says: “Robert went on from there to New York where the business has a showroom, then he travelled to Ohio where we have a factory and then went to San Francisco to see how a company that does things differently operates, before returning to New York.

“He is very committed and driven. He was the boss’ son, so was always going to have a good future. But it became clear from his early days in the business that he was very talented and had great work ethic.

"Once I realised that he could run the business I stepped back, though I’m here if needed.!

He agrees that the transition from father to son was probably made easier by the other projects he is committed to. As well as the show and the business centre, he is also working on the rebirth of Mytton Fold Hotel in Langho.

Senator bought the well-known and long-established Ribble Valley hotel out of administration just before the pandemic and both Colin and Robert are involved in the ongoing project to revive its fortunes which has included a stylish revamp.

The substantial investment continues with a new entrance about to be unveiled, a CGI of it sits on the wall of his office, and plans for a new restaurant. Work is also underway to increase its use by businesses looking to host team-building events.

Colin says: “It’s a challenge. The only experience we had of hotels was staying in them.

“What we are doing at Mytton Fold is for the long term. It has the location and when you talked to local people, they said they’d got married there, held Christenings but hadn’t used if for years. We’re looking to change that.”

Looking at all these varied interests Colin admits he does things, “because I like to do them”. He adds: “I like getting up in the morning and knowing I’ve got something to do. The idea of not having anything to do is scary.”

Colin, who is about to be given a lifetime achievement award at the Mansion House in the City of London by The Furniture Makers’ Company, returns to the theme of running a business.

“My view is that you are a conductor. If you conduct an orchestra, you choose the music to play and where you are going to play. Your job then is to keep things in tune. That’s the way to run a business, keep it in tune.”

Enjoyed this? Read more from Ged Henderson

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