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East Anglia Future 50

Family ethos keeps schools coming back to Hilltop Outdoor Centre

PUBLISHED: 08:55 28 March 2018 | UPDATED: 13:43 02 April 2018

At Hilltop with their EDP Business Award are the Reed family, (from left) Martin, Helen, Sue & Olly, Picture: Ian Burt

At Hilltop with their EDP Business Award are the Reed family, (from left) Martin, Helen, Sue & Olly, Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2018

With a family feel running right through its business, Hilltop Outdoor Centre, winner of the Customer Care award at the EDP Business Awards 2017, is transferring management to the next generation. 
Doug Faulkner met the Read family.

Pictured at Hilltop near Sheringham are Sue Read and her daughter-in-law Helen. Picture: Ian BurtPictured at Hilltop near Sheringham are Sue Read and her daughter-in-law Helen. Picture: Ian Burt

The ethos that runs through Hilltop Outdoor Centre was most recently seen when it faced down the Beast from the East.

With large swathes of the country in the weather’s icy grip, team members stayed overnight and used 4x4s to clear roads and collect colleagues to make sure youngsters from a London school still got to enjoy the full experience.

That “above and beyond” mentality has been instilled over the years and generations by owners Martin and Sue Read and their son Oliver Read and his wife Helen.

And it helped them take home the Customer Care Award, sponsored by Greater Anglia, at the EDP Business Awards 2017.

The Reads, who are all still involved, believe this ethos comes from the respect and trust shown to workers. Some of the staff have been at the Sheringham centre since it was founded 30 years ago, and many of the team have clocked up at least a decade of service.

Helen said: “It is a big deal for parents and teachers to entrust us with their children and the EDP award helps show that we will take good care of them.”

In the beginning the business started out with 35 beds and four staff, including both Martin and Sue, after Mr Read and two of his five brothers, Glenn and Steve, bought the site in 1988.

Former teacher Martin founded the business, which provides educational activity breaks aimed mainly at young people, after becoming disillusioned with the school system, and particularly its treatment of troubled pupils.

“I can’t exactly say I knew what I was going to do – it was just an old house on a hill – but I had a feeling that if I stayed teaching I would get more and more frustrated seeing so many children getting failed by the system,” he said. “I wanted to see children walk away having tried different things and feeling really good about themselves.”

It was not easy in the early days. Hilltop did not make a profit for the first four years, said Martin, with the family living on site to help fund the project through the sale of their house.

Sue said: “Everybody thought I was going to be outside on zip wires – and so did I actually – but I was in the kitchen. I don’t think we ever thought it was going to be as big or as successful as it is now in those early days.”

Many of the constructions and projects at Hilltop, including climbing walls and zip wires, have been carried out by Oliver, who grew up around the business from the age of eight. Now a director, alongside wife Helen, he understands the ethos of Hilltop perhaps better than anyone and has set about putting his own touch on management, having worked in each department over the years. Oliver said activities are designed so that youngsters of all abilities can take part at different levels with a “challenge by choice” mentality which lets them set their own limits. “Some children might climb up the first part of the climbing wall and then decide that is enough for them, but the next day they might regret not having tried to do more,” Oliver said. “That’s how they learn about themselves.”

His father jokes that while he was distracted by captaining his golf club Oliver took over the running of Hilltop.

And it is not only the management style that is changing. Hilltop is to be registered as a limited company with plans to invest further in the site, as well as encouraging more business visitors for team-building activities during school holidays.

By his own admission it took Martin a couple of years to get used to the idea of stepping back.

Oliver added: “If you look at a business like Hilltop starting out, it doesn’t get off the ground without someone pushing it along, and mum and dad both have that style.

“As the business grows there is then more space and more money and being involved in every little thing becomes very stressful.”

The business now employs around 45 people with 180 beds and the site has grown significantly since its humble beginnings to cover 26 acres.

While Martin has stepped back he is still on site most days to keep in touch with staff and visitors alike.

“Some of them know I am the owner,” he said. “But I think some think I am the caretaker.”

The Norfolk Business Awards 2018, brought to you by the EDP

• The Norfolk Business Awards 2018 open for entries on May 9, with a deadline of July 27.

• The awards will seek to unearth dynamic companies and pioneering entrepreneurs, and the visionary and ambitious leaders who are breaking boundaries and fuelling growth. Don’t miss your opportunity to share your success story. Entry will be via the EDP website.

Judging will take place between August 6 and September 21.

• The Norfolk Business Awards ceremony will take place at the Norfolk Showground Arena on Thursday November 22. It is a key date in the business calendar and last year hosted more than 450 guests from more than 100 local businesses.

• Demand is traditionally high, so you can reserve your tickets now. Call 01603 772371 or email Stephanie.griffin@archant.co.uk

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