Single mum of five describes the 'blood, sweat and tears' she went through to build her guesthouse business
PUBLISHED: 06:00 23 November 2018 | UPDATED: 08:45 23 November 2018
Running a business can be stressful at the best of times, but it's particularly so when you're a single mum of five who is recovering from a traumatic marriage breakdown - and especially when that business is also your home.
The Highwaymans is a 12-room self-catering guest house in Risby near Bury St Edmunds, and it’s also a home to Juliet Fisher and her children - Meralina, 8, Patrick, 14, Theo, 13, Noah, 11, Casper, 9.
The cherished family property, which is also where Juliet grew up as a child, was rented out by the US military until its contract expired in 2007 and she and her then-husband decided to transform it into a B&B business.
“It was in a sorry state and needed love and attention, but armed with a business plan and just £600 in savings, we were determined to make it work,” recalls Juliet. “Working around our babies, we re-carpeted, decorated and opened our first three guest rooms in 2008.
“In 2010, we opened the gallery area after calling on local builders to restore the collapsing roof. This is now a thriving artists’ hub, hosting a wide range of exhibitions and events.”
When her marriage broke down in 2014, Juliet’s survival skills kicked in as she was determined to keep her business going at the same time as being a devoted mum to her children.
“It was really hard times - blood, sweat and tears,” she explains. “I ended up going to the women’s refuge and they were incredibly helpful. I did make friends with other mums and women alike there and learnt an immense amount from the experience - mainly that there are a phenomenal women who go through all sorts.
“It was a truly awful time, but my business was my life-line, and the key to a happy, stable future for my family.”
In the same year, Juliet also faced the devastating loss of her brother, who lived with her and tragically committed suicide in 2015.
“This coincided with one of my sons being diagnosed with behaviour issues and dyslexia, and it became even more important for me to spend time with my children and ensure their schooling or after-school activities weren’t affected,” she says.
Making changes like changing from a B&B to self-catering enabled Juliet to shape her business around her role as a single parent, and introducing dog-friendly accommodation has given Juliet a “valuable competitive advantage,” she says.
The Highwaymans gets its name from the nearby heath, which was a well known haunt for Highwaymen lurking to rob wealthy people on their way back from winning at Newmarket. The property was originally created as a vinter’s house with a 24-acre vinyard, but was decomissioned after a series of poor harvests.
The house itself was designed by Bridget Treherne, a talented 1960s architect who followed the trend of her generation of moulding concrete - which is not so popular today - and hence the rounded doors and windows, with a French chateau design. Since taking the helm, Juliet has renovated the property with new carpets, roof, and bathrooms and painting its walls: “Lots of work, but step by step,” she explained.
The guesthouse has grown from making a loss in its first year to achieving a £250,000 turnover today.
But there have inevitably been moments when the line between being a mum and a businesswoman has blurred for Juliet. “My daughter came early, and I was still changing the sheets while I was in labour!” she recalls. “Then I was adhering to guests standards while breastfeeding.”
The biggest hurdles she says have been juggling the tax requirements and getting employment law and fire regulations right, while also dashing off to do the school run each day.
“The biggest advantage is that I am always reachable to my children,” she says.
Ms Fisher says the secret of being able to keep going through hard times and thrive is having a good team of staff on board.
“Its all about getting the right people around you to make it work. I have five on my team, and can have up to 15 to 20 when we hold events. My head housekeeper has been with me for seven years.”
And being a family business means the children also get roped in to help. “For pocket money on a Sunday, they sometimes answer the door and help clear up and set up for some events,” Juliet explains. “Women I see day-to-day have commented on the positive effects that my business has had on my family. The children have learnt life-skills that they may not have picked up on before - they work as a team, they are flexible, they understand where money comes from and how it contributes to our lifestyle and they are happy to help around the home.”
The Highwaymans has its own gift shop selling local produce, and also plays host to not just the standard events such as weddings, funerals, conferences and birthday parties, but also clay shooting, yoga retreats, stag and hen dos, and even a board games enthusiasts meet-up.
It’s not unusual for guests to check in at 2am or 3am, and Trip Advisor makes everything “so exposed,” Juliet admits. “We have to keep to our core values, but guests can be very demanding and expect five star service all the time. Sometimes, it’s hectic, but I always try to stay true to what I know.”