The Big Interview: Stobo Castle Health Spa owner Stephen Winyard

It has welcomed showbiz royalty including Dames Joan Collins and Shirley Bassey, its profits jumped by a third last year to exceed £1 million and this year it celebrates its 40th anniversary. But amid Stobo Castle Health Spa's achievements, managing director and owner Stephen Winyard shuns complex business strategies in favour of a more brass-tacks attitude. 'I've never read a management textbook, I never will,' he says. 'I just take the simplistic view that business is common sense.'
Stephen Winyard is proud of Stobo Castle's 'very deep sense of social responsibility'.Stephen Winyard is proud of Stobo Castle's 'very deep sense of social responsibility'.
Stephen Winyard is proud of Stobo Castle's 'very deep sense of social responsibility'.

He describes his approach as “right, instant decision, make things happen, get on with it – next!”

Winyard leads what is billed as Scotland’s only residential destination spa, tucked away in Peeblesshire, with 52 bedrooms, 27 treatment rooms and 32 therapists.

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The castle was commissioned in 1805 by Sir James Montgomery, whose father was a lord advocate. It was a family residence for more 100 years before falling into disrepair, but was given a new lease of life when Winyard and his parents – former RAF pilot instructor Robert Winyard and his beauty therapist wife Gaynor – acquired it in the early 1970s.

They undertook a radical makeover of the site, to open in 1978 what was then one of the first health farms of its kind.

Inevitably it has adapted its offering in line with changing consumer expectations, evolving from 16 bedrooms with shared avocado bathroom suites and calorie-controlled meals, to its current facilities including a 25-metre ozone-treated infinity pool and Cashmere Suite complete with £10,000 bath carved out of a single piece of limestone.

It is tapping into a growing market as more consumers favour spending on experiences over material goods, with Global Spa Services Market forecasting the sector worldwide reaching $154.6 billion (£117.3bn) by 2022.

Stobo experienced a record year in 2017, achieving pre-tax profit of £1m on turnover that showed a year-on-year rise of 8 per cent to £7.8m. Winyard says the gains are the result of its policy implemented over the past few years of constant reinvestment in its facilities, staff training and brand awareness.

A recent six-figure cash injection has resulted in luxury upgrades to guest rooms and the addition of a So Stobo cocktail lounge. “I have a very strong feeling that if you don’t reinvest in the hospitality industry continuously, then you’re on a slippery slope – and there have been constant examples in the industry of under-investment,” says Winyard.

Another bid to diversify its income streams is the recent launch of its own-label beauty products and gifts, following in the footsteps of, say, Champneys and Ragdale Hall, and seeking to capitalise on Stobo’s brand awareness that Winyard sees as “huge” in Scotland.

The aim, he says, is to “get into bed with a bricks-and-mortar retailer”, eyeing a chain like John Lewis & Partners. “But we’re not rushing into that. We want to see how the sales of these own-label products go – and certainly the early evidence, which is just in our spa shop, is very encouraging.”

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Another idea is piloting these products in a retailer such as a combined Sainsbury’s and Asda, a multibillion merger that would take £1 in every £3 spent on groceries in the UK.

Stobo also sponsors Ladies Day at Musselburgh Racecourse, having just inked a six-figure deal for a further five years, and while Winyard says it is difficult to quantify the tie-up’s impact in monetary terms, it helps generate galloping Christmas gift voucher sales.

The lion’s share of spa guests are from Scotland, with most of the remainder from the north of England, particularly areas such as Newcastle and Sunderland. “[We attract] very little foreign business, but with the popularity of staycations over the last 12 months, we’ve certainly enjoyed higher occupancies as a result. Already our turnover this year is running 5 per cent ahead of last year.”

As for Brexit, Winyard believes Stobo could see a knock-on effect if terms of the deal further stifle consumer confidence, although he adds that it could also lead to more staycations in Scotland.

The UK’s extrication from Europe is one of several subjects that Winyard has stuck his head above the parapet about, with Stobo announcing in July 2016 in the wake of the referendum that it was set to double its planned spending over the following years. “At a time when business confidence is near an all-time low, this pledge reflects our strongly held belief that Scotland will once again rise up and overcome the challenges facing this great nation of ours,” it added.

Winyard felt that if its rivals wanted to “sit on the fence and see what happens – hey, that’s fine by me”.

He also highlights Stobo’s “very deep sense of social responsibility”, pointing out that it has supported more than 360 charities over the past two years. “I challenge any business in the UK to match that sort of figure.”

The businessman made headlines for offering a £1m reward in the search for Madeleine McCann and donating £100,000 to help cover her parents Gerry and Kate’s legal fees.

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And earlier this year Winyard gave £10,000 to Scottish Borders Council to go towards the cost of filling in potholes.

The aim was to benefit residents and boost Peebles’ attractiveness as a destination, and he hopes his move will inspire more collaborations between the private and public sectors. “Within three weeks every pothole was repaired within the town,” he says.

Despite his community-mindedness, Winyard insists he harbours no ambitions of moving into the political arena. He prefers instead the benefit of being in a family-owned business, able to make decisions quickly, and making donations where he sees fit, although he does see scope for getting involved with the Borders tourism industry. He says with a laugh that his plan now is to promote himself to chairman next year – when he turns 70 – and “step back quite a bit”.

After his parents bought the business, he came back to Scotland from the Bahamas, where he had been working as a croupier, and now describes Stobo as his “passion” throughout his working life (“I guess it’s got us where we are today”).

The business looks set to remain in the family, with both of his sons having come on board. “II think the future of Stobo’s going to be in relatively safe hands going forwards.

As for competition, Winyard says almost every “Tom, Dick and Harry hotel” in Scotland has some kind of spa offering (“most of them do it very badly, sadly”), while at the other end of the scale there are larger players such as Gleneagles.

But Stobo is focused on improving its own facilities and reinforcing its position. “We need to keep growing turnover,” he says. “We see it growing by probably about half a million this year in total with a proportionate increase in the bottom line.”

Expanding to the point of being overstretched is not an option – for example, Stobo has planning permission to add 18 bedrooms but the plans are on ice as they would be such a major undertaking.

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“We have a niche in the marketplace and it’s important that we don’t blur it by trying to be all things to all people,” says Winyard.

“This is the business that lays the golden egg – and that must in no way be jeopardised through some silly distraction elsewhere.”