From farming to a five star resort
William McNamara OBE, is CEO of Bluestone National Park Resort, a 5* holiday destination on the stunning Pembrokeshire coast. He’s also the brain behind Oakwood theme park, which he turned into Wales’ biggest tourist attraction.
We talk to William about his early life as a farmer, the events that led to a career in the leisure industry – and how naivety played a part in getting him where he is today. We hope that by delving into the story behind his success we can share a little valuable insight into what makes a good business thrive.
1. Given your background in farming, what inspired you to make the move into the tourism industry?I grew up on a farm, went to agricultural college and fully expected to spend my life looking after the family dairy herd. I was young, keen and ready to expand, but the introduction of milk quotas looked set to curtail my business. I decided it was time to diversify. In 1987, I opened Oakwood theme park and saw it become a successful attraction in less than 10 years. Having a fantastic time, I was then ready to move onto bigger and better things, with the launch of Bluestone.
2. You’ve trekked to the South Pole, but what has been your biggest business challenge to date?Without a shadow of a doubt, making Bluestone happen. I went through massive challenges and 12 years of hard graft to get it built. Then three months after it opened, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in the USA which basically triggered the recession. The next six years were sheer purgatory, trying to keep the business going forward. It was a horrible, horrible time but I have to say it was worth all the effort, the stress and the sleepless nights, because it’s now in a fabulous place.
3. What does your average day entail?At the beginning of this year I decided to step back a bit. I’m 60 now and although I have no intention of retiring, I thought it would be good to take a more strategic role, handing the day-to-day operations over to my team. And after 40 years, I thought it would be nice to have weekends off! Although I was expecting an easier life, I’m probably busier now, chasing excellence in everything we do and planning new projects. I’m very passionate and absorbed in my business, and I love every minute!
4. To what do you attribute your success?I’d have to say naivety. That might sound strange, but Bluestone was the largest private and public money start-up in Wales in 40-odd years. If I’d known at the start what I knew ten years down the line, I wonder if I’d have done it? I also think it helps that I have a very ‘can-do’ attitude, won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and am always focussed on the end goal. Being able to unravel complex situations and find a simple solution is also really important.
5. What do you look for in a broker?
More than anything, I’m looking for a partner and a trusted relationship. I want to work collaboratively with a broker who is straight and open with us, as well as being highly efficient. They need to know the industry, bringing the best insurance companies to the table and providing us with the cover we absolutely need. With a quarter of a million people passing through our gates every year, having good, pragmatic insurance is essential.
6. What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs?
I would say it’s a long, long journey and it can be very tough. If all you want to do is make a quick buck, that’s probably not enough. You need to want to make a difference, to create something you’re proud of, to take pleasure in growing new talents. But more than anything, I think you have to be brave enough to fail – whether going to the South Pole or setting up Bluestone, if I didn’t succeed I knew I’d have to face the world. I’ve been in situations where I thought I’d lose face, lose everything, but if I had to start all over again, I would.
7. What are your plans for Bluestone in the next few years?
We’ve got a lot going on. We’re building a Sky Dome – a transparent, unsealed dome over an area of countryside, complete with cliffs, waterfalls, trees and a myriad of activities going on inside. The first of its kind, we’ll be able to grow natural plants and provide a space visitors can enjoy, even if it’s lashing down outside. We’re also turning a Grade 2 listed flour mill into a Victorian themed attraction and have exciting plans to create a training school and centre of excellence for the hospitality industry in West Wales.
8. Is there anything you wish you’d done differently in business?
In a word, ‘no’, and that doesn’t mean I’ve done everything right. Things often don’t go according to plan and you have to be able to react. Or you can plan to the eighth degree and then have to change strategy because of a new opportunity. The most important thing I’ve always done is be open and honest. And if things go wrong or haven’t worked out the way I wanted them to, I’ve said, ‘Ok, I didn’t get that right, but this is where we’re going now’.
9. Has social media helped develop your business and do you have a strategy to develop this?
In the nine years Bluestone has been open, social media and smart phone technology have moved forward in leaps and bounds. I’m quite a private person and don’t do Facebook or anything like that, but it plays an enormous part in our business. My strategy is to invest in, and look after the people who can make it work – and not only understand it today, but where it will be going in a year’s time. Those are pretty much people in their teens and early twenties. They just live and breathe it!
10. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I was born in Pembrokeshire and to me, it’s the only place I would want to live on this planet. I’m very privileged and have travelled to almost every corner of the globe, seeing some very beautiful places, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Here I’m surrounded by very special people; people who are friendly, clever, funny and caring. And I have the vibrancy of the countryside, the clean air, and the dark sky, alongside the excitement of big business. It’s a place where we make things happen.