15 April 2018

Are you a dreamer? Lawrence Jones MBE with Scotty at Le Farinet, Verbier

Two dreamers! With Scotty outside the Farinet in Verbier.

Are you a Dreamer?

Flying back from a couple of weeks in Switzerland, whilst I am refreshed and ready for the next stage of growing and developing UKFast, I am sad to leave my friends and the peace and quiet of the Alps.

Verbier is a special place. Quite unique from my limited experience of global travel but certainly very different from any other place in the world I have visited. It’s crammed full of remarkable people.

Taking it easy!

In 2014 I’d not been very well. I needed a break from work and Gail made the decision that we all remain in Verbier after a skiing trip. We ended up putting the kids in a local international school and suddenly we were living in the Alps.

In spite of me supposedly taking it easy, there is obviously something in my nature that is always looking to create and build things.  I am not very good at slowing down or switching off!

We’d been bringing small teams out every year skiing staying in Branson’s Lodge but as the company grew it was becoming cost prohibitive. I have always placed enormous value on team building and there’s nowhere better than somewhere you are able to combine exciting activities and the mountains. We’d proven this concept in our team-building property in Wales, Castell Cidwm.

So, I started looking for an old chalet or a small hotel to convert and use to house our ever-increasing team from UKFast and our other companies. I was walking up the main street one day with my friend Scotty, who I’d met some years before on Necker Island where he was Head of Watersports.

He said to me: “You are up to something Loz, I know you, what is it?”

I explained to him that I’d love a hotel for the team at UKFast. When he questioned me about which ones I had my eye on, to throw him off the scent, I turned around and looked down the hill. Right in front of me was Le Farinet. It’s the oldest hotel in Verbier and a well-established and world-renowned party venue.

His reply was simple: “You will never get the Farinet Lawrence. They will never sell it.” It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it! I joked: “So if I get it, will you come and run it?”

A new challenge; a big dream

Scotty was running the company that owned the hotel where we were staying at that time. As we walked further up the hill, my mind was already whirring. Scotty turned right and headed back to his office and, as soon as he was out of earshot, I rang Gail. I said: “Find out who owns Farinet. That’s the hotel we are going to buy.”

Within hours, we were being shown around the inside of what was actually a very run-down place, far worse than I realised. I’d only been there at night and the lighting hid a multitude of sins. But I’d made my mind up. In spite of the architect who showed me around making it clear that the owners weren’t interested in selling, I put in an offer.

I have enough stories from this moment to write an entire book and one day I probably will. I could fill a library with just the experiences building and working with the commune, the police and the complexities of learning a different country’s rules and legal obligations. But the story today is about Farinet and how dreams can actually come true.

Farinet renovation work

The building site at the Farinet hotel as we renovated the property.

Scotty turned me down at first, being honourable to the company he worked for. Weirdly I’d got a sixth-sense feeling that the company he worked for was to be sold. Luckily enough, a few weeks later, Scotty came back to me and said that if the job’s still there he was up for the challenge.

The Farinet Hotel

We acquired the Farinet four years ago in 2014. What a challenge it proved to be! Considering that I was supposed to be taking it easy, I did the opposite and immersed myself in a project that had to be completed within 12 weeks. It was simple; it had to be complete before the ski season started.

Looking back now, it was all worth it. Whilst at times it was hugely stressful, somehow, we did it. Using our building team from UKFast to support the local companies, it was the most intense time of my life. But we made it and lived there happily for some time. Somehow in spite of the added stress, the break did me good too and I got into the best shape of my life.

Always be a dreamer!

As we fly towards the UK over France, part of me thinks I will live there again one day, maybe when the kids finish school. As a mountain man from Wales there is something that draws me away from the city.

Whilst I love the UK, and particularly Manchester, there will come a time when I will have to hand over the baton to a younger management team. Where better to watch from afar than in the fresh air, up in the mountains far from the madding crowd?

It’s important to have dreams. Dreams are distractions where you are able to close your eyes and, for that moment, no one can interfere. No one can stop you; you are the master of your own destiny. You can be anyone you want to be.

Dreams feel real and, if you focus on them enough, I have learned that over time the small steps you make towards them, eventually pay off. All too often we give up on our dreams as they seem impossible or too far away.

I will always be a dreamer. Always working on creating a better place for my family and those around me. It’s all we have, when we have global leaders squabbling about politics using bombs rather than brokering discussions. I could be cynical and think “nothing will ever change” or I can start dreaming about the difference I – and other people both in business and the wider community – can make.

Making a difference to others

There’s not a lot I can do to improve the quality of my life these days, other than continually trying to improve my health. But what I can do is use my influence and dream about a better world. A world where all kids get the same sort of opportunities that I had growing up. Access to a great school, amazing teachers, as well as plenty of sport and places to run around and explore.

UKFast apprentices - the choice between apprenticeship and university

Some of UKFast’s apprentices with one of our former school teachers, Arlene.

If enough people share the same vision, together we can make the impossible happen. And I do believe that people do, especially in Manchester, where I believe there is an extraordinary movement. But it’s not just Manchester, on my journey of exploration into bettering education, I have found some incredible people and organisations up and down the country.  Sam and Holly Branson with Big Change, iDEA at Buckingham Palace are just a couple of examples.

So, when you are told that it can’t be done, you have two choices.You can walk away and agree and get on with your life, after all, no one will blame or judge you. Or, you could say, “hold on a minute, I am not someone to walk away from a challenge.” You can pick up the phone and rally around support and make things happen.

Making a change

Around 10 years ago, we started helping out in a tiny, almost inconsequential, sort of way in education with a young teacher called Aaron Saxton. He was a teacher at a local school in Trafford.

We had a dream to influence education to help increase the numbers of people interested in tech. It was naive and we were so small it was almost laughable looking back. But we persevered nonetheless. We began to make a small difference and Aaron believed he could accelerate our projects if he were on our team full time, and joined us five years ago.

We got huge confidence when a few of the kids who came in for work experience joined years later as apprentices. Seeing them grow and develop at an incredible pace with Aaron and our other full-time teachers at UKFast proved it was a worthwhile experiment and we accelerated the programme.

Funnily enough a few years later when Bright Futures went into liquidation leaving hundreds of apprentices with unfinished qualifications, our experience gave us the confidence to step in and help out. Whilst it was never going to make financial sense, we knew we were perfectly placed to lead these apprentices.

Whilst not all of the apprentices that we took on at that time have stayed with us on our journey, it feels great knowing we gave them a brilliant start. We gave them an opportunity to fulfil their original destiny. A few years into their experience, some of those apprentices are earning significant salaries and doing great things.

More mountains to climb and dreams to dream

Coming in to land it makes sense to be coming home. Scotty’s apprenticeship at the Farinet would be better described as a baptism of fire. But the pressure from various experiences is developing him into a great leader. He now has an established and experienced team around him. On top of this, he is demonstrating that he needs my input less and less every season.

Back at home, in Manchester I have unfinished business. There’s still more dreaming to be done and a significant mountain to climb. It will be some time before I will be hanging up my boots! Meanwhile when things get tough or I miss the mountains, I can always close my eyes and imagine.

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