Lead Interview: Sam and Caroline Steggles

The Goat Shed and Fielding Cottage, Norfolk,

Our lead interview in the CHANGE issue of Norfolk Director business magazine is Husband and Wife, Sam and Caroline Steggles.

Published in Norfolk Director Magazine Spring | Summer 2023

CHANGE: Diversify, Adapt and Pivot

“Establishing and growing our business has been mostly due to being in the right place at the right time and spotting an opportunity. You have to listen to your gut instinct and go for it! The main thing is not to be afraid to make mistakes; it is better to have tried and failed, than to regret the what if.”

Interview:  Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page

Sam and Caroline Steggles talk to Norfolk Director

Most will agree that it is usually an earth-shattering event in your life that makes you stop, sit back and think life’s too short. And that is exactly what happened to Sam and Caroline Steggles, when Caroline’s sister – and Sam’s best friend – Lucie, suddenly passed away in 2008.

“I was happy in my job working for Big Dutchman selling poultry equipment,” says Sam. “Caroline was pregnant with our first child William, and was working as an accountant for PwC.  Lucie’s death from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome was devastating for us both, and I realised that life was too short to hang around; I wanted to get back to doing what I loved, farming.” 

The couple both come from similar backgrounds. Caroline was born in 1981 at Greenacres Farm, 300 metres from where the Goat Shed is today in Honingham. Sam was born in 1982 and his grandfather farmed livestock at Wacton in South Norfolk. He was one of the first people in the country to import Simmental cattle from Switzerland into the UK, and Sam and he used to breed them together.

However, growing up their paths took very different tangents.

Caroline went to Norwich High School for Girls, and although she liked the farming lifestyle, she loved being indoors more.  

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time on the farm and on friends’ farms, but I was more studious. I enjoyed learning, reading, music and singing, as well as ballet and Guides.

“A degree in Management Studies seemed like a good springboard for whatever came next, and after lots of research I chose Nottingham University for its strong reputation and the fact it was not too far away!

“Then in my gap year, I returned home and for six months I helped Dad, who had diversified into a mobile phone business, to set up a scheme recycling the old phones for charity. I then went travelling for three months to Japan, New Zealand, and Australia.

“The day I arrived back, my parents were having dinner with Stephen, a friend who worked for Pricewaterhouse Coopers (Pwc). I had completed some work experience with Stephen’s team a couple of summers previously and he suggested I apply for the September graduate scheme intake. So, I did and got a job based in Norwich training to be an accountant. It wasn’t something I had planned, it just felt like a sensible next step!”

Sam’s education journey was very different.

“I was always outside and loved looking after the animals. When I was 12, Mum and Dad bought me a Jersey cow for Christmas, something I had always wanted,” Sam smiles. “Called Sophie, I managed to breed her and started selling the cows. I then got into sheep. I also bred rabbits and hunted pheasants. I would prepare them to make them oven-ready and then sell them to my teachers.

“Eventually, I had sold enough to follow in Grandad’s footsteps and buy a pedigree Simmental, which is great for beef. At 14, I was able to hire some land and I continued to breed, before selling the whole herd when I went to college.”

“If I look back I think this entrepreneurial spirit came from having dyslexia and having to find a different way around a problem.”

Having left school at 15 and taken a year out, Sam was persuaded to go to Writtle College in Chelmsford.

“I was there for two years doing agriculture and loved it, but I was asked not to come back as I enjoyed myself too much!

“I then went to Harper Adams in Shropshire, which had the largest university bar in the country, for three years to do an HND in Agrifood, Marketing and Business Studies. I then did a year placement working at a fruit company in Kent and a farm in Norfolk.”

Coming together as a couple

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Throughout this time, both Caroline and Sam were involved in Norfolk Young Farmers, although with different clubs. Their paths hadn’t crossed until Sam’s best friend, Robert – also a farmer – started dating Caroline’s sister, Lucie.

“For a couple of years, Sam was always the drunk best friend that would be sleeping on my parents’ sofa after a heavy night out,” Caroline laughs. “But then in 2005, we got together as a couple. I was still training to be an accountant and Sam had his job at Big Dutchman.

“Lucie and Robert married in 2007, and a year later in July 2008, Sam and I married at Hingham Church. We were happy and Sam and I settled into married life, living in Fielding Cottage on Anchor Corner in Little Ellingham.”

Then four months later on 17th December, Lucie died suddenly. She was just 25 years old.

“Lucie’s death was a tremendous shock,” Sam continues, “Caroline was pregnant with William and concentrating on holding it together, but I decided life was too short to hang around wondering ‘what if’ and I decided I wanted to get back into farming.

“We talked it through, and I said I wanted to go into agriculture in my own right. By then, Grandad had sold the farm. I knew that cows were a big expense and needed big infrastructure, whereas farming goats cost a bit less; there was also no one locally producing goat’s cheese.”

The couple didn’t do anything immediately. It was the following year when William was three months old and they went on holiday to Cumbria, that they returned having purchased 10 goats: eight British Saanens and two British Toggenburgs.

“The lady we bought them from named the two Toggenburgs ‘Goo’ and ‘Ga’, as that was all that William could say at that age,”, Sam says. “We were still living at Fielding Cottage, and we brought the goats back and put them in a disused building a couple of miles up the road.”

The following spring, having rented a redundant parlour from a friend, Sam started milking the goats and experimenting with making cheese.

“Initially, a lot of the work took place in our kitchen, but then we were given £5,000 when we won the Growing Business Award. Administered and promoted by Young Farmers and funded by local agricultural businesses and charities, we entered by writing a business plan, then presenting it to the judges, and it was announced that we had won at the Royal Norfolk Show in 2010.

“We used the money to purchase some processing equipment and a portacabin, which we turned into a cheese production room. Then, once the recipes were perfected, I started attending Farmers’ Markets every weekend selling our cheese.”

It wasn’t long before the opportunity arose, to not only move the cheese production to Honingham, but also to build a new family home there.

“Life was very busy,” says Sam. “Our daughter Polly was born in 2011 and Caroline was taken up with looking after a toddler and a baby.

“We had the cheese production here at Honingham and the milking was done near  Fielding Cottage where the goats were kept.  

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“For six months, I worked 22 hours a day, seven days a week.”

“I milked the goats first thing in the morning before doing my day job at Big Dutchman. I would then get home, milk the goats again, have supper, pick up the milk and take it in the early hours of the morning to Honingham, where I slept on a mattress in the porch to the cheese room, while the milk was pasteurised. It was hard, working every hour and doing the farmers markets as well.”

“Sam was burning the candle at both ends. He hardly saw Polly for the first two years of her life, and it really affected his health,” Caroline explains. “I was also a bit resentful, as I couldn’t see the reason why he was working so hard, and what he was trying to achieve.”

To lighten the workload, Sam took the decision to let someone else milk the goats, so he could focus on the cheese production. Over the following months, the team grew with the addition of a full-time and part-time cheesemaker.

In 2018, Sam left Big Dutchman, to focus entirely on the cheese business. Branded Fielding Cottage, by then they were producing 12 tonnes annually of the Norfolk Mardler and Wensum White, which were stocked by local restaurants, pubs and delis.

“Things had come to a head; I had to make a choice. Either I worked in the poultry equipment job or gave it up to concentrate on the business and making goats cheese.”

“The result was that business grew. We became a supply partner for Bradburys, who sell cheese to national pub chains, supermarkets and airlines, and a while later with things going so well, we had a barn built at Honingham to upscale production.”

To enable him to learn more about the cheesemaking process, Sam also took a trip to the West Highland Dairy in Scotland.

“I’ll talk to anyone, and I love learning and going to other places to find out more,” he says.

At this point, they were several years into the cheese making business, and Sam and Caroline were investing more time and money than ever. So, in a deliberate move to diversify and gain a more reliable income stream, they built some holiday cottages at Honingham with money accessed through some grant funding.

The Nuffield Farming Scholarship

Then, in November 2019, Sam applied and was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, which provides an opportunity that can benefit careers, industry and business, as well as advancing personal development.  With a notoriously tricky selection process, the Scholarship awards travel bursaries to successful candidates, to go anywhere in the world for a period of no less than eight weeks, so they can further their knowledge and understanding of their chosen study topic.

In return, they are expected to share their findings with the agricultural sector, through both a written report and present their findings at the Nuffield Farming Conference a couple of years later. They are also encouraged to find other ways to share their newly acquired knowledge with the sector.

Sam’s subject was ‘The Journey to Maturity, Navigating Sustainable Food Business Growth’. The plan was to look at how other businesses had managed sustainable growth, with an emphasis on people. The intention was for him to travel to Australia, New Zealand, China and South Africa. He would be away for around 12 weeks.  

“Sam left on Sunday 8th March 2020 and flew out to Brisbane, expecting to be away for three months travelling the world,” Caroline explains. “He got to Australia, but it wasn’t long before we were sending him messages to tell him that, because of the Covid pandemic, the supermarkets didn’t want any cheese, and our orders were disappearing. In the space of a week, over 90% of our cheese business had gone!

“I was at home alone with the kids, although we had three people working in cheese production. With orders dropping and borders closing, Sam knew he had to get back home. So, he went back to Brisbane airport, bought himself a ticket and came home on the weekend of 14th March, the week before lockdown.”

“The upshot was that Sam’s bursary was flying to Australia one Sunday, before returning home seven days later, with only a haircut to show for it!”

However, as it turns out, instead of studying ‘how to grow your business’, Sam just got on and did it, because Covid presented a unique opportunity and the necessity to change direction.

“We already had a shed with an honesty box, which we had started when we first moved the cheese production to Honingham,” Caroline continues. “Sam had just got back, and I was working for a housing group, preparing them for a regulatory inspection. I realised from conversations, that people were finding it difficult to buy provisions. There were lots of empty shelves as supermarkets were running scarce of stock. I talked to Sam, and we immediately started to sell more groceries from the shed, things such as bread, fruit and veg, and toilet rolls; things we could source through our contacts at the farmers’ markets.

“Then on the Friday after lockdown was announced, we had tables loaded up with provisions outside the wooden shed, when the wind got up and everything blew away. So we swept out an empty barn which was intended for expanding our cheese production, and moved everything over and opened a pop-up shop.”

The pop-up quickly became a lifeline for the community, giving customers daily contact with a friendly face, as well as a safe shopping space. Sam and Caroline sourced all sorts of things they were asked for by local residents: yeast, flour, meat, alcohol, cake, biscuits and pasta. They even opened a little garden centre when they were asked if they sold compost.

As well as home schooling the children, Caroline was working from home. Sam managed the shop, as well as producing small selfie videos for social media, promoting what they had and asking locals to come on down to the Goat Shed.

“The response took us by surprise. Customers were so engaged. They enjoyed visiting and wanted more,” says Caroline, “but our thoughts were focused on how we could sustain it over the longer term?”

Opening The Goat Shed

To answer this, they constructed a bigger building that could be used for many purposes, and on 17th February 2021, they opened The Goat Shed. Then in May, they opened the Goat Shed Kitchen, a café serving food and drink.

“The shop and kitchen only came about because of Covid,” Sam explains, “the cheese business had disappeared overnight, and we had a small team of four who we wanted to look after. Initially, we could see there was demand for fresh, local produce when the supermarkets were struggling. But then when people were first allowed to get together one to one, we installed a coffee machine and a picnic bench, and having bought a cake from the shop, friends and family would meet and have a chat over a coffee.

“So, that then led to the Kitchen, which we kitted out by buying a load of Debenhams’ old stock from their cafés when they went into receivership.”

Around this time,  and to help with advising on how the business could scale up and grow further, Sam set about looking for a mentor and business coach. Through his Nuffield Scholarship friends, he was introduced to Stephen Unwin.

“We both met Stephen and liked him,” Caroline continues. “It became clear working with him, that we needed someone to manage the systems and processes, and we either took someone on, or I gave it a go. I decided to do it, but I was a bit nervous because we were Husband and Wife;  I tried it for a year from September 2021 when it was made permanent.

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“It turns out it was the best decision we ever made. They say opposites attract and we have our moments, but we are both growing the business together, and have each other’s backs.”

As part of his Bursary award in 2019, Sam should have been a ‘Presenting Scholar’ at the Nuffield Farming Annual Conference in November 2022. Instead, he was the only 2019 Scholar asked to present on ‘The Journey so far’.

Sam has still not completed his travels, as when he initially applied, the cheese business was in a position where it could be run by the team while he was away. The seven day week, customer-facing business, the couple now have, will not sustain this at the moment, but they are working towards a point where it will be possible.

However, the Nuffield Scholarship has brought them a network of like-minded, go-getting industry contacts to bounce ideas off, seek advice from, and be inspired by. In particular, Sam has joined one of the Nuffield Business Groups and finds this an invaluable source of support.

“Everyone should have a ‘Magic Mary’!”

“Looking back, we started with two cheesemakers and ‘Magic Mary’, a young lady we discovered working in the post office while on holiday, and who joined us in December 2018 when she was 20 years old,” Sam laughs, “every business should have a Magic Mary! She is now our group business manager and runs the business, and our team of 30 people when we’re not here.

“There has never been a plan as such. Each day we responded to customers and the climate we were operating in. For instance, going into our own skincare range came from a friend buying us a bar of goat’s milk soap as a joke from Norwich Market. We looked it up and read up about it and decided to go for it.”

Overcoming the challenges

But what do Caroline and Sam find are the most challenging aspects of running their business, and what drives them both mentally to get out of bed in the morning?

“Like many businesses, our challenges have been around time, money, and people,” Sam says, “but in particular, I find keeping the plates spinning across all the businesses the most challenging thing I do.

“Getting out of bed is easy, I love to exercise before work and get the endorphins going, feeding the animals and embarking on the next adventure!”

Caroline has a different view.

“What I find challenging is that I’m a perfectionist and I take things very personally. I want to keep everyone happy – to create a workplace where our team love coming to work, and where we provide our customers with an experience that brings smiles to their faces and leaves them planning to come back soon. 

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“If someone leaves us a bad review, or a member of the team, for whatever reason, decides it is time to move on, I tend to take this personally and so I do find the ups and downs exhausting!”

“In the early days we found working together really hard,” Sam adds, “Caroline took a career break when Polly was small, to help with invoicing, deliveries, website, SEO etc. It was just the two of us and we had very different views on the right way to do things.”

“Sam has the ideas and wants to implement them yesterday,” Caroline adds, “I want to take a more cautious approach with making decisions before moving forward at a steadier pace.

“Now we realise that there is strength in combining our different perspectives and working together has brought us closer as a couple. Of course, there are frustrations, but we have a fantastic team around us who we both love working with.”

So what do you each do to juggle work life with family life and how do you keep the two things separate?

Caroline is quick to answer. “Following Lucie’s death, we both realised earlier than many, that you have to prioritise the right things in life. We believe in working very hard, but the children will always come first. We rarely miss a sports match or music concert, and we make sure we carve out time for weekend trips and holidays.

“Time away from the business is so precious, it’s hard to get away, but as soon as we get to the top of the road, we feel better for making the break.

“Also, the team enjoy the peace, but we know that when we get back, Sam will probably have another 50 ideas he has dreamt up while we were away – which is exactly what happened when we returned from a wonderful skiing holiday recently; Sam is currently very much enjoying spending lots of time with his newest additions – the cows!

“The children are good at reminding us of our promise to try to not talk about work outside of work, but inevitably it happens. We involve them where we can, hoping that we are inspiring them whilst also giving them an appreciation of the hard work that is involved in building a business.

“However, I think Sam would agree with me, that if you ask us what we are most proud of, of course besides the children and our Goat Shed team, it would be the fact that we feel, at the moment, despite the craziness of the world we live in, we have struck a pretty good balance of family and friends – although we’d always love to have more time with them, the business and ‘giving back’ through our voluntary and community roles.

“Yet, ultimately, it’s all for William and Polly, our children; we are immensely proud of them, and they will always be the priority.”

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