Sarah Slazenger, the managing director of the picturesque estate in Enniskerry, will build on the success of her family business with a €10m whiskey distillery
Article by Gavin Daly - The article appeared in the Sunday Times on 27 September 2015.
Slazenger has had more than her share of misfortune at Powerscourt — but she has ‘the best job in the world’ (Fergal Phillips)
As a child, Sarah Slazenger grabbed every opportunity to visit her grandparents at Powerscourt, their 1,000-acre estate outside Enniskerry in Co Wicklow. She was staying one night in 1982, aged 15, when an armed gang barged into their house, knocked her grandfather to the ground and put a gun to his head.
“There were half a dozen of them in balaclavas, coming in and out,” says Slazenger. “It was very, very frightening.”
In the mayhem, her grandmother Gwen convinced the robbers that she needed to go upstairs. Halfway up, she faked breathlessness, sat down on a window seat and pressed a hidden panic button. “That rang an alarm in the farm manager’s house and he called the head gardener,” says Slazenger. “When the lights of their car appeared, the raiders couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
The gang rushed out to investigate, giving Gwen time to hop up and lock the door. “She was an extraordinary, feisty person,” says Slazenger, smiling.
Her grandmother was on the phone, summoning help, as the raiders smashed the door in. “They pulled the phone out of the wall, and scarpered,” she says. The gang escaped empty-handed but the experience caused Slazenger’s grand- parents to quit Powerscourt for “a quieter life” in the Isle of Man. The trauma didn’t put her off the place, however.
Slazenger has worked at Powerscourt since 1990 and now runs an unusual family business including a Palladian mansion, ornamental gardens, two golf courses, an Avoca cafe, garden centre and upmarket shopping. The next addition, announced last week, will be a €10m whiskey distillery in an old mill house. There were several approaches about possible uses for the mill in the past, says Slazenger, pointing out a fine stone building on a walk around the estate. The whiskey proposal, from local businessmen Gerry Ginty and Ashley Gardiner, just clicked.
“I knew nothing about whiskey at all but the more we looked at it, the more we thought, there’s something in this,” says Slazenger. At full production, Powerscourt Distillery will turn out a million bottles a year, targeting the premium end of the Irish whiskey market, which is booming.
The planned distillery visitor centre shouldn’t have the “build it and they will come” worries of other distillery ventures. About 500,000 people already visit Powerscourt each year, mainly for the 47-acre gardens and the 400ft waterfall, which is on Slazenger land.
Slazenger takes a shortcut through the estate farmyard and into the walled garden, where an overhaul of original glasshouses is being completed. Tourists mill around the main Italian Gardens, created in the 1840s by Daniel Robertson, a gout-sufferer who was ferried around in a wheelbarrow as he drank bottles of sherry.
Latest accounts for Powerscourt Estates show accumulated profits of €17.7m at the end of 2013 and nearly €8m cash in the bank. It paid a €1m dividend to its parent.
“There are huge outgoings,” says Slazenger. Recapping the walls of the walled gardens was a two-year project that “most people don’t see”, and there is a plan to repaint and regild all the estate’s gates.
There will be a new interpretive experience for visitors, tying in with Failte Ireland’s new Ireland’s Ancient East concept. Longer term, there is a climate-change venture she can’t talk about yet.
Slazenger has a three-strand business philosophy: “To be inquiring, to be demanding, to be generous.” She adds “A good idea has to give way to a better idea.”
New ventures are Slazenger’s favourite part of her job, though many proposals are ditched before they even reach the family-run board of directors. They include a theme park (“though they make quite a lot of money”), a railway from the main estate to the waterfall, and a pet farm.
“You have to be quite hard-nosed,” says Slazenger. “We have to ensure it doesn’t damage the Powerscourt brand, which is one of timelessness, elegance and quality.”
Slazenger should be familiar with the power of brands. Her great-grandfather Albert started the Slazenger sports equipment company and invented the modern tennis ball, still used at Wimbledon.
Her grandfather Ralph was an engineer and inventor, and Gwen had a passion for farming. They came to Ireland in the 1950s, living initially at Durrow Abbey in Co Offaly, and knew the Wingfield family, who had owned Powerscourt for centuries.
When the Wingfields could no longer afford to keep the estate and decided to sell in 1961, the Slazengers snapped it up — though not for its obvious attractions. “My grandfather was fascinated by renewable energy and he wanted the waterfall for hydroelectricity,” says Slazenger.
Gwen farmed the estate and the family lived in the mansion, built around an original Norman keep. Slazenger and her siblings, who lived with their doctor parents in Ballsbridge, visited regularly and had the run of the place. “It was magical.”
She remembers massive Christmas trees and carollers in the main hall in the winter. A ball at Powerscourt in the summer of 1965 was attended by Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco.
In November 1974, on the night of a press reception to show off improvements to the house, a blaze was lit in an old fireplace, causing a chimney fire that gutted the house. “You were standing [on the ground floor] looking up at the sky,” she says.
Her grandparents moved to the east wing, which was undamaged by the fire, until the attempted robbery in 1982. The gardens and farm stayed open after their move, but it was a struggle.
“The gardens and farming were at the mercy of the weather. And it was the 1980s, when everything was pretty down.”
When Gwen died in 1990, Slazenger’s father, an anaesthetist, convened his siblings and said he would take a year’s sabbatical to work on the estate. “Up to that point, he never intended to have anything to do with the estate,” says Slazenger. She remembers getting the call in Scotland, where she was based, to see if she would get involved. “I was on the plane home straight away,” she says. “It was only meant to be for a year. There was no grand plan, no assumption it could all work out.”
The first step was securing overarching planning permission to develop the estate. Then they cherry-picked the best parts of the plan. Her father did go back to public hospital work but parked his private practice to focus on Powerscourt. Fixing up the house was the “big driving motivation”.
A disused gravel pit beside the Powerscourt entrance was sold as sites for houses, becoming the upmarket Eagle Valley estate, where houses sell for millions. The funds paid for a reroofing of the house, completed in 1996 using a metal structure that supported the original walls.
The first golf course opened that same year, funded with the sale of member shares in the club. It “just took off”, says Slazenger, and has 900 members. Some land was sold to the Office of Public Works but no other land sales or housing development took place. A 3km riverwalk was developed, passing the tallest tree in Ireland, a 200ft tall Douglas fir.
Avoca opened in 1997, and a restaurant fills the old dining room where the viscounts Powerscourt would have sat, overlooking the gardens. Above the ground floor, though, there were just concrete floors “to stop the walls from waving”.
The restoration of the first-floor ballroom, with intricate plasterwork and detailed ceilings, was Slazenger’s “absolute favourite time”. It hosts weddings, balls and corporate events. The top floor of the house is now office space used by Crowley Carbon, a greentech company. “They have the best view in Ireland.”
A hotel was in the plans from the early 1990s, though an early idea to turn the original house into a five-star hotel was knocked on the head. “It would have meant cutting off the gardens from the public, and that was not what we wanted.”
Instead, a €250m 200-bedroom hotel was built by Treasury Holdings in a hollow off the main avenue and opened in 2007 as a Ritz-Carlton. It rebranded as Powerscourt hotel after being bought out of insolvency by investment group Tetrarch Capital in 2013. The hotel owners have a long lease from the Slazengers and they work closely, particularly on access to the gardens and golf courses. “When the hotel does well, we do well,” she says. It has just been named AA hotel of the year, while the gardens have been rated third in the world by National Geographic — the gardens at Versailles were top, while Kew was No 2.
Including the hotel, more than 350 people work on the estate, up from fewer than 20 in 1990, says Slazenger. There are visiting projects, such as the filming of TV drama Penny Dreadful on the estate last week. “It is sustainable in the long term. We’re not worrying about having a good year this year and a bad year next year.”
The distillery, which was first pitched about a year ago, fits that bill, she says. “The estate has been here 800 years. It’s an intergenerational business, and the whiskey business is the same.”
Powerscourt has been the setting for Slazenger’s best days and her worst. In April 2010, her father and a friend of his were killed when his small plane crashed on the estate. Slazenger pauses.
“I am tremendously privileged. I got to spend 20 years working with him. He was a visionary, and a hard act to follow.”
Her mother still lives up by the waterfall. “We have been unlucky in a lot of ways but we are also tremendously fortunate,” she says. “I pinch myself — I really think I have the best job in the world.”
The life of Sarah Slazenger
Home: Enniskerry, Co Wicklow
Family: Married with three children
Education: Schooling in England and at Wesley College, Dublin. Degree in economics and politics from University College Dublin, and a marketing degree from the Marketing Institute of Ireland.
Favourite book: My current favourite is The Undertaking by local author Audrey Magee.
Favourite film: About Time, starring Domhnall Gleeson. It has a very upbeat message.
I work roughly office hours. The estate office is where it all happens. My days are hugely varied because we have the various businesses on the estate, whether it’s the golf club or hotel or the retailers. Then we might have a film crew or special activity on the estate. I start the day with meetings with the leaders of the various businesses. A good part of my day is spent looking at new ideas and developments — running Powerscourt is all about innovation and not standing still. It’s also seasonal and every season is different; at the minute we’re thinking about Christmas and getting the donkeys, goats and deer in for the Powerscourt Christmas stables. At weekends, I share an on-call with the estate manager.
My downtime is family time. My sport is horse riding. I ride out on the estate early in the mornings — the sunrise can be glorious. I compete in eventing at weekends.