When Tom Copas left school in 1957, his father bought him 150 turkeys which he sold to local markets and families. Today, the Cookham-based Copas Partnership produces 42,000 traditional turkeys at Christmas time and the business, originally a farming enterprise started by Copas’ grandfather in 1901, has grown and evolved into a diverse rural business ranging from turkeys to hospitality at Henley Royal Regatta to property and hosting 80s music festival Rewind. Yet it remains a true family business, managed today by Tom Copas, his three daughters and son. As Tom Copas hands over to the next generation, Eleanor Harris set out to discover what makes him tick
Tom Copas is founder and chairman of Copas Turkeys. He is the third generation in a family farming business started by his grandfather, who, in 1901, bought land in Cookham Dean and farmed, mainly fruit, from his pub. Copas’ father and uncles inherited the business in 1936 and developed it, going into pigs, sheep and cattle. From 1957 Copas and his brother continued the business, growing it considerably until in 1999 they split it. Today, The Copas Partnership business is approximately 50% turkeys, 25% hospitality and events at Henley Royal Regatta and 25% diversified property lets of surplus farm buildings – from office developments to residential and storage buildings – and arable land that is contract farmed. Copas is married with three daughters and one son who, from 1999 onwards, have all gradually joined the business. Together they manage The Copas Partnership and Copas’ youngest daughter, Sarah, is general manager. Copas is a life president of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC), founder of the TFTA (The Traditional Farmfresh Turkey Association), fellow of the Council of Royal Agricultural Societies (FRAgS) and was master of the Company of Farmers in 2007-2008.
Looking at your business success so far, what would you consider your greatest achievement?
The turkey business is probably my greatest achievement – going from 150 turkeys to 42,000. We’ve got to nearly 50,000 in 50 years. We are now, particularly since my daughters became involved, one of the biggest growers in the superior traditional farm fresh Christmas turkey market.
What would you put your success down to?
We’ve stuck to traditional methods, we’re growing the turkeys slowly for a long time, hand-plucking them and then game-hanging them. All of these methods impact on the final eating quality. We do everything possible to make them better, we don’t cut corners or cut costs. They are expensive, which is against the trend, but at Christmas time people will pay more for something significantly better – and they are.
Has family been a large part of your success, and how important is it to you to keep this as a family business?
Without three generations of family commitment we wouldn’t be here, because to build up that sort of capital in terms of landholding is not feasible in one generation. I’ve been very fortunate to have four children, none of whom are trained in agriculture, who’ve all finished up in the business. I’m now 72 and my son has just joined us, so we’re passing the passage almost. While I’ve been working with my daughters I’ve still been the cornerstone of the business and I’m getting to a stage where I no longer have the energy to do that. My son coming in means we have a new foundation. But I don’t have any plans to have no involvement in the business – I am doing less and I am spending a huge amount of time protecting inheritance. A family business has a strength about it – how do I put it, working in a family business gives you flexibility and a freedom but on the other hand you are restricted to the members of the family you are born with. I’ve been a very lucky guy, whenever I’ve needed it the family have come along.
How important has it been for the business to evolve and branch out into other areas?
The activities of the business depend very much on the interests and commitments of the partners involved at the time. My uncle enjoyed milking cows, my father was very interested in pigs, I was always very interested in turkeys. Hospitality really came by accident – that was a business we had to learn and we’ve done that through joint-venture operations. We were fortunate to purchase Remenham Farm [on the banks of the River Thames at Henley] in the 70s, from which the Regatta business developed, and it was a period when we grew and diversified rapidly. And if you inherit a property then you just like to look after it. The buying of land has been a great part of my life, and looking after it and managing it.
Would you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
Yes, because of the various facets of the business. I have an entrepreneurial character, anyway, rather than just to produce, I don’t like milking cows every day. I like to do things for a while and then move on and start again in a year’s time. Therefore the Regatta and the turkey business are juxtaposed in the calendar, in July and December, and work very well together. They are seasonal, but now we have dedicated staff who never stop selling turkeys and we are already planning next year’s Regatta. One is continually tweaking things – for instance, at the Regatta camping has been a big growth area and we are now going back to more catered picnics, ie cheaper hospitality. Rewind is tremendously successful, it’s people taking their families and camping together. My bank manager goes and he loves it.
Have you ever wondered what else you might have done in business? Is there an unfulfilled ambition?
I always wanted to do butchery and I’ve been able to develop and enjoy that whilst dealing with turkeys, because we are a totally integrated business. I always wanted to be in building and we’ve done quite a bit of that, too. At eight years old I knew I wanted to be involved in the business, it never occurred to me to do anything else. But I should have gone skiing earlier! I didn’t learn to ski until I was 52. That’s my biggest mistake in life.
What makes you tick outside work?
My interests revolve around Young Farmers’ Clubs. Young Farmers picked me up from school when I was really a complete nervous wreck, so I’ve devoted a lot to that all my life, at club, county and national level. I got involved with the British Turkey Federation and the Royal Agricultural Society and I formed the TFTA and became master of the Company of Farmers. Young people should do four things: join a Young Farmers club, ski, take their children to Disney and join hands and walk up the yellow brick road together, and if they get a chance join a London livery company. And if they get the opportunity of master, that’s the greatest privilege in life.
If you had a sudden £10 million windfall, what would you do with the money?
I’d put most of it in the business, share it with my children, pay off the borrowings. I’d probably eat and drink and celebrate, do a bit more travel and a bit more skiing! But I’d get bored after a fortnight!
What’s next for you personally? And for the company?
Personally, we’ve got five grandchildren and three children happily married and to see my son happily married, that’s probably next. I’m also going to be president of the Royal County of Berkshire Show next year, one of the few accolades for the Berkshire rural community. To see my son settled in the business, and for them all to have children. The business has got to a stage where I’ve run out of daughters. The new challenge is employing management in both the turkey and Regatta business. My son will have to one day manage that, so he’s going to have a much bigger job than ever I had to do.