Sowing the seeds

William English CBE, a seasoned veteran and the proprietor of Owen English & Son, is strategically diversifying to ensure the long-term sustainability of his business

The annual Director of the Year Awards, hosted by the Institute of Directors (IoD), is one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the corporate calendar. On 29 September, during a black-tie ceremony in London dedicated to celebrating the exceptional leadership, accomplishments and contributions of England’s finest business executives, the 2023 winners were announced.

William English CBE, owner and chair of Owen English & Son, triumphed on the night, winning in the ‘Family Business’ category and receiving “Highly Commended” in the ‘Innovation’ category, which he describes as a huge privilege and an important milestone in his transitional journey.

Situated at Westbery Manor, Wateringbury, near Maidstone, Kent, Owen English & Son boasts a rich agricultural history dating back to 1701. With a legacy spanning 322 years through cross-family multi-generational roots, William now steers the ship. Applying his classical military and business training, he has reimagined the estate’s strategy, charting a new course for the future.

Before assuming the leadership of the family business, William had an extensive career in the military – spanning 36 years in the Regular Service and five years on the ‘held strength’ Reserve. “The Services and my business education have combined to forge the leader I am today,” he says. “Both entities have provided me with classical training and a deep sense of duty to act appropriately to the role. The skills I have developed – namely, responsibility, delegation and oversight – are transferable.”

When he left the Services in April 2017, William thought he would have to abandon everything he had learned, but now, seven years on, he knows this not to be true, and refers to himself as a “blend of 80% past and 20% new education”. William elaborates: “I will always be a soldier and will always be proud to have served. However, the schools of learning I have attended – Alliance Manchester Business School, the IoD, Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and Heriot-Watt University – have enhanced my strengths, broadened my understanding and equipped me to be more complete in my current role. This enriched educational journey has given me the confidence to lead strategically as a business owner and entrepreneur.”

William places significant emphasis on the business teachings of the IoD for strategic considerations, recognising it as a fundamental aspect of the board director’s role. He currently serves as a chartered director panel assessor with the IoD. In this capacity, William assesses individuals aspiring to join a dynamic community of strategy and governance professionals, poised to contribute their leadership expertise to various boards.

William English CBE

Outside of his military and entrepreneurial pursuits, William has led a diverse and fulfilling life. He is a former mountaineer and desert traveller (by camel) and claims to be the best Pâte Sablée baker of mince pies. He explains: “Education and global travel have been life’s constants. I speak and write increasingly distant Arabic, Serbian (Cyrillic) and a smattering of Russian and Cantonese. These eroding languages remind me to keep up with continuous professional development.”

William is a trained diplomat and culturally alert. He loves the diversity of thought derived from diversity of people and experience, and is engaged by multi-faith belief and all that it informs in global cultural understanding. “Confidence in dealing with all people is a joy and business essential but it takes work and preparation,” he asserts. “I crave the ‘ping-pong’ of unjudgmental debate with whoever is prepared to engage on any subject.”

In the pursuit of his sustainable purpose, William meticulously structures his day from 5am to 10pm, incorporating breaks and daily activities with a clear goal of achieving strategic alignment and balance. “I am unashamedly focused as I fear the flight of time in a speeding life,” he states. “Get this right and I will create an exit strategy.”

For William, self and family belief are critical. His wife Frances is a former Barts’ nurse, politician and writer who now works with veterans at the Royal British Legion Industries Village in Aylesford, Kent, and the couple have three children who are now in their 20s. “Frances is the most important person in my life; all we have done, we have achieved together,” he says. “I have put seven years of funding and time into education, and the unwavering support of my family has been instrumental to these endeavours.”

As the proprietor of Owen English & Son, William has instituted an advisory board, which he chairs, outlining clearly defined business objectives – establishing a sustainable estate for both current and future generations, venturing into new opportunities in brewing and distilling, and strategically implementing a robust succession plan.

Inspired by his military background, William likens the estate to an aircraft carrier. “It’s flat on top with layers/decks below, as well as above for command (the board) – each with a thematic function. Around the carrier is a battle fleet of stakeholders (e.g. legal, financial, agronomists, universities, family, builders, customers and suppliers) who all work toward common strategic intent. When the carrier is ready, the aircraft – brewing and distilling – will arrive.”

He goes on to explain: “All our employment is by contract and growth to date has been in shaping the estate for a long and sustainable future. As this ‘shaping’ is well underway, planning for transition is beginning and long-term planning consent for new builds has now been approved.”

The successful transition of the Owen English & Son business, exemplified by the recent IoD award win, instils a deep sense of pride in William. Nevertheless, he recognises that the journey is far from complete. “I am passionate about my vision statement. We must attain, maintain and keep moving.”

Having presented the board with three ambitious goals, William is now guiding them through strategic top lines, orchestrating the implementation of strategic intent with a diverse set of over 120 skills. This multifaceted approach is dedicated to the pursuit of a shared vision, purpose and beyond. The collective efforts aim not only for initial accomplishments but also for a sustainable and impactful venture that transcends immediate objectives.

Ultimately, William extends a heartfelt wish to veterans facing employment challenges after leaving the Services. “By embracing reskilling and integrating existing skills brought home from careers in the military, anything is possible. I have personally demonstrated that I can match my civilian peer group and be recognised by them. So can others and I know they will be great leaders too!”

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