Sunday, 21 April 2019

Let's Get Down to Business: Sally Hughes, The Mill at Sonning

Let's Get Down to Business: Sally Hughes, The Mill at Sonning

SALLY HUGHES is the managing and artistic director of The Mill at Sonning. It was founded by her parents, Tim and Eileen Richards, who bought the Mill in 1978. She was educated at Silchester House in Taplow and Windsor College followed by the Webber Douglas Drama School. Her son Adam, who went to the Reading Blue Coat School in Sonning, is a film producer. Sally lives in Chiswick with her second husband, Alvin Rakoff, a Canadian film director.

Describe your business

Situated on the banks of the River Thames in Sonning, The Mill is a beautiful small theatre with an auditorium seating 217 people in the semi-round and an elegant restaurant and riverside bar with a spinning waterwheel. It is the only dinner theatre in the UK. Directors, designers, actors and musicians of the highest quality help maintain our exceptional reputation and we premiere many new plays from both established and up-and-coming writers. Our restaurant provides outstanding food prepared by our new executive chef Kieron Daniels, who has worked with Raymond Blanc and Stephen Luscombe. We put on at least six productions every year as well as many musical and special events.

How many people does it employ?

If you include our part-time young waiters and waitresses, we employ 100.

What did you do before you started this business?

After drama school I had a variety of acting roles, including sitcoms. I also worked in America. My father had been a civil engineer with Costain and ICI and both my parents were adventurous and were looking for a new project. They happened across The Mill when driving through Sonning. At the time it had been empty since it was closed in 1969. My father invited his brother Frank Richards to join him and it became a major project to restore the derelict building and convert it. When the project was complete I came back from America to help run the business and I’m still here.

When did you start your business?

We opened on July 22, 1982 and Peter Egan was artistic director for the first two years. I became artistic director in 1984 and took on the additional responsibility of managing director in 2002.

Do you have a mentor or role model?

Laurie Marsh, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, has opened my eyes to the potential of The Mill.

What would you do differently if you started again?

Nothing. Although we struggled for several years after the financial crisis in 2008, The Mill has always managed to be self-sufficient and has never had to borrow any money. We don’t have any sponsors and don’t receive any grants but we do have some very loyal audience members who have become “Mill Angels” and donated towards shows and various projects in the building.

How is the business doing compared with last year?

Last year was the best in 36 years.

How do you market your business/service?

We have a good website. We have a mailing list so we can occasionally make special offers and reach our audience quickly. We print brochures. We use social media. We use PR for reviews and press releases.

How important are online sales?

We get more and more online bookings every year.

What’s the best thing about running your business?

The flexibility and the joy that comes when things work. I often drive home late at night feeling really elated after a great show.

What’s the most challenging aspect?

The costs involved with what we do are so high and the profit margins so close. We have our own workshop where we make all the scenery. And pleasing all the customers is demanding.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?

To not give up. The importance of tenacity and acknowledging that you are only as good as your staff.

What would you advise someone starting a business?

Do lots of research, know who your market and have someone who can keep you in check!

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?

We once put on a play called Love, Loss and What I Wore. It was written by the same writer of When Harry met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle but it bombed at the box office. This showed me how important titles are.

Where is your business heading?

We are about to build two houses and three apartments as well as a new rehearsal room in our grounds. This will help with the continued upkeep of The Mill.

What three qualities are most important to success?

Being a bit “hard-nosed” helps. Watch the money and don’t waste any. Have a business plan and budget.

What’s the secret of your success?

I wouldn’t be in this business without a having a passion for the theatre and this building — there’s something magical about it.

How organised are you?

Very. I always write to-do lists and cross off things as I do them.

How do you dress for work?

Rather casually, except in the evening when the audience arrives.

What can’t you do without every day?

My laptop.

Lunch at your desk or going out?

We don’t do lunch!

Do you continue to study?

Not really but my mother left me her grand piano and I’ve recently started to learn to play.

What do you read?

Lots of plays. The Sunday Times and the Henley Standard.

How are you planning for retirement?

I’m not but I might gradually work a bit less one day.

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