As New Year approached, I found myself sunk deep into an ageing sofa between my grown-up children, looking up at the beams of a barn where I collected eggs with my mother 60 years earlier. We were warmed by a giant fire cooking my nephew’s pig – and we were listening to my brother’s band, to be followed by others before the youth took over after midnight. The barn housed chickens in the sixties, cream teas for visiting tourists in the seventies, and my potatoes in the eighties, but has found its best use with four decades of great parties.
Hosting a great free party is an act of irrational, creative, hedonistic generosity, generally best left to the young. I’m proud to remember that we have had a few at Riverford over the last 50 years, giving huge amounts of fun (mercifully without any lasting damage). There were the summer staff parties by the river that went on for days, with endless games of football and drinking around a fire that, even in the lulls, never quite went out.
The wonderful Weirdos’ Ball every Halloween in the early 90s was the crescendo for my generation, before Margaret Thatcher’s Criminal Justice Act prompted our local police to threaten my brother and me with a £20,000 fine and six months in jail if we hosted another. As children arrived and business took over, it was probably time to take a break anyway.
As the fogey on the sofa, I could think of no end of risks and reasons not to throw a party – but found myself happy that the next generation of cousins did it anyway. The part of growing up (and then old) that I like least is the growing aversion to risk, and the accompanying loss of openness to the possibility that something unexpected might be fun; seeing what might go wrong before what might go right, and finding it easier to say no than yes.
Businesses grow, and grow old, like people. Avoiding the cultural drift towards rationality, rules, and caution – which too often favour stability over change, and crush the unfiltered creativity of youth – is perhaps the biggest challenge facing a mature business.
Most large, established businesses keep their edge through the acquisition of young companies, absorbing their energy and innovation, only to then stifle it. I hope that Riverford can find a less predatory way of staying young in spirit – remaining brave, willing to take risks, and driven by the desire for someone to have fun.