Ribblesdale Cheese Owner, Iona Hill

As a Yorkshire born and bred lady, Iona’s forte had not always been in cheese. After having a background in Law and earning a degree, she went on to train to be a solicitor but confesses to not having the makings to succeed and leaving before finishing her articles. She went on to briefly manage small scale unit trust portfolios where she gained an interest into finance later embarking on a training contract with Chartered Accountants Doloitte Touche. Qualifying as a Chartered Accountant in 1988, she joined KPMG where she was a manager. She became an FCA in 1999.

After 15 years of freelancing the World as an accountant/project manager she returned to the Yorkshire Dales and on the 1st April 2007, took over Iain Hill’s (uncle to Iona) cheese business, Ribblesdale Cheese.

One of the most amazing things I learned whilst speaking to Iona was that the whole business is run by only three people. I asked Iona how she managed to run such a successful business with only the help of two other people, “Sometimes I don’t” she says, “there’s lots of different types of ‘work’ to me.  There’s my work, running the business which I am sure all small business owners would recognise, and can be quite hard to define in detail as it is so varied – talking to customers, answering queries, doing the sales invoicing, chasing debtors and keeping the accounts up to date; then there’s predictive work, the type you know will need to be done such as waxing cheese, dispatching orders and this can be time period oriented such as weekly or monthly work or audits.  Finally and most of all, there’s reactive work when the phone rings or the post arrives or e-mails come in or someone drops by; we like to be friendly and offer brews and biscuits, but it takes time so that is a trade off.  Knowing when to break off is a skill.”

When speaking to Iona, it is clear to see that she has had such a big past within management and accounting. As any business owner understands, being organised is a huge part of succeeding. “I am a big list maker and I try to prioritise and get the most important things done first in the early part of the day, because usually by lunchtime my early morning plans have gone completely awry and something else unexpected has happened and that has to be attended to first. I try not to go home until I have ticked off at least one difficult thing that wasn’t dealt with during the day, but without working crazy hours, because that doesn’t work either.  But the one thing I do do, if I know I have not answered someone straight away, I try to contact them to apologise and say I will respond.  I think that is far more polite than not saying or doing anything for weeks and then forgetting or feeling embarrassed that it is too late to reply.“ Iona says.

When speaking about working with three person team, Iona outlines the importance of making sure duties are shared out, “the other thing I’ve found is that when you run a small business, the chances are that you started it doing everything yourself.  If that is the case, as you take on a person or a couple of people, whilst it might be really hard to ‘let go’ of certain tasks, especially critical ones or the ones you enjoy, you must” she says. She still makes sure to muck in often to show solidarity and help and to partly keep her hand in, but she says you have to draw a line somewhere. “A huge learning curve for me has been to teach and show the guys I work with how to do the things I used to do and why and then let go.  Let them get on with it as long as it is being done properly, then keep away!  So, to have good people, who you can rely on and trust is vital.  I could not run this business without Lydia and Stu who look after the wholesale side and dairy respectively.” She explains.

Iona speaks about the hours she puts in outside of work such as updating the business blog and also studying at Leeds University for an MSC in Manufacturing and Leadership. “I enjoy it…I get so much from it. Though it its damned hard work, that is my evenings and weekends. Amazing how much you can get done in a small space of time when you have to!”

As anybody who has checked the blog out will know, there are two special permanent fixtures are Ribblesdale Cheese, Penny Pig and Snouter! The pigs are so famous to the company that they even have their own blog section which can be found here. “They are incredible brand ambassadors and are very good at spreading the word about Ribblesdale Cheese; they like eating the cheese too. They even have their own autobiography!  On a more serious note, we are hoping to develop a range of cheese called Penny & Snouter.  We’ve had the labels designed, which have cartoon pictures of cows and goats, unfortunately not pigs but they are very fetching.” Iona speaks fondly of the animals, “I especially cherish the time when I go and tuck them up in bed. They will both be lying side by side, overlapping if it is cold, a little separate if not, sometimes both snouts facing towards you, sometimes top to tail, lying there bolstered on their big bed of straw. Ok, sounds a bit weird, but at around 9pm, I go and check on them and turn the light off to their Piggie Parlour, but this involves talking to them both first and asking them how their day went and rubbing their large, pink, soft tummies until they both fall asleep, making little contented snuffling noises. It makes me feel better about the world too after a long day.”

It is clear to see that Iona adores the pigs and her same conscientious efforts are carried throughout both her personal and work life.

Ribblesdale cheese proudly makes and sells a variety of 15 main cheeses; Yorkshire Gouda (my favourite), Young Wensleydales, Natural Rinded mature Cheese, Blue Cheeses (Iona’s favourite), Goat Chedder, Lanacshire Style Cheeses, Unpasteurised Cheese, Sheep Cheese and Smoked Cheeses. Although Iona adds, “we make odd one offs for customers such as Liquorice or Cheddar, Ale and Mustard; 9 goat including 2 smoked, 5 cow and 1 sheep. We import three and a friend in Somerset makes our buffalo cheese.  So I guess that makes 19 in total.”

As is the same with most businesses, owners and employees will no doubt be able to name and speak about some of their more unusual customers. Iona certainly has a story to tell on her quirky customers! “Our wholesale customers are very straightforward, though we do have one particularly hilarious one, a father and son.  They are titled members of the aristocracy, more than that, I dare not mention. They have us in stitches with their swearing and their nicknames for us and phoning us up asking where their cheese is when they haven’t placed an order. I call them as mad as a box of skunks.  Our shop customers are funny in that they can sometimes take our friendliness which is well meant and sincere, for being their best friend and tell us confidential information. They can get a bit confessional: on a sombre note, I’ve had a lady tell me, as the first person ever, that she had terminal bowel cancer; we get cheese loving couples away on a naughty weekend, clearly not coupled with each other during the week, telling us where they’ve been and how elicit they are being; we get families in whose children will literally empty every cheese tasting plate on display. Ah, sorry, that’s not funny, that makes me cross! I don’t think we have had any famous visitors to the shop though, other than a non English speaking gentleman whose friends told me he was mayor of a French city and how much he enjoyed our cheese.  At the dairy, Sean Wilson is a friend of ours, the ex Corrie actor. And Bob Kitchen, he is quite a famous cheese maker from Lancashire way.”

When asked to outline a typical day for me, Iona says that few days are the same. “I listen (and rant at) to Radio 4’s Today programme when I drive in to work and I keep it on in the office until Woman’s hour when it gets turned off, back on for the lunchtime news.  Lydia & Stu listen to Galaxy, Radio 2 and Fresh radio.  A typical day might start off catching up on work on the computer, doing the accounts, answering e-mails and letters, chasing debts, doing the online banking, sending off a sales invoice or two.  I could be serving behind the counter at the shop, (I am always there on Sundays). Or it could be whites time, blue hat on and wellies, could be shovelling cheese, potting up, tinkering with the press, emptying the press, vac packing cheese, washing cheese moulds, could be waxing cheese, making up boxes, washing and cleaning down in the dairy, putting the washer on with our whites, cleaning cheese cloths, talking to customers or our suppliers.  The three of us try and get coffee breaks together at around 10am, lunchtime and 3pm which is a chance to reconvene and catch up.”

Working as a close knit team has both advantages and disadvantages; the great thing is being able to cement great work relationships with a tight team ensuring an excellent working environment, another great thing is sharing both the ups and downs of the day. I asked Iona what she would describe as the funniest moment in the business yet, “Er, funny and serious, when our old press fell over” she says, “I heard the crash, leapt through the door, couldn’t see one of the guys, assumed he was buried under a mountain of cheese moulds.  He wasn’t and no harm came to people or cheese and I had it bolted to the floor and wall the next day.  We’ve told this story more than a few times and when we got our new press, we did not use it until it too had been bolted to the floor; they take a lot of cheese!”

Iona moved to Hawes just as the recession started and regards taking on a unit twice the size of their old one, creating a dairy and making cheese when she had never done so before her biggest achievement so far – and rightly so! “It felt risky…still does….but it was a good thing to do” she adds.

When asked what it takes to run a successful business, Iona puts it down to; drive, patience, tenacity, being nice to people and having good people working with you. She also says the best piece of advice she has been given is “Carpe Diem” which means “seize the day.”

I asked Iona if she would like to add anything else to her interview, this is what she said, “Yes, is there anything that makes me cross?  Apart from aforementioned children who empty the cheese tasting plates, yes, people who come in to our little shop, look around all 10ft x 12ft of it and announce in a high pitched voice that they don’t like goats cheese without trying any and are not interested in listening to us explain about the different types we make and how ours is not at all goaty.  Actually, we’ve stopped attempting to explain anything to this group of people, we let them announce and flounce off.  The moral of the story – give goat cheese a try!”

Find details of delicious recipes on the Ribblesdale Cheese blog here.