Bells peal from a stone tower across a verdant valley. It's just rained, it's half-term, and the sense of timeless peace is palpable. I'm at Ampleforth, the top Catholic public school that has given us such disparate, high-achieving alumni as Julian Fellowes, Antony Gormley and Rupert Everett.
Yet their alma mater has a secret that it hopes to share: that it's also home of Ampleforth Trading Ltd, a thriving business with several arms - food and beverage, hospitality, retreats and more - all supporting a flourishing monastic community that can't rely on the school alone. Indeed, the whole place could be called a financial and spiritual powerhouse with a turnover of over £25m. After the state, it's the biggest employer in the region, with 430 staff, and driving the huge operation is a Benedictine ethos with a millennium and a half's intellectual heft behind it. Now Ampleforth's monks are sharing their success story and the question is: could they offer a renewed business model for the world?
Ampleforth is about half an hour north of York. To get there, you pass through quaint Postman Pat villages, then a huge cross looms: so big, says Ampleforth's director of operations Ian Broadbent, that it had to be choppered into place. You're in Ampleforth: a glorious symphony of stone between an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a National Park. As a workplace, it's conductive to visionary musings - 'God's own country', as Yorkshire folk say. Within, it's equally magnificent, particularly the Grade I listed Abbey by Giles Gilbert Scott (of red telephone box and Liverpool Cathedral fame): the centrepiece of a 'campus' where everything has a role.
The Grade I listed Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire
At the entrance, one green sign is resplendent: 'Procurator: Father Wulstan Peterburs'. This grand title has roots in the Roman Empire and now denotes an ecclesiastical CEO. I meet Fr Wulstan (pictured top with a bottle of Ampeforth Abbey Beer) over biscuits in his homely office. With beige walls and watercolours, the only hint of raciness is a sleek leather chair - and his rather chic black habit. 'Our life is lived by the Rule of St Benedict,' says Fr Wulstan, steepling his fingers. 'St Benedict expected monks to earn a living, in ways that fit with the values of monastic life.' The business-minded brothers at Ampleforth are going with the grain, and as well as praying several times a day, they talk branding, product development and 'core values'.
And why not? Look into St Benedict's story, and you'll find a proto-caring capitalist. Born around 480AD, Benedict of Nursia (now in Umbria) founded modern monastic life, and studied leadership and organisations to the extent that he was headhunted for a job in the Roman bureaucracy. His lasting achievement was the Rule of St Benedict, a manual for organisations that, like the Magna Carta, has been called a foundation of Western civilisation. The Rule ran through Charlemagne's Europe, as Fr Wulstan explains: 'Monasteries, universities, cathedrals; the history of Western Europe and its cultural development - all this has been influenced by Benedict.' And now the Saint is finding new relevance in the 21st century. 'We live by the Rule,' says Fr Wulstan. 'People think of monks living a closed life but there's a strong business ethos, and our values inform that business.' It seems to work.
Fr Wulstan chairs Ampleforth Trading Ltd which takes directors from the wider alumni base (Old Amplefordians are often successful). Today, he's looking into out-of-term lettings: language schools, Harrogate Festival Chorus, interest groups. 'We're talking to cycling holiday providers as the Tour de France was good to us,' he says. Tomorrow he may turn to the food and the (excellent) beverages: the cider, cider brandy and beer. 'During the Reformation our community was in Lorraine in France and made ends meet through brewing,' Fr Wulstan explains. 'It was so successful they had a licence from Louis XIV to sell "la bière anglaise". Contemporary reports cite "a sparkly fizziness".'
On arriving in the UK (the monastery, persecuted in post-revolutionary France, resettled here in 1802) it began brewing again, and in 2012, the monks went 'hipster'. 'We visited Trappist breweries in Belgium - Chimay, Orval, Grimbergen - to learn about beer, and returned to make a modern beer in an old style with Little Valley Brewery, which we launched in 2012.' Curious. Isn't beer a bit debauched? 'Well, St Benedict had something to say about this in the 6th century,' smiles Fr Wulstan. 'He said that monks ought not to drink, but given they can't be persuaded, then drink moderately.' Restraint and realism: that's St Benedict's way.
The Ampleforth Abbey orchards now provide apples to produce cider and cider brandy
A sense of probity emanates from Fr Wulstan, 48 (christened 'Michael'), procurator since 2010, who weighs every word before speaking. He read theology at Durham, then worked at KPMG, took a doctorate, then taught at Ampleforth before taking an MBA at Cranfield School of Management (it has just been announced that he will be the interim head of Ampleforth College). The school is at the heart of the operation: 'A commercial and a charitable activity,' as he puts it. Sure, the fees of £33,390pa are 'not insignificant. But we're not the most expensive and we feel it's right that we're not quite at the top.' Also, he says, responsibility is part of the package. 'It's not just profit. We want our boys and girls to put their privilege into service.' On top of the £25m company 'list' price, he adds that the monastery brings a vast intangible benefit to the area. 'One of the big losses in the Reformation was the financial damage when monasteries were closed.' Having a big Benedictine institution in your midst is beneficial, as 'monks engage with the world around them'.
Do people think that it's odd dealing with monks in the modern world? 'They're normally very positive,' says Fr Wulstan. But I sometimes pick up a sense of "I don't believe what I'm seeing".' He recalls a construction dispute on-site. 'We weren't able to come to a resolution so we sued. I'm certain there was a feeling that "those monks won't push it all that way".' But they did, and they won.
As Ian Broadbent shows me round the site, I meditate on Wulstan's words. Ampleforth - with its inferences of abundance and progression - has the perfect brand name. The orchard is a glorious slice of tamed nature and the school is punctilious, with perfect woodwork (Ampleforth has an on-site joiner). Detail and big picture are at one. In the shop, shelves of books include the Rule of St Benedict itself, and Fr Wulstan's tomes. I buy a bottle of cider brandy but resist the pink Keep Calm And Pray tea towel, noting the strong splice between God and the market.
Fr Kevin, director of hospitality and retreats, shows me around the various quarters. Ampleforth has about 40 rooms for guest use, and more outside term time. Hosting is important for as St Benedict said: 'Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.' After a life as a chaplain in Dublin's toughest areas, Fr Kevin - christened Desmond Hayden 52 years ago - is moving Ampleforth's hospitality forward, which is less about providing pampering than reflection and solace. 'Monastic life provides people with the opportunity to encounter something,' he says. As we walk along the cloister-like hall, I see a huge sign saying 'Silence', which instantly shuts you up and somehow, calms you down. Small wonder that in stressful times Fr Kevin's new silent retreat and 'quiet day' offerings - 10am till evening followed by feedback - are growing. 'Very enriching,' he says. 'Listening has always been a huge dimension of monastic life.'
Religion sells: Keep Calm And Pray tea towel
If you'd assumed that Benedictine monks had strong business ethics, you'd be right. 'Sharp practice wouldn't sit well with us,' says Fr Wulstan. 'The Church has clear social teaching on this.' Keeping everybody on the same copperplate page, Fr Wulstan briefs all his management team in the Rule of St Benedict. 'We all read it and have discussions about our core values, characteristic of the monastic tradition but framed in such a way that they're for everyone,' he says. 'Most of my management team are lay people and we work in partnership.' They all meet once a month and although faith 'is a free act', the Rule is the operation's backbone. 'We include Benedictine values in our appraisal process,' adds Fr Wulstan. 'Whether you're a cleaner or finance director, you have to address how your work contributes to Ampleforth's Benedictine character.'
With its talk of 'values' - long a business buzzword - could St Benedict further recover his standing as a management guide? The office politics, game theory and pop Darwinism of some business discourse would sit uncomfortably here. 'We think values are a good thing and that if you behave with ethics and integrity it'll be better in the long run,' says Fr Wulstan. 'It builds a sense of community: of living well together.' Stability is encouraged, as is philanthropy: Ampleforth works with a charity called Autism Plus, which provides accommodation for a chocolate-making factory in a stone building in the valley floor, branded Ampleforth Plus.
As it turns out, there's a small but significant undergrowth of Benedictine business books such as Kit Dollard's Doing Business With Benedict and Quentin Skrabec's St Benedict's Rule for Business Success. And Ampleforth has hosted workshops such as 'Modern Business Management' and 'The Rule of St Benedict: Leadership in the Workplace'.
The Rule runs through everything, including pricing. 'Compared to farmers' markets our produce prices are not excessive,' says Fr Wulstan. 'Benedict gives rules that you shouldn't just price goods as high as you can. At the same time, our customers don't expect us to give it away.' There can be a problem with new markets, says Fr Kevin. But Ampleforth trials new products: saints trails in York, beach walks in Filey. An equestrian centre is on the cards.
Musing with Fr Wulstan, I wonder if the Rule could change a prevailing (and unhelpful) view of business; that it's an individualistic search for wealth and status evinced in terms like 'buccaneer' and 'tycoon'. Fr Wulstan's contrary view is that a values-driven business model for community gain is actually gaining credence. 'In Chicago recently, I talked to the young CEO of an internet business whose ethos was the antithesis of individualism: hire people who are smarter than yourself, hire specialists who really know what they're doing, work together as a team.'
It's the sort of thing that made an audience of 500 people last Maundy Thursday ask Fr Wulstan to 'write a book' on the Rule, and maybe he will, if only to prove that it's a necessity rather than an anachronism - a Godsend for a fractured age. 'Perhaps it isn't recognised enough,' he muses.
After Vespers at 6.30pm (groovily, Ampleforth live-streams some services), I'm soothed by Gregorian chanting and head to the Tea Shop for supper with a delightful group of carers from Manchester on a conference. I clean my own plates up - that responsibility thing - and head to bed in The Grange, Ampleforth's premium overnight product. It's pleasant and comfortable, fairly old-fashioned, mid-century unmodern, but utterly peaceful. After a quick slug of cider brandy, I go to sleep reading the Bible - thinking that this echo from the 6th century may have found its time again.
BUSINESS RULES FROM ST BENEDICT
- Establish a strong foundation.
- People are in equal partnership.
- Material resources are gifts from God.
- Transform yourself: transform your workplace.
- Develop your inner self. Don't spend all your time working.
- Organisations should have a clearly stated common purpose.
- There must be no preferential treatment of members.
- Age should not be considered a measure of talent, although seniority must be respected.
- There should not be too many levels of management.
- Subsidiary groups should be economically independent.
- Executive appointments should be democratic and meritocratic.
- Ethics is a fundamental part of the organisation.
- Leaders should teach by example.
- The basic leadership virtues are integrity and humility.
- Stability is vital for long-term survival.
Photo credits: Alamy