Profile - Natalie Sykes

AS your car winds down the drive, it’s hard to believe that Hazlewood Castle is next to a killing field.

Over the centuries, the castle’s defences have seen off Scottish raiders and a host of unwanted guests.

When Natalie Sykes arrived in 2005, the marauders were long gone, but Hazlewood, which stands between Tadcaster and Aberford, had to raise its game as a visitor attraction.

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The site was well known to historians, because it is close to the battlefield at Towton, the place where 28,000 men died in March 1461 during the Wars of the Roses.

Back in 2005, the castle was facing significant challenges after being turned into a hotel.

It was struggling to make its mark in a fiercely competitive sector. How could it attract more tourists and couples planning their wedding? Even castles must move with the times.

Ms Sykes, who had just helped the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge to achieve a five gold star rating, was hired to add a dash of commercial vigour.

There were sweeping changes during her four-year stint at Hazlewood.

At the end of it, she had risen from assistant director to group sales director and Hazlewood had been sold after achieving a four star ranking with the AA and VisitBritain.

She developed a shooting ground, wine shop, restaurant and deli, at a time when many of her rivals were trimming spending as economic boom turned to bust.

Leeds-born Ms Sykes believes businesses should be creative with their capital expenditure, regardless of how much cash they have to play with.

It’s often the only way of attracting new clients.

As the new regional chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Young Directors Forum (YDF), she wants to ensure Yorkshire’s young business leaders master the art of creative collaboration.

She also plans to create jobs by establishing a hi-tech carbon fibre manufacturing company in Leeds, which is set to have connections with some of the world’s fastest drivers.

Ms Sykes has the driven approach of someone who started her first business at the age of 17.

“In my two decades in business I’ve faced many challenges,’’ she said. “These have ranged from buyouts and buy-ins, to launching a luxury international group just as 9/11 shook the world.

“I have spent more than 14 years working on projects for private owners and investors, including the development of a vineyard in the Loire Valley, the procurement of an ecology spa and golf resorts in Europe, and developing luxury villas and resorts in Africa, and historical venues across England.”

She’s packed a lot into her 35 years. Ms Sykes has developed cafes, bakeries and cookery schools, and, as a qualified interior designer, she’s played leading roles in a number of design-led projects.

“Whatever the challenges, I always follow a set of principles,’’ she said. “You must rise to the challenge that inspires you and remember that great teams win all the prizes.

“You must deliver quality and nothing less.”

A large chunk of her career has been spent at the luxury end of the hospitality industry.

At the age of 21, she took on the role of development manager at the Wood Hall Hotel.

Three years later, she was hired by the Scotsman Hotel Group to become part of the team that launched 42 The Calls in Leeds.

She’s found ways of increasing revenues during testing economic times, by adding events such as fire walking, clay pigeon shooting and musical gourmet dinners to the itinerary.

Her latest business venture takes her into a sector where Yorkshire once led the world – manufacturing.

She’s a board director of Capital Carbon, a start-up carbon fibre manufacturing plant, which is due to launch in March.

Ms Sykes said: “Carbon fibre is linked to the sports arena and used by those who need to be faster, lighter and stronger.

“Our focus will be in producing carbon fibre parts for various motor sports.

“There is also the niche luxury car market. One of our directors has decades of experience in this market.

“The growth of the business will depend on the market and our ability to work globally.

“However, by the end of our first year, we expect to have a minimum of two apprentices.

“We are also considering another product range as a wood alternative, which fits with our values of creating and using sustainable materials. Manufacturing made us rich. The Leeds city region has some of the largest manufacturing firms in the UK.

“Carbon fibre is one aspect of this, and we are also looking at other green materials. I’m interested in getting people into jobs.”

She’s a great believer in supporting traditional craftsmen – and women.

This respect for tradition is reflected in her decision to sit on the risk and audit committee at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds.

In her role as regional chairman of the YDF, she has vowed to attract more Government ministers to Yorkshire, so they will become aware of the widespread support for a high speed rail link to London.

Ms Sykes, from Harrogate, took over from Kenton Robbins, who became the IOD’s regional director last year.

Ms Sykes started her first business in 1993 when she saw a niche in the haulage and capital equipment industries to supply electrical components in bulk.

At the time, she was a teenager who had just left Cardinal Heenan RC High School with a clutch of GCSEs.

She recalled: “I had seen little vans pull into haulage yards and charge a small fortune for parts. I thought there had to be a better way of doing this. I sold the business after one year.”

She is managing director of the management consultancy Profile Seven, a board director for Groundwork UK, the environmental regeneration charity, and has interests in companies which focus on health and nutrition.

Her broad range of interests means she’s well-placed to understand the needs of a wide variety of sectors.

She added: “It is a challenge to ensure that we represent the whole of the Yorkshire and Humber region and we can best achieve that by working in collaboration with the branches.

“It’s different to the type of world I encountered as a teenager.

“In those days, there was no internet, and mobile phones were still on their way.

“It’s a very different business landscape, and we need to make sure that we are connecting with the young directors and inspiring them.”

Natalie Sykes Factfile

Name: Natalie Sykes

Title: Chairman, IoD York-shire Young Directors’ Forum

Date of birth: May 8, 1976

First job: Chief car washer aged eight

Favourite song: I do have to admit to loving the 1980s from Stevie Nicks to Luther to Whitney to, dare I say it, Wham and Shalamar.

Favourite film: Superman, Clash of the Titans and Back to the Future.

Favourite holiday destination: Maldives

Car driven: Audi A4 Avant

Last book read: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Spare time: Learning, exploring and adventure

Most proud of: Family, friends and my homeland, Yorkshire.