scaleup week. 19 - 22 September 2022  

To get where we are today, you have to take a risk

David and Donna Copley, CEO and CFO of Coppergreen Leisure Resorts
Retail, leisure and hospitality | Yorkshire & the Humber
  • Introduction
  • Expansion
  • Teamwork
  • Reflections

David: My background is that I used to be group operations director at a company based in Sheffield. Part of my role was to work on subsidiary businesses; the company ran caravan parks on the East Coast.

While I was at that company, I did some research into log and timber-framed buildings. The company decided not to pursue that line of business, but I discussed it with Donna and we thought we could do it, so I handed in my notice.

The logs were mainly imported from Scandinavia and the Baltics. I managed to get an order from a hotel in North Yorkshire to build two lodges out of solid logs. After that, I started to get orders from other leisure parks.

It was a nice little business, working from home, which was turning over £750,000 a year within 18 months. It was growing so fast I needed help, so Donna joined the company. She gave up a very well-paid job to risk it with me.

We found some land in North Yorkshire, outside Thirsk, and built our first lodge… By 2016, we had 53 lodges which we were renting out for holiday breaks.

Donna: I had been an auditor and accountant for the same company David worked for. I went on to work for the second biggest conglomerate in the US, where I was financial controller for two divisions – pumps and gears. Doesn’t sound sexy but I loved it. I left that job because it was clear from the speed that David was growing the business that he needed more resources.

At that time, we were being asked to supply more than we could physically supply. The penny dropped when we found out we were making £15,000 to £20,000 a lodge but our customers were selling them on and making £100,000 per lodge. Who’s the mug here? We were doing all the hard work and making a fraction of the profit.

David: At this point, by coincidence, we met Richard Sidi. He was a builder but was interested in leisure. He had sold his building company and was interested in making his next move. Together, we looked at buying a caravan park, with traditional caravans, which we would replace with our lodges.

We found some land in North Yorkshire, outside Thirsk, and built our first lodge there, which we rented out. We then used the proceeds to build lodge number two and so on. By 2016, we had 53 lodges which we were renting out for holiday breaks.

Coppergreen and BGF

Starting in 2016, BGF invested a total of £21 million in Sheffield-based holiday park business Coppergreen Leisure Resorts. The funding helped the business expand to four parks across Yorkshire, Scotland, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Alongside funding from HSBC, BGF helped the business make three acquisitions, build additional lodges and facilities across all four parks and develop a pipeline of greenfield sites. Coppergreen was acquired in early 2022 by Away Resorts, a private equity-backed holiday park business.

A family visits a Coppergreen holiday park

Like David buying Goliath

David: In 2014, there was a park in Scotland called Piperdam – I knew the owner. He decided he wanted to sell. We went through a process with him to get an agreement. This was a bit like David buying Goliath. It was a huge park with lots of facilities and 77 lodges. We were determined to buy it.

After looking at a few funders, we found BGF. They were the best by far of the bunch, really nice people, and structured a deal that was beneficial to us because they were minority shareholders. That gave us a big incentive to really make the business grow.

In November 2016, they gave us funding alongside HSBC to buy Piperdam. We extended the facilities and took the number of lodges from 77 to 100. At the same time, we expanded our existing Woodland Lakes park to 100 lodges. Both parks did really well.

Later on, the opportunity arose to buy the Kenwick Park estate in Lincolnshire and to develop a site at Clumber, which was a greenfield site. We were up to four parks by 2019.

Covid hit in 2020. It closed us down for six months of that year but when we were allowed to open again, business went through the roof. The staycation market was booming.

Why Coppergreen chose BGF

“BGF’s advice and steer helped me achieve things I never thought I could achieve,” says Donna. “They supported me in recruitment and managing my team. They were never forceful or dictatorial. They gave me the guidance I needed to get on with it.”

We chose to do a deal with Away Resorts… the CEO, Carl Castledine, loved the business. He just wanted to sprinkle fairy dust on what we had already done.

Donna: In 2021, the time was right to exit the business. We chose to do a deal with Away Resorts because we felt the team there would continue to develop the business in the way we wanted it to go. The CEO, Carl Castledine, loved the business. He just wanted to sprinkle fairy dust on what we had already done.

We also knew Away Resorts would protect our 400 staff. Some people have been with us their whole working lives – for 20 years. We don’t have children in this, but it’s run like a family company.

Healthy respect

Donna: To get where we are today, you have to take a risk. To buy land at Thirsk, we had to remortgage our house. When we acquired Piperdam, it was worth four times the value of our existing site and we had to borrow money to do all the development we want. I’m happy that in five years our earnings have grown exponentially.

We couldn’t have done what we did without our great team. The core members worked together since 2007 and we never fell out in all that time. There aren’t many teams who have survived the bumps we have – a global financial crisis and Covid. We always pulled together and supported each other.

Coppergreen leisure resorts are often set amid woodland

David: Apart from being great friends, our business relationship has been second to none. BGF’s support never wavered, and we’ve loved working with HSBC too.

Donna: BGF and HSBC believed in us throughout the Covid lockdown. When it started, we thought, ‘What the hell is happening?’ We had a healthy bank balance, but we had to pay people back whose holidays were cancelled, and we had to keep paying staff. We didn’t know about furlough then.

When we went into lockdown, Barry Jackson at BGF rang me and said: “Do the cashflow, assume no income, tell me how much money you want. We will get through this. We will not let Coppergreen go to the wall.” Just to hear those words was a relief. We never needed to take him up on that, but we knew he was there for us.

Time for ourselves

David: I’m proud of the achievements we’ve made. The business started in my spare room in 2003. It started with nothing but we built it and built it and ended up with something we can be proud of.

It’s been a journey of highs and lows but even the lows were things we learned from and made us stronger. You look back and think: we did something with our lives.

Donna: Now that the deal with Away Resorts is complete, it’s time for us to have some time for ourselves. We have grandkids and we want to run around with them while we still have the energy.

It’s been a journey of highs and lows but even the lows were things we learned from and made us stronger. You look back and think: we did something with our lives. Other people may have achieved more, faster, but this is our story and we’re really proud of what we’ve done.