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This family firm attracts new customers by thinking locally and acting globally

What began as a family effort to preserve a part of steam engine history has become an international visitor attraction. Karen Maher, commercial director at The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, shared her community approach to attracting new customers. 

For over 150 years The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway has provided a spectacular gateway to the Lake District. Following its closure in the 1960s, brothers Austin and Charles Maher recognised an opportunity. After several years of difficult negotiation, and with support from the community, the brothers purchased part of the railway and preserved a piece of history for future generations.

Today, the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway is run by Maher’s son and daughter-in-law – alongside their two sons James and Paddy. At the station visitors can take a trip on a steam engine, learn about the history of the railway, and eat and drink locally-produced goods and ales.

We asked Karen Maher, commercial director of the railway, what she believes is behind some of their success.

Attracting new customers using the local advantage

Maher divides her time between running the tea room at the station and promoting the business internationally. Because of this “coal face” exposure, she’s able to promote it to possible partners with ease.

“One week I’m running the tea room and making scones and the next I’m in China or Japan promoting the business.”

When promoting the business internationally Maher teams up with other hospitality businesses in the community. Pooling resources, they strike deals with tourism companies abroad to increase the number of international visitors to their area. Today, 39 per cent of visitors to the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway are international.

The Maher family’s success abroad is consistent with findings that family businesses may have an advantage in emerging markets. According to consultancy firm McKinsey & Co, this “home field advantage” is the result of deep community ties and strong personal relationships.

More customers mean more challenges

While attracting new customers has been a welcome success, it has come with new issues to deal with.

“Health and safety can be a major challenge,” she revealed. “You can train staff to the best of your ability, but the busier you get the more challenging it can be.”

In addition to the increasing health and safety demands, they are also managing growing customer expectations. This is a significant challenge affecting businesses of all shapes and sizes in today’s economy, she added.

To overcome these challenges the Maher family rely on their dedicated and passionate team, but also look beyond the business. Maher visits at least one railway on each trip abroad to pick up inspiration and source new ideas to implement.

For some family businesses it can be difficult to take a step back from day-to-day operations. However, the importance of freeing up time to consider the overall performance of a business is key to long-term success. By striking a balance between working inside and outside of the business, the Maher family have attracted a new international market of customers.


Learn more about the Be the Business programme for Family Businesses in the North West.

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