Devon Life Business & Professional - Meets Sonia Meaden OBE

PUBLISHED: 11:01 22 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:25 20 February 2013

Sonia Meaden at The Moorland Garden Hotel
Photo: Mike Alsford,

Sonia Meaden at The Moorland Garden Hotel Photo: Mike Alsford,

A Gift for Enterprise - Meet the Dragon's mother, Sonia Meaden OBE

A Gift forEnterprise

Meet the Dragons mother, Sonia Meaden OBE

Words: Christine MegsonPictures: Mike Alsford,

Bustling along the corridors of the Moorland Garden (formerly the Moorland Links) Hotel near Plymouth is its new proprietor. The petite blond with the platinum bob and the megawatt smile sets a pace that would test a woman half her age, but taking on a brand new project when most of us would have retired is entirely in character. As one of Devons leading businesswomen and mother of Dragon Deborah, Sonia Meaden is an entrepreneurial powerhouse with a wicked sense of humour.
To name just a few of her achievements: in four decades Sonia has built and sold two Westcountry hospitality empires; founded the Coin Traders Association (BACTA) becoming its first and only woman Chair; she was Deputy Chairman of the Devon Tourist Board, and is actively involved in an array of charities including Childrens Hospice South West, and Rays of Sunshine; she is a Princes Trust Mentor and has both an OBE and an honorary Burma Star to her name.
Her life is full to the brim now, but it wasnt always so. Sonia attributes her remarkable energy and drive to her parents, a strong mother and a canny father, who founded a successful business on the tourist seafront at Minehead. She learnt life lessons very young.
I had so much admiration for my mother; she never let anything defeat her. She brought me and my sister up single-handed whilst my Dad was away fighting in Burma. One of my earliest memories was sheltering with her and my sister under our kitchen table in Bristol during the bombing as the door and windows blew in. After that we moved to Shropshire and spent the war in a caravan. I would watch the German planes going over to bomb Birmingham and Wolverhampton, but I never thought they would harm us. My mother worked hard. We didnt have much but she still managed to save enough money for my father to restart his coin machine business when he came home.
And it was that seaside enterprise that was to be the start of the familys fortunes, thanks to guidance from her father.
He had no boys, so I was the eldest son, and he took me into the business at 16. Eventually, when he wanted to retire, he put his company up for sale and I had to bid for it like everyone else because he didnt believe in nepotism, and nor do I. I won it and built it up until we were bought out lock stock and barrel by the Rank Organisation.

Hardest decision? There isnt one. Ive never found decisions difficult.

With the Rank deal came a holiday park in Mullion, Cornwall. Sonia, married by this time to Brian, knew nothing about tourism but set about learning the trade from the beginning.
I didnt know you could drive that far west in England without falling off the end!
After a summer observing the workings of the park from a caravan, the Meadens turned Mullion around in its first season and went on to buy three other holiday parks in Brixham, Looe and Dorset under the Weststar brand.
We were never for sale but when we were approached by some city guys with more money than we ever thought wed see in a lifetime, we thought it would be crazy not to sell.
After the sale of Weststar, it became obvious that despite the years of hard work it was never about the money.
It was a double-edged sword. Brian and I have worked all our lives and always had a project. After the sale we woke up in the mornings with nothing to do it was a dreadful anticlimax.
Having gone on to travel extensively and buy a stake in the Nobody Inn in Doddiscombleigh, the entrepreneurial spirit had still refused to die when the Moorland Links Hotel came up for sale. It was quickly a done deal.
Brian brought me here about 14 months ago and suggested we buy it. Why? was my first reaction, and he said because how many more weeds can you pull up in the garden?
So off we go again. I think businesses are a bit like children: you nurture them, and set them off on their own, then start on the next one!
True to the Meadens Midas touch, the hotel is already taking a large chunk of the wedding market and the old twinkle and enthusiasm is plain to see.

I think businesses are a bit like children: you nurture them, and set them off on their own, then start on the next one

We inherited some wonderful staff here who are passionate about the place, even though they were holding it together with string. Its work in progress, but were up and at it again with a new project.
In a whirlwind of activity, the nine acres of gardens have been re-landscaped and the rooms individually decorated. The stunning crystal room has brides queuing to be married there, and Sonia is confident that after a final refit of the bathrooms and the lounge, profits will follow.
With such a gift for enterprise, it is no surprise then that an OBE followed in 2004 for Services to Tourism. Talking about it eight years later, this hard-headed businesswoman still blushes and giggles like a schoolgirl.
I dont care who you are, but the moment you are about to be presented to royalty you get butterflies in your tummy. When I got the letter I thought it was a wind-up! You can only take two children, so we had to pick the names of our four out of a hat and it turned out that the oldest and youngest came with us.
It sounds very grand but I had a suit made by Alexander McQueen because I needed something tailored. It felt lovely and I still wear it. Prince Charles presented me with my award and I was amazed that he asked me about the family businesses and how the Westcountry was doing. I couldnt believe that he had researched and remembered stuff about me. I replied, that just like farmers, people in tourism never have a good year. Forever banging the drum for the Westcountry, I did my best to sell some holidays whist I was there!
Being a strong and straight-talking woman with an old-fashioned work ethic may have made money, but its not always been easy in what was largely a mans world. Sonia still managed to become the first (and only) female to ever hold office in the coin industry, eventually becoming its President. Those who underestimated her did so at their peril.

Motto? Never consider failure!

I remember my first BACTA National Council meeting. There were 35 men and me and they were being very patronising. I took no notice but I was annoyed that they thought they had a token woman, which I wasnt. I had to find a way to win them over, so at the next meeting I wore my business suit with a pair of enormous earrings shaped like toilets with bright pink seats. One of the Councillors finally asked me sarcastically if my earrings were the latest fashion to which I said No, Im wearing them especially to deal with all the b******* you lot are throwing out. It worked. I proved a point, earned their respect and became one of the boys.
Sonia has clearly passed her genes on to four daughters, who she and Brian consider to be their biggest achievement. Three are successful businesswomen (why wouldnt they be!) and two strapping grandsons.
There is no doubt that of anything we have ever done, Brian and I consider our girls to be our biggest achievement. The family bond is strong and they all have a great sense of humour. Because my father had no sons and nor did we, the family works on merit. I dont think there should be quotas of allowances for women. I tell the girls to go for merit every time.

So whats Sonias view of the tourist trade in Devon. Do we do it well?

No, I dont think we do entirely. There are obviously many exceptions, but on my travels I have seen Third World countries that are more ahead of the game than we are. We need to look at the outside world more and ask what are they doing, and how can we do it better. There are people here who see their tourist businesses as a lifestyle for themselves, so the investments and the sacrifices are not there. You need to have a business that not only meets your standards but exceeds that of your customers.

And there was some tough medicine for the economy too.

Small traders are struggling and they are the driving force of our economy. The Government should be looking at ways of easing legislation. If they want to move this economy forward, they have to make it easier for small businesses to succeed. Skills should be encouraged. Youngsters dont need a piece of paper, they need jobs. It is kinder in the long run to tell them at the start if they are not academic.
Local Authorities should encourage local trades. Give them discounts on business rates, have some free car parking to stop customers going to the out-of-town supermarkets, whatever it takes. We mustnt lose our character. If we do, Devon will be no different to anywhere else.
Gazing across at the autumn colours on the trees at the Moorland Garden, the world looks like a good place from where Sonia is sitting, but what about the future, what does she wish for her grandchildren?
I want them to be successful, but above all I want them to be happy. There are sacrifices; we lost a lot of time with our girls because we were working, so I hope my grandchildren will be able to balance things better than we did.

And as for putting her feet up and retiring, her I already have reply tells you everything you need to know!

Sonia's Devon

Favourite walk? We love Dartmoor, but the reservoirs above the Teign Valley are beautiful.

Best meal? Gidleigh Park, but Ive got some great chefs here!

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