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From Childhood Pot Wash to Director’s Chair: Stephen Atkinson’s Journey

Longbow Venues Appoints Stephen Atkinson as Director

 

Longbow Venues has appointed Stephen Atkinson as operations director, overseeing the operations, standards and growth of The Maynard in Grindleford, The George in Hathersage and The Ashford Arms in Ashford in the Water.

 

Stephen has hospitality in his blood. While most young children would be earning pocket money for keeping their room tidy, Steve was serving breakfast, washing pots, and assisting the kitchen team as a 10-year-old in his mum and dad’s pub, The Bull’s Head in Youlgreave.

 

‘My nan and grandad had the pub first, we lived across the road. Then my dad took over and ran The Bull’s Head for over 20 years. My nan stayed on as head housekeeper so it was always a family affair.’

 

‘I had a lot of hands-on experience from a young age. I’d be serving breakfast on weekends at age 10, sorting beer deliveries as a teen and then when I was 16 my dad taught me how to work the bar and manage the cellar. I loved growing up in the pub, and loved helping my parents. They built an amazing business which I was proud to help out in. At times, it was weird the pub being my home too, and I did feel for my sister with her bedroom near the party room as it was loud on weekends.’

 

‘Everyone thought I’d go into hospitality, assisting mum and dad but I think I was a little scarred by their experience. They had such an amazing, inspirational work ethic and their business was a great success. However, the brewery treated them unfairly and they worked extremely long hours with very little recognition.’

 

Steve decided not to follow in his parents’ career footsteps and thought his ticket out would be a career as a mechanic. He did an apprenticeship earning £2.50 an hour but needed to top up his income so started working at the Charles Cotton Hotel in Hartington.

 

Young Stephen Atkinson in his early hospitality days

 

 

‘I knew hospitality well and so it was a no-brainer to do this on the side. One day, the duty manager walked out and I piped up “I can do it!” so I did the close down that night and the rest is history. They offered me the duty manager job and at the age of 19 I was back in hospitality and said goodbye to my career as a mechanic.’

 

Working at the Charles Cotton Hotel was a great foundation for Steve to understand how different an inclusive, open and positive work culture could be.

 

‘I owe a lot to the managers Dan Thorpe and Helen Lownes along with head chef, Simon Harrison. They were incredible mentors and really inspired me with the way they ran the place. It was a safe place to work in terms of encouraging growth and had a brilliant culture of development. I always look back and thank their input and support in moving back into the industry and helping me find a love for hospitality again. We are still really good friends.’

 

Headhunted and Headed Off… to Somerset

 

Steve worked for the Charles Cotton for a number of years before progressing to The Best Western Leawood, a 40-bedroom hotel as duty manager before being promoted to food and beverage manager of The Palace Hotel, a 122 bedroom hotel with function rooms. An assistant manager role was next at the Isaac Walton before a small stint at the Devonshire Arms at Beeley.

 

 

Next Steve was headhunted for his first general manager position. ‘One morning I was in bed after a late shift and got a random call from a guy who said, “I’ve found your CV online and I’m looking for a general manager for a 10 bedroom, 2 Rosette restaurant venue in Somerset, would you be interested?” I was, so I borrowed my mum’s car, went for the interview, was offered the job and packed up.’

 

 

‘I loved the work. The team was successful, we were enjoying growth year on year, we won awards and turned it into a 5-star restaurant with rooms. However, being so far away from home proved to be really lonely and I missed the Peak District.’

 

A Return to His Roots

 

After 18 months in Somerset, Steve returned to his roots and while he was happy to be home, he was doing what he describes as ‘filler’ jobs in Bakewell venues for a while. ‘At this point, my wife was heavily pregnant and within me developed a pure, unadulterated fear. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, never mind trying to bring a new life into it too. I had so much uncertainty work wise, and it felt petrifying. Taking the step down from the general manager role in Somerset had meant a step down in pay. I was worried how we’d pay the mortgage. I was so scared of failing my wife and unborn child.’

 

 

Steve decided the only thing he hadn’t tried was working within a PLC which would give him more employment protection and much more systemised ways of working. ‘I felt like this was my final shot at hospitality and wanted the protection. It meant stepping down and going for a deputy manager role, but it proved to be the best decision, as that’s how I met the future managing director and founder of Longbow Venues, Rob Hattersley’.

 

Stephen Atkinson and Rob Hattersley outside The Ashford Arms

 

Rob and Steve hit it off straight away. With Rob being from Bakewell and Steve from Youlgreave they had a lot of shared experiences and knew a lot of the same people. Steve was offered the job and felt at ease, ready to take on the double challenge of his new job and becoming a new father.

 

‘Rob Changed My Life’

 

‘I loved the venue Rob and I worked for. I felt it was a premium business that suited my experience and it was nice to meet a genuinely nice person in Rob who loves the industry. Rob prides himself on helping people grow and achieve and after 6 months, an opportunity came up for a general manager role in a sister venue. Rob spoke to the area manager and said “Steve should get that job” which was such a selfless thing to do. Letting me go was going to make his job harder but he did that for me and the salary difference made my life go from month-to-month stress of managing our finances to finally feeling comfortable. I could relax. That promotion changed my life, so Rob changed my life. He not only helped me feel like I was able to provide for my family, but I stepped into a role I loved, which gave me my passion back for hospitality. I knew my path, wanted to make a difference and was focused on my career.’

 

 

Steve had a couple of moves within the PLC but stayed in touch with Rob. ‘We were allies and would call each other all the time. Things started to change in the PLC and we both realised it no longer aligned with our values.’ When Rob then decided to leave and started to make plans on creating Longbow, Steve was by his side, chatting on days off and helping Rob with ideas and plans. When Rob left the PLC, he asked Steve to go with him.

 

Rob Hattersley, Stephen Atkinson and Josh Butler

 

A Massive Risk With A Young Family

 

‘Obviously, with a young family to care for it was a massive risk but one I was willing to take. The work within the PLC wasn’t sitting right with me. People’s wellbeing was being compromised and the morale was so low. Rob was offered The Maynard and I left the PLC to take on the general manager role.’

 

Steve started as the general manager officially on 2nd January, 2020. Of course, weeks later, the UK was plunged into lockdown.

 

‘The amount of work and effort that went into opening The Maynard, to then be obliterated, was probably one of the lowest points of my career. Like everyone, I was devastated.’

 

Yet, The Maynard pulled through thanks to the dedication and hard work of Rob, Steve and the whole team.

 

‘The renovations, decorating, new systems we put in place and the vast changes we made paid off. The Maynard was buoyant and soon The George was offered for us to sink our teeth into. I was promoted from general manager to group operations. I loved the not knowing and the autonomy to take it where I wanted to take it. It was exciting, scary and as a thrillseeker, the adrenaline of opening The George was exactly what I needed. I love the buzz and the constant mind game with so many moving parts.’

 

Stephen Atkinson and Rob Hattersley

 

Seeing the Opportunity in Adversity

 

The George was an instant success and soon was on par financially with The Maynard. The Ashford Arms became project 3 and while building setbacks delayed the reopening of The Ashford Arms, another blow was dealt to Longbow. The George was flooded in storm Babet in October 2023. It had to be closed.

 

‘By this point, Longbow had been through so much adversity that there was no time to sit in a pity party. We had to move. We had to be proactive. I couldn’t let any of us slide into feeling hopeless again.’

 

Despite The George being closed, Rob and Steve vowed that everyone would keep their jobs. Steve, a master at bringing the team together, was quick and smart to re-distribute the workforce. Steve led a project to map out or improve the exact processes needed to successfully and smoothly launch and maintain a Longbow Venue. Everyone got involved. Ideas were shared for improving efficiencies and all levels of team members were able to have a say.

 

‘Financial efficiencies have been identified without compromising our people. That’s always the most important thing. Also, this project has given us a plug-and-play framework for any new venture that opens under Longbow Venues, proven by its successful application on opening The Ashford Arms in March 2024, a business surpassing previous generous sales projections by 30% each week.’

 

‘Now, the original business goal of opening a number of venues over the next decade will be realised much sooner. This project has ensured that we are ready for growth. Our next venue is preparing to submit a planning application and, if successful, we will be ready to activate this framework again.’

 

The Ashford Arms has been a roaring success for Longbow Venues

 

Rapid Growth Made Possible

 

Steve’s work and the rapid growth of the business made managing director, Rob Hattersley, realise that he can’t do everything on his own, so decided to appoint Steve as a director.

 

‘Being a director means everything to me personally. Everything I do every day is to drive our ambitious growth goals. With more responsibility becomes more drive and input. And I love that we are doing this without sacrificing our people. I never want to be in that position again and never will. Everything we do is based on our company values and our people are at the top of that value tree.’

 

‘I felt that my time working in a PLC helped me understand the importance of people. They had values but they were not operating in alignment with those values most of the time. They put people at risk at every turn and cut people off. People don’t work for us, they work with us, we are team-oriented, if we grow, they grow too. In a PLC you’re forced to cut people you care about and forced to behave in a way that is unethical for profit. That is not ever what I have been about. And I am so proud that we put people over profits at Longbow. That means so much.’

 

‘The growth of Longbow is crazy but extremely exciting. I am so proud to take on the role of director and show the hospitality industry that things can be done differently. If you be a bit more human and have a heart with your people, it goes a long way. Also cultivating that important growth mindset that people need to have the courage to try, take risks, work hard and push boundaries. That’s when you’ll get the best out of people. And when people give their best, you can’t help but be successful.’

 

 

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