Harry Bramer, 59, earns £18,000 a year as a local councillor. That kind of salary won't fund a millionaire's lifestyle, but then Bramer, the Conservative member for the ward of Penyard, Herefordshire, doesn't need the money. The amateur property developer made his fortune with Country House Weddings, the £10m-a-year wedding business he set up in 1995. And he owes it all to a disastrous property deal from the late 1980s.
In 1988, Bramer bought and restored Leez Priory, a 450-year-old Tudor mansion in Essex. Then the property crash left him facing a market bereft of buyers. "So he was basically stuck with the property," says his oldest daughter Susy (on the left in our picture), 32, who now runs Country House Weddings with her sister Emily (right), 30, after their father's retirement last year. "All his money was tied up as he wasn't able to sell it, so he had to come up with some business ideas" to stay afloat. "Afternoon teas, Easter egg hunts, film shoots, you name it, just to make money out of it."
By 1992 he was using the house, and the 40 acres around it, for wedding receptions. But it wasn't until 1995, when a change in the law allowed for wedding ceremonies to take place outside churches and registry offices for the first time, that he saw the opportunity for a much larger business. "Dad saw that you could have your wedding, plus the ceremony after it, in just one venue," says Emily. "That's the country house for your use exclusively, a full complement of staff, welcome drinks and canaps, a sit down meal, overnight accomodation" and, of course, photo albums.
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The potential was huge. Bramer jumped at the chance, with the Priory becoming England's first venue to offer the new weddings service. "It was such a novel idea at the time that it got a lot of attention in the press." By 1997, Leez Priory was turning over £2m a year. That's when the girls came on board and helped snap up a second property in Gloucestershire for £1.1m they saw that the popularity of civil ceremonies held outside traditional venues was taking off. It was the right move. In 1995, fewer than 2,500 weddings were held in the newly approved premises. By 1999, it was 38,000.
St Audrie's Park in Somerset followed in 2002, then Gosfield Hall in Essex in 2004. At £2.75m, the family knew that was the time to stop buying property prices were rising too fast. "Last year we were looking at venues that were not nearly as good as the others, and they were £8m." And this time round, they were ready for the crash. "The price of country houses is coming down, which means we'll be able to buy another two or three at prices that make sense." And they reckon the business should be able to ride out the recession. "We're only looking for 900 couples a year. If we were in the country house hotel market, looking for 2,200 bedrooms to fill every night, we'd probably be in a very different situation. But we're looking for 900 couples for their big day, and it will take a lot to shake that out."
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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