No. It’s not the name of a band. But it is a story of a couple’s roots and their desire to keep their family close. The Commercial Traveller was enjoying an early April break in the gorgeous surroundings of Scotland’s Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Snow-capped mountains, broad expanses of water bejewelled with islands, coniferous forests and varied wildlife provided a fantastic backdrop to some fine walking. It seemed that every 20 metres, there was a different view – each one as jaw-dropping as the last.
So what of this couple? Sandy and Lucy Fraser met in a milk bar in Drymen on the eastern side of Loch Lomond – 15 miles north of Glasgow. And when Sandy’s mother’s car park in his home village of Balmaha became his, a plan formulated. The original idea was to build a milk bar on the site, to honour the couple’s first meeting. But this was the mid-1990s and milk bars had gone out of favour. So a somewhat grander plan was hatched.
Sandy and Lucy had eight children and they encountered a dilemma faced by many parents in beautiful, but somewhat remote areas. Of course, everyone wants the best for their children – for them to have stimulating careers and great opportunities in life. But on the flipside, it would be lovely to have the family close together and to share in and get the benefit of a stunning bucolic location. So in 1997, Sandy and Lucy went about creating a business that would provide fulfilling employment for the entire family and The Oak Tree Inn was born.
In the mid-90s, Balmaha, a village of some 400 residents, had a rather run down hotel and a small garden centre with a café. Feeling that there wasn’t much competition, the Frasers built a bar and restaurant with B&B accommodation on the former car park, right by the 500 year old oak tree that inspired the name.
The Commercial Traveller was particularly impressed by the way the entrepreneurial Frasers have branched out to generate additional revenue streams, employment opportunities and to ensure that all customers’ needs are met by the family business. They now run a coffee shop, have two ice-cream brands (including the fun Bal-moo-ha moniker) a brewery, much more accommodation and have even negotiated a fee with the visitor centre across the road to provide toilet facilities. The run down hotel has since been demolished and the garden centre has been turned into lodges, which provide hungry and thirsty customers making a beeline for the Oak Tree business.
So has there been any resentment in the village? Nina, one of the eight Fraser children, tells me that there have been little flashpoints in the community over the years, but that has now all but disappeared. Indeed, on a Saturday night, it is impossible to move in the Oak Tree bar for Balmaha residents.
When questioned about how the business is structured, Nina said that Sandy and her brother, Stuart, run the show. Sandy brings the creative, entrepreneurial side, whilst Stuart’s attention to detail ensures that operationally, the business runs smoothly. The management team consists of 10 department heads and these days, half of them are from the Fraser family and half are not. Nina goes on to state, unsurprisingly, that at first it was hard to find managers that cared as much about the business as those in the bloodline. But now she feels that the right balance has been struck and, as a guest at the Inn, The Commercial Traveller certainly felt in the embrace of a well-oiled machine.
So have Sandy and Lucy met their goal? Many would argue that Balmaha is the wrong side of the Loch to attract sufficient custom, as the main road going northwards to the Highlands runs along the western shore. And it’s true to say that getting to the Oak Tree Inn is not that easy*. But I witnessed a thriving business and if Sandy and Lucy’s key measure of success was how many of the Fraser family still live in the Balmaha vicinity, the couple who met over a milkshake all those years ago have scored 100%.
*The next Fraser initiative is to build a pontoon to ferry visitors in from Balloch – the main town on the loch.
Many thanks to Nina Fraser who took time out of her busy schedule to talk to The Commercial Traveller.