After selling their successful business, John and Rosemary Lancaster set about giving it all away. CATHERINE LARNER discovers their story …
What would you do with a million pounds? Or ten million? How would you handle a fortune of more than £100m?
Most of us only dream about such sums, but John and Rosemary Lancaster have confronted this issue for many years.
They don’t have privileged backgrounds, but achieved incredible wealth through a business John created in 1983, called Ultraframe.
In retirement, they created the Lancaster Foundation, dedicated to charitable giving, and they are now among Britain’s most generous philanthropists.
“I’m not your normal businessman – I’m not all strategic and money-minded,” says John. He had left school at 15 with no qualifications but immersed himself in various business projects.
“Success did not come easily but after many risks, failures and mistakes. My new-found Christian faith made all the difference, helping me to keep focused and challenging my conscience.”
Always inspired by his wife’s strong belief, John’s turning point came when an early business venture faced ruin. “I had sunk to the lowest point in my life,” he says. “I was desperate.” Leaning on God caused him to change his perspective.
“I found I’d got talents which had never come out before. I kept coming up with ideas.” He identified a product which no one else seemed to be offering and formed Ultraframe.
John, Rosemary and their two children moved into a caravan so that they could build the company and steadily it grew into a world-leader of conservatory roofing systems.
Looking after their staff, running their business with integrity, investing in their local community and regularly giving to charity, the Lancasters were always eager to praise God for his love and guidance. And in 1997 they floated the business for £136.4m and retired.
“God had blessed us beyond our wildest dreams,” says Rosemary. “But He hadn’t blessed us for our own sake. We knew that He had a purpose behind this staggering windfall that was meant to bring healing, hope and joy to many people.”
The challenge then was to set about giving away their astonishing fortune, starting with their 550 employees at Ultraframe in Clitheroe who were each invited to buy shares for a token sum, and received an average return of £20,000. The impact of the business’s success on the town’s economy was enormous.
“I always wanted everyone to share the dream I had,” says John. “To feel they had a share in a business.”
As Ultraframe had grown, Rosemary had taken on more responsibility for increasing the charitable work. Now she is in charge of the Lancaster Foundation which offers financial and practical support to suffering, disadvantaged and marginalised people throughout the UK and Africa.
It has purchased an emergency plane for Mission Aviation Fellowship, and started the first village for destitute AIDS victims in South Africa. Rosemary even found herself rescuing children from the rubbish tips of Eldoret, Kenya.
The foundation has sponsored arts initiatives and inner city regeneration projects in Manchester, and is committed to numerous local and national youth and community projects.
A book has recently been released detailing this work and describing the personal story, experiences and motivations of the Lancasters who have celebrated their golden wedding anniversary and have both been honoured with MBEs.
Initially entitled A Letter to my Grandchildren, Rosemary had drafted a record of their life story which she intended to self-publish.
“I wanted to share my life and experiences of God’s grace. But, gradually, the project grew and I began to realise that this story of blessing was not just for our little family, but hopefully for many people around the world.”
Called Give the Best Away (Monarch £9.99), the book is available here.
“It’s achieving everything I’d hoped,” says Rosemary. “I think everyone has a story that can touch the life of another, and I believe it’s important for grandparents and parents to help the next generation understand the cost behind every human endeavour to appreciate where we are today.”
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