“I knew it was going to be a big job – but it has been way bigger than I thought, with so many diverse interesting things going on across the group,” enthuses Richard Rankin, sitting in his office at the heart of the H&H Group empire in Carlisle.

Most of us will know the feeling, but then many of us do not have to grapple with steering a group which encompasses auctioneering, property, insurance and commercial services through a choppy economic climate.

“It’s hard work, it is really hard work, but I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling the entire time.

“I love the challenges, what we’re doing and where the group is going. The opportunity excites me. The next three to five years you’re going to see some transformational changes across the group. It is great to be driving that.”

The 46-year-old took on the role in July last year, bringing with it, if you ask people around the business, a breath of fresh air.

How many other chief executives would get stuck in pinning lot numbers to cows on their way into the auction ring at H&H’s mart in Rosehill Industrial Estate – part of his effort to get under the skin of the group’s individual businesses and particularly one in which he confesses he has no background in.

“I can definitely tell the difference between a sheep and a cow now – I can even tell the difference between certain types of sheep and cows!” he jokes.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll never be a great farmer or even a great auctioneer, but I know how the business works and what customers are looking for. It’s been a big learning curve, particularly as there’s such big things going on and its changing so fast, but I love learning new stuff.”

That’s not to say that Richard’s hunger to soak everything has seen the business stand still. There have been acquisitions, joint ventures, re-brands, restructures and numerous key appointments made since he started.

All the activities have been driven by Richard’s key goal – to bring the group’s individual businesses closer together.

The recent launch of H&H Land and Estates is the most visible example. It brings together the group’s land and estate agencies – the latter having expanded into West Cumbria with the high-profile acquisition of Smeatons, a “strategically great” move, according to Richard.

The re-brand was floated to Richard not long after his arrival, but he took stock, eager to create values and a culture from “the inside out” rather than a case of just changing signs above the door. The new branding was accompanied by a restructure of the business.

“You no longer find an estate agency over here and a land agency over there – each of our offices is now a hub, a one-stop-shop,” explains Richard.

“We’ve brought all the teams together and upskilled everybody so customers now have a full breadth of experience. It has been about creating consistency, a feeling people can come to us and we’ll sort it.”

The restructure is part of a blueprint for the future direction of the company. Members of the H&H Insurance team will soon be located in each of the offices.

The group’s insurance offer has also been extended with the launch of H&H Farm Finance in April, a joint venture with Mulberry Asset Finance to give its customers expert advice on access to asset finance support.

On his appointment, Richard said to look out for such collaborations. This is just the first of many, says Richard.

Discussions over such a relationship led to the acquisition of Print Graphic – a deal that strengthens the digital design capabilities of the H&H Reeds business and plants it squarely in the north of the county, adding to its dominance in the south and east. The new Pioneer food hall development – along with 11, now fully-let, business units – is also up and running and doing “fantastically well”, says Richard.

There have also been significant developments at a strategic level. The H&H board has been bolstered with three big appointments. Financial heavyweight John Leveson and businesswoman Lynne Mallinson have both joined as non-executive directors, along with farmer Will Hamilton, adding “great strength” to the board.

Richard has increased the involvement of board members too, providing more and more information so they can “challenge, questions and support from a more knowledge position”.

“Their window into the business has widened substantially to what it was,” says Richard.

“They now have many, many more connections with the business, and we are also getting to know their businesses too. We’re breaking down the old-fashioned approach, becoming more modern and more commercially focused.”

A new operational board has also been created, including the MDs of each of the group’s businesses – another demonstration of his desire to see the group work as one.

“I think this has been one of the biggest successes,” says Richard. “Many of them would admit to being guilty in the past spending their day immersed in the operations and day-to-day business. But they have amazing skills sets and experience and that’s worth more. They’re now sharing that across the group, because working together, we will become better as a whole.

“In the meetings we spend 20 per cent of the time looking back at performance and results, but the rest of the time it is looking forward. It has been really well received – attitudes have changed and the culture is starting to change.”

And passing more decision-making power down is not only empowering staff, but also helping to unearth “future” stars who may one day rise to the top. Succession planning, along with attracting talent, is a big challenge.

For him, improving the appeal of the company is key, along with demonstrating its commitment to the workforce, whether through skills and training, or increased support for mental health – an issue he is keen to be proactive on.

But Richard remains positive about the future despite challenging trading conditions, with uncertainty about the impact of Brexit set to hit the group’s financial results, which are due out soon.

The key to H&H’s success, he believes, will be all about collaboration and joint ventures. “If we stood alone I would be less confident,” says Richard. “Not that I do not think we’re big enough or strong enough to stand here and do it on our own, but I think it would be a hard fight depending on how the next six to 18 months go with everything going on out there.

“Building partnerships will ensure the success of the business – collaborations where everyone adds value and we can create something fantastic in the marketplace. At the end of the day we’re here to help the rural economy as best as we can.”