We spoke with Susan Jackson, founder of the Women’s Financial Network about her career and her latest venture, running a chateau in the French countryside.
Hi Susan! Thanks for speaking with us today! Firstly, can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and your business?
I’ve been a financial planner for almost 30 years and operate a private practice called The Women’s Financial Network. My business philosophy has always been around helping people make informed financial decisions and helping them identify what they need to do to achieve the financial future they want so our style of advice is very bespoke and individual. I have also authored several financial books, developed financial literacy programs and provided commentary on just about every financial topic you could think of. In 2014 my partner and I purchased a 200-year old French chateau and I now divide my time between Australia and France.
It’s quite a shift from financial planning to running Our French Country Home…do your friends think you’re crazy?
To buy a property on the other side of the world does have a degree of crazy about it. I think it is really about practising what you preach and having the courage to do what you really want. At the point of deciding to buy the chateau I had a great business, was financially secure and enjoying life so you could say I pretty much had it all. But interestingly I think it is only when you are at that point that you have time to really think about what you really want and where you want to end up. Success opens the door to greater possibility. I had always dreamed of owning a property in France and the idea suddenly did seem achievable. The amazing property prices and good exchange rates did also help. People do think we are crazy and the reality is that perfectly sane people probably don’t buy properties on the other side of the world.
Had restoring and running this chateau long been a dream of yours? What finally prompted you to take the leap?
I love France and it has always felt like home to me. We had considered buying an apartment in Paris but remained undecided as to exactly where. My other love is food and cooking and so we thought why don’t we buy a property in the countryside not too far from Paris that we could then run culinary tours from. After months of scouring the Internet and trying to get French real estate agents to take us seriously, we arranged a trip to view around 15 properties. The first few days were a huge learning curve as the reality of owning a chateau sunk in – 20 bedrooms with one toilet, one million euros just to get the roof repaired, the romantic moat that in reality was a smelly stagnant green mess. Our dreams of finding our perfect French property were fading fast. We had resigned ourselves to the likelihood it was likely to take many visits, and then on the next day we viewed the property we subsequently bought. We both pretty much knew it was the one from the moment we arrived. We’ve never had any regrets about our decision as it has been the most amazing adventure to date and we also got to have the most incredible wedding at the chateau last May.
How difficult was the actual restoration process? Talk us through some of the challenges of renovating in a foreign country. Did you ever feel like quitting?
Renovating in a foreign country, particularly when you are not fluent in the language, is not for the faint-hearted and in hindsight it could have turned into a disaster. The majority of the responsibility also was mine as my husband can’t be away from Australia as much as I can. French artisans are very good but they sometimes like to give you what they think you should have and not what you want so you have to be very specific with your instructions and keep a close eye on everything. When they say a job will take four days it is probably really six days and spread out over three weeks so you need to adjust yourself to the slower pace. There is also the reality of dealing with a 200-year old building that wasn’t exactly made for modern plumbing or electrics, but in a way, that’s good as you end up with the right mix of old and new. When a problem arises all the artisans will gather together for what appears to be very a serious and animated discussion with many cigarettes but when I enquire as to just how serious, the response is always “No, no Madam, the problem is solved!”
But even with the challenges, we have managed to achieve a huge amount in a very short time by French standards. I think what helped is our decision to use local trades so that we had a connection with the local community and were contributing to the community, plus they love Australians. I was asked by one artisan how many times a week did the kangaroos deliver the mail, to which my response was “once per week” as that seemed to be the easiest answer given my limited French! There certainly were days where you felt overwhelmed by everything and needed to take a step away but I never felt like quitting. I try to remember that we are the strangers rather than we are in a strange land. It’s up to us to adjust and learn the way of life. For me that is very interesting as I am someone who is used to being in total control.
The chateau is open for business from this (European) summer. What are some of the things people can look forward to if they come to visit?
Yes, as from June 2018 we will be renting out our gorgeous three-bedroom guesthouse and also running tours where you come and stay at the chateau and experience what life is like in the French countryside. During your stay, we will visit local markets, participate in French cooking classes, enjoy lots of fab food, hang out with some of the neighbours and visit some of the local sights. If you want to do your own thing you can rent the guesthouse and we’re happy to provide suggestions for things to do and see. If you just want to chill out you can explore the 25-acre property or relax by the pool and enjoy the local wines.