Conference shines spotlight on benefits of employee ownership
This year's Employee Ownership Association Annual Conference was the first Employee Ownership national event I have attended. It was the second for our Employee Benefit Trust Director Simon Harbisher. As well as noting the big increase in numbers, 500 attending this year, Simon commented on how much better joined-up the arrangements were when the whole event, including accommodation, was under one roof (the Hilton Metropole Hotel in Birmingham). The organisers deserve a thumbs up for a job well done.
At the conference on 23 and 24 November, various breakout sessions covered practical topics from tax-efficient structures to skills attraction and development. How to capitalise on Employee Ownership (EO) status is another subject, which again spans use of profit-share incentive schemes (up to £3,500 per employee tax free) to scoring extra assessment points for social contribution when local government organisations go out to tender.
On behalf of Computer Application Services (CAS) my specific reason for attending was to meet more of the Capital for Colleagues (C4C) board and team of associates; they are top of our list of potential investors for growth as CAS now gets set to enter new markets. In particular, meeting people from other companies in which they have invested gave Simon and me a sense that they are people we can do business with.
C4C have recognised the long term value of investing in employees. "Patient Capital" is the term they use, indicating that they are in for the long term, making money as we do. Compared to "Venture Capitalists" who are likely to want to force an exit, the slower-but-surer model sits well with our situation.
That said, I personally believe that employee businesses need to do everything on commercial terms and in some cases, riskier funding may be necessary. Even when lower risk, it is essential that enterprises are firmly focussed on financial success - never confusing employee ownership with a softer option to hard nosed results.
Still relatively immature, there is a great buzz surrounding employee ownership and its thriving association. The organisation itself is evolving, learning from longer-in-the-tooth membership organisations. Yet EOA has no shortage of interested parties, keen to learn from the small (but growing) number of long term success stories. John Lewis Partnership is the oft-quoted example but there are now dozens of less institutional examples that are making the grade, as the awards ceremony demonstrated.
Lest any reader still carries the idea of EO being a soft sell, one chap was pointed out to me as he worked his way round the room wishing new members well ... reportedly he had just sold his family business to an employee trust and netted a cool £40m. He had to share that with his family, mind, so it wasn't as if he got things all his own way.
One of our own team best summed up what employee ownership is all about. At a recent local event, business analyst Irma MacLachlan was sharing her thoughts with a group of would-be employee owners. She compared her job now to owning rather than renting a house. You feel responsible - you are responsible for its best upkeep.
All being well a house you own will be valuable some day. Meanwhile, it's your home.