Employee ownership – the key to a stronger Highland economy?

AquaScot Dennis Overton 94Earlier this month, Alness-based sustainable seafood company Aquascot opened its doors to the local business community for a ‘Successful Succession’ event jointly hosted with Co-operative Development Scotland.

Here, Aquascot chairman Dennis Overton reflects on the day and the company’s experience of employee ownership.

With 185 employees operating from two sites in the town, Aquascot is currently 85 per cent employee-owned and is set to complete the transition to 100 per cent employee ownership by 2017. As an enterprise, we have a 12 per cent share of the UK’s ‘ready to cook’ salmon market.

On 3 July – Employee Ownership Day – we welcomed employee owners, local business people and local MSP, Rob Gibson to our premises. We focused on how employee ownership has been a successful model for Aquascot, and how it can make a significant contribution to economic growth.

I believe the UK economy would be in a much healthier position if there were more employee-owned companies. At present, I feel we are overly focused on short-term gain to the detriment of long-term value creation.

Employee-owned firms are different. In ‘conventional’ businesses there is often disconnect between shareholders and the company they part own. This can be because shareholders have different, and often more immediate, objectives than the people inside the company who have its long-term success at heart.

In an employee-owned company, the employees control the shares. They are more likely to be concerned about the longevity of the business and know that innovation, productivity and profitability are key to achieving that. Indeed, as Aquascot partner Donald Beaton put it so articulately: “This isn’t just about creating good jobs for us, it’s about jobs being there for our children and their children.”

In the Highlands, succession is a concern. In a survey we conducted in 2005, we looked at what happens to non-family, first generation businesses when it comes to considering succession. The findings were not encouraging:

  • There were few independent businesses of any scale in the Highlands
  • The most common form of exit was a trade sale to a buyer out with the region
  • In the majority of cases , the acquired company no longer had a presence in the Highlands after five years

When our founders came to consider Aquascot’s future, they knew that the final decision had to consider the contribution made by its employees. We have exceptional staff and they have made the company the success it is today.

By selling to employees, our founders have enabled this success to continue, and Aquascot will remain in Alness providing jobs and opportunities for years to come.

Friday’s event encouraged several businesses to explore employee ownership more closely, and with Aquascot as an example, this can only be good news for the local economy and the people of the Highlands.

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