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Why Scotland should take Employee Ownership seriously

Sarah Deas 05Co-operative Development Scotland’s (CDS) Advisory Board recently met to explore ways of increasing take up of employee ownership.

CDS is the arm of Scottish Enterprise (SE) that is charged with promoting employee ownership.

Here, Sarah Deas, chief executive of Co-operative Development Scotland, explains how they invited policy influencers and membership bodies to join the debate.

In order to bring participants up to speed the features and attributes of employee ownership (EO) were first described. Participants heard how Scott & Fyfe, Tullis Russell, Accord Energy Solutions and Galloway & MacLeod came to choose the model and the resulting benefits. With the exception of Accord, these were all long established family businesses that chose EO as a succession solution. Whilst their experiences differed, there was one common and positive result – long term sustainability of the business and its jobs. This offered a clear demonstration of ‘why we should take the model seriously.’

The benefits described by the participants included securing local employment, driving performance and generating socio-economic well-being. We heard that since 1992, the ‘Employee Ownership Index’ has outperformed the FTSE each year by an average of 10%. Also, EO businesses have a significant presence in the ‘Sunday Times Best Businesses to Work For’ – there are three in the top 10. Clearly the model won’t be appropriate in all cases, however, research shows that on balance it out-performs other models.

Scottish paper and board manufacturer Tullis Russell made the transition to employee ownership in 1994

Scottish paper and board manufacturer Tullis Russell made the transition to employee ownership in 1994

It was acknowledged that there is growing political interest in the model, both within Scotland and across the UK. The Nuttall Review generated 28 recommendations that are currently being taken forward. HM Treasury has committed £50million per annum to incentivise uptake and recently consulted on the best way to use this funding. CDS is promoting the model directly to businesses and via the media and professional advisers. 83 professional practices (lawyers, accountants and bankers) have met with CDS over the last year – and two are now even considering the model themselves!

 We also learned that 73% of Scottish businesses are family owned and account for 50% of private sector employment. However, evidence shows that only 9% progress into third generation family ownership. So, what is happening when the family sells out? Answer: trade sale, management buy-out, employee ownership or insolvency. EO is one of the options – but suffers from being little known and understood. It was acknowledged that the number of businesses being sold has reduced due to the recession – which may lead to what some call the ‘succession time-bomb’. 

So, what more could we be doing to position EO as an effective option?

It was now time to reflect on the wider policy and business environment. Who better to kick off this discussion than respected economist, Jeremy Peat? He described two lenses through which we could look at the economy: GDP (output) and ‘economic well-being’. Jeremy felt that there are signs that economic well-being is becoming more important to the Scottish public: ‘There is a change in tone … and EO is part of this’. 

Jeremy Peat OBE

Economist Jeremy Peat

In reflecting on finance, he worried that there is limited understanding of the model by banks resulting in a lack of mutual empathy. In his view, we need banks to take a longer term perspective, new forms of finance (eg patient, crowd) to be created and for equity investors to appreciate that longer term factors matter. On a positive note, Jeremy felt that this is starting to happen. Overall, he felt that more plurality of business models would be helpful in rebalancing the economy. A ‘let many flowers bloom’ approach.

Guests included representatives of the Institute of Directors, Confederation of British Industry and Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, alongside members of SE’s regional and industry advisory boards. Some shared perceptions of what they had heard. Others focused on the process by which the model could be most effectively introduced to companies. 

Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise account managers were seen as crucial in this process. A focused approach was strongly recommended, enhanced by diagnostic tools and support from ambassadors.  An important message was that EO should be presented as one of the options – cautioning against a ‘one trick pony’ approach.

The rich and wide ranging discussion also explored the employees’ view and the role of unions. The model was shown to work well from all perspectives. In summing up, it was felt that the ‘quick buck era has gone’ and ‘people are increasingly questioning values and priorities’. Employee ownership is a model for ‘sustainable enterprise’ and, as such, has an important role to play.