We’ve just launched a free learning journey to the North East & Tayside area of Scotland to showcase examples of effective employee ownership in successful, growing businesses.
To help give a flavour of what to expect as part of the learning journey we caught up with guest speaker, Andrew Lane of Union Industries. Andrew was appointed in 2014 to lead Union Industries into employee ownership, the chosen exit strategy for founders Paul and Isobel Schofield, affectionately called Mr & Mrs S by the Union Industries family.
Andrew tells the story, “I worked for another employee-owned company, Sutcliffe Play, holding the position of Operations Director. This was an early transition (2008) and the EO world was still a small community. We didn’t do the best job of engaging with the Employee Owners, during the transition, and, in truth, we stumbled around in the dark for a while. Then came an epiphany, an EO course I attended where leading lights of the EO world talked about the latent power in EO organisations, I was hooked. The clouds parted and I knew what my vision of EO was. Armed with a renewed determination I returned to the company and learned, first hand, the enormous inertia of conventional thinking. What we had become, in my opinion, was an EO company in name only and the tremendous benefits of harnessing a motivated and empowered workforce were lost to us. That raging fire that had been ignited through exposure to larger EO world never left me, even if the belief that I could change the company paradigm did.
Then I saw the role come up at Union Industries, my research suggested this was a unique, quirky company with a real sense of identity and very, very charismatic owners. This was the potential platform on which to build my vision of EO. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. The moment I first walked into our cobbled courtyard, I knew I was home.
I think the trick was to want the role for the right reasons, it was as much an interview process for the owners as it was for me. Very early on I realised we shared the basic principles of EO.
The interview process went on for ever, I think there must have been 8 or 9 interviews of different types, I stopped counting.
When the offer came, it is was in typical Union fashion. I was having one of the many interviews, this time with the Sales director when Mrs S walked in and said “This has gone on for quite enough now, I’d like to offer you the job” I accepted on the spot and so began the most rewarding, fulfilling and, sometimes challenging, role I have ever had.
This isn’t a story of revolution, re-invention or transformation, it’s a story of understanding the organisation, its people, its heritage and its value set. Only then could I help build the appropriate future for this magnificent company. A future that was, and is, based on a long-term vision of stability and employee owner well-being.
There are many stories that we’ve added to the Union legend during our time in EO, there have been good times such as vast increases in profitability coupled with increased customer service and all the other great metrics you’d expect from a successful business. Then there’s the fire that took out nearly all of our manufacturing facility, the pandemic and post pandemic aftershocks. Its at times like these when you get to find out if we really are “all in this together” or whether that’s just cheap words that are used to garnish a presentation.
Like many business owners who opt for the employee ownership, Mr & Mrs S chose to sell to an Employee Ownership Trust as a means to preserve all that was good about the company: great products, phenomenal workforce and a fantastic culture. The couple were loved by their employees; I knew right away they would be a hard act to follow. The Union Industries story is an impressive one.
Mr & Mrs S identified an opportunity to manufacture and sell heat retention curtains, and the first iteration of Union Tarpaulins started in 1973. Success followed quickly with Mrs S bringing the business brains and sewing skills while Mr S focused on the innovation and business development.
Over the years, Union Industries has grown from being a niche tarpaulin manufacturer to the UK’s leading supplier of specialist doors. The company can count Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Jaguar Landrover and British Aerospace amongst its customers.
It was my job to protect the Schofield legacy and transition Union Industries to a truly employee-owned company. I don’t believe my former employer had quite embraced the spirit of employee ownership and I wanted Union Industries to be the beacon for employee ownership in the UK. I’m hesitant to say we’ve done that but we have certainly made good progress. Since moving to employee ownership in 2014, the company has grown workforce and turnover. I had three priorities that I wanted to enact:
- Communication is key – not just in employee-owned businesses, but in any business. The employees own this business; they have to be given the tools and the information to understand the company, and influence the direction and operation.
- Accountability – I work for the owners. That has to be real. Every three years at our AGM, my fellow directors and I stand up in front of our people and ask them if they want us to continue to lead Union Industries. Thankfully, the answer to that has been a loud yes but I never forget that my prime goal is to make sure we continue to grow as a business and always be a great place to work.
- Transparency – we have automated much of our information and we have screens across the factories detailing statistics for sales, production and installations. All of our Leeds based people can see at a glance how we are doing. It’s a bit harder for our staff who work out in the field and every week I produce the Quicklook summary that provides everyone with an update on the week’s achievements and how that compares to our targets. We have no secrets.
And it works. 80% of our staff invest in our share scheme and that tells me they believe in what we’re doing and have confidence in our future. We have been profitable every year since the EOT was implemented in 2014, including some record-breaking years. Employee ownership was the best move Union Industries could have made. I have no doubts about that.
It’s not always been plain sailing. Following my appointment, Mr S became Chair of the Trustees and Mrs S assumed the position of Chair of the Board. Speaking to other MDs I was aware that the handover from founder to newly appointed MD can be fraught with power games and jostling for position. That certainly didn’t happen here. There have been disagreements over some decisions and direction of the company. We address that directly; both Mr & Mrs S are straight talkers and I learned early that honesty is always the best policy. I was hired to do a job. They had to let me get on with it. I recognise it wasn’t always easy for them to allow me to do that.
What started out as a business relationship has grown way beyond its original transactional nature, the founders are the real heroes of this story, they are held in great affection by all the employee owners and their legacy is known, understood and their culture still permeates the very fabric of Union Industries. Mr and Mrs S aren’t just founders or former owners, they are family.
There are still ambitions I want to achieve. I believe passionately that our future lies in innovation and we have a vision to strengthen our R&D team. By continually improving our products and making our customers lives easier, then we’ll always be one step ahead of the competition. We do our bit to combat climate change; we’re constantly exploring how to make our products greener. So much heat is lost or gained through doors that by having properly engineered door systems is critical for our customers – and for the planet. Importantly, efficiency matters to our customers and downtime must be minimised . To that end, we have developed a system that enables our doors to send real-time status updates to our maintenance teams, enabling a swift response.
There’s more we can do to capture the latent energy and intelligence of our employee owners, we can continually evolve and improve our culture and the support that the company gives to those who support the company. It’s a two-way street and we can always be better at getting that point across, baking into the psyche if you will.
The credit for the company’s performance both financially and culturally doesn’t lie with me. The company was built on strong foundation put in place by the Schofields, and the effort and commitment of everyone who has worked at Union over its 50 years, in many ways I stand on the shoulders of giants and my job is to lift the deserving up to join me.
Find out more and sign up here.