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Ethical business

Guy’s news: Anxiously awaiting utopia

Easter has passed without a seed going in the ground. With no sign of let up from the weather fronts sweeping in off the Atlantic, it is starting to get serious. A knot of anxiety is growing in my stomach; it could be impatience to plant, but I suspect a larger part is the momentous change just two months away.

After twelve years of research, thought and consultation, Riverford becomes 74% employee-owned on the 8th June (with me holding onto 26%). It all seemed so straightforward when I was planning my utopia, hoe in hand, with only a field of unquestioning artichokes for company. The reality involves lawyers, governance, banks, and hardest of all for me, lots of listening, questions and communication. I have no doubt that it is the right path but, as with sowing my first organic leeks, I never stopped to consider the journey.

I want so much more for Riverford, its staff, suppliers and customers than I have been able to deliver while owning it myself. Management should be about getting the most from staff while giving the most back. Yet in so many organisations, particularly in the UK, people are estimated to achieve only one to two thirds of their potential – resulting in low pay and unfulfilled staff. This is a miserable indictment of the short-term, narrow-minded management so often demanded by conventional ownership.

Too many managers are excited by the numbers and technology that offer predictable returns on investment, but understandably scared of the emotional complications and unpredictable results from investing in people. I should know; I am one of the (mostly male) managers who made it this way. But after thirty years, I am frustrated by the result and want to be part of something less wasteful of our human potential. Over the last year, as we approach employee ownership, we have taken the first steps towards more people-centric management. It will be a long, scary and exciting journey, full of learning, along an unmarked path. But if each of us at Riverford achieves three-quarters of our potential we will fly – and we hope others will follow. I find myself as excited about my involvement in this next leg of Riverford’s journey as when I sowed those first leeks.

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    Guy Singh-Watson

    Self-confessed veg nerd, Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 50,000 customers a week. Guy is an inspirational, passionate, opinionated and admired figure in the world of organic farming, who still spends more time in the fields than in the boardroom. Twice awarded BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year, Guy is passionate about sharing with others the organic farming and business knowledge he has accumulated over the last three decades. His video rants have provided a powerful platform to do this, with a video on pesticides going viral on Facebook to reach 5.6 million views and 91,000 shares. His weekly veg box newsletters connect customers to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about.  

    Can business be a force for good?

    Guy Singh-Watson on why he chose employee ownership to protect the future of Riverford.

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