Twenty five years ago, as I helped load seed potatoes with Gordon Strutt, an older, gentler and wiser neighbour, he advised me, “There are no pockets in a shroud, Guy”. My business was starting to take off and I was probably a bit smug; at 80 his was winding down but he showed no rancour at my success.
Ten years later, having inspired a generation of local growers, Gordon had joined his beloved potatoes underground and Riverford had grown manyfold, but his words stayed with me. The sale of Abel and Cole to venture capitalists brought a stream of bankers to our door, all promising to lubricate my exit into well-heeled retirement. Building Riverford has been an intensely personal, creative endeavour; exhausting, but hugely rewarding. As I once explained to a banker before showing him the door; to sell Riverford as a tradable chattel, whose purpose would become to maximize short-term returns for external investors, would be tantamount to selling one of my children into prostitution.
I love my job and am a long way from hanging up the hoe, but through the recession, as the chaos resulting from greed grew, so did my interest in finding a better form of long-term ownership. Initially I was driven by a leftward leaning idealism; more recently, with a growing distrust of all ideological dogma, my motivation has come from a frustration that most external, profit hungry ownership results in short term, narrow-minded management practices that are poor at harnessing our human potential.
Having visited many employee-owned companies I have found little dogma; they have been as diverse in their ideologies as in their activities, but united in a desire to find a better form of ownership combined with enlightened management which gets the best out of people. They also share a refreshingly optimistic view of humanity; that most of us, most of the time are as good as our organisations allow us to be. I want Riverford to be part of that better, kinder, optimistic world. Like Gordon I’ll be part of Riverford until I join my veg underground, but the plan is for employees who have helped create it to own most of it well before I go.