When I first asked our staff about employee ownership in 2003, with the suggestion that it could be financed by them forgoing their annual profit share for 20 years, they told me where I could stick it. Perhaps they saved us from another Animal Farm.
Soulful musings among the cabbages rarely prove good guidance for business practice. Ideas for radical change need to be challenged, rethought, and challenged again to avoid the dangers that come with all ideological dogma.
We spent the intervening years, and particularly the last four, researching, consulting and challenging each other – until we were sure what we wanted and why, understood the gulf we needed to cross to get there, and had planned how to cross it. Particular credit goes to our people director Charlotte Tickle, managing director Rob Haward, co-owner council and external trustees, who methodically developed the governance and culture to turn my dreams into a working reality.
On June 8th 2018, Riverford became 74 per cent employee owned. It was the happiest and proudest day of my life. As one co-owner councillor, Scott, said: we are creating a microcosm of the world we’ve always wanted to live in.
The last year has shown what an incredible job we made of such a massive and challenging transition. I see it on the faces of co-owners every day; I hear it in the engagement, pride and dignity that comes with being able to influence your own daily life and destiny, and share in the spoils of your work; I see it in the personal, often challenging, growth that many co-owners have undertaken, sometimes surprising themselves.
So far there is no sign of unduly cumbersome consultative decision-making, with the newly empowered showing an extraordinary responsibility that shames Philip Green. More tangibly, our sales, cost controls and margins have never been better, providing evidence for my long-held belief that conventional ownership, and the cynical management that too often accompanies it, wastes huge amounts of human potential.
The biggest gain has been in IT. After years of being driven to distraction by underperforming external consultants, we now have our own team who deliver projects that work, on time and on budget, while being a joy to work with. Their latest brainchild, our new app (free on the app store and Google Play) is brilliant - even I find it easy to use.