Last time I met Keith Abel, Riverford’s arch rival, he told me over a pork pie: “The problem with you, Guy, is that you’re so boring”. He looked pretty pleased with life and I wondered if he was right.
We started our businesses about the same time. He was selling potatoes door to door; I was growing them. We both ended up selling vegetable boxes. I reckon ours are better, but he has always been better at selling them and making money out of it. After 20 years, with impeccable timing, Keith sold his creation to a venture capitalist backed by Lloyds Bank and bought an estate in the country. But within two years, without Keith’s vision, the business was struggling. The venture capitalists left, Lloyds took control and Keith was brought back to save the day, which he seems to have done very successfully. Last week William Jackson, a food group with no history in organic or home delivery, bought the business from Lloyds for an undisclosed sum.
At the time of the original sale I was besieged by accountants, lawyers and merchant bankers, all claiming they were perfectly placed to maximise the value of my business and ease me into a life of champagne-swilling happiness. To have let them get their avaricious mitts on my baby would have felt like selling a child into prostitution. Nothing would please me more than to show them there was a better way.
Prompted by an awareness of my own mortality and an admiration for the John Lewis Partnership, I spent a couple of years visiting co-ops and researching employee ownership. Later I got excited about persuading all of you (our customers) to buy Riverford, converting us into a customer owned co-operative. The lumbering complexity and looks of non-comprehension when I tried to explain it put me off, though I have not quite given up. When I am too decrepit to be any use, my stab at immortality is to devise a form of ownership for the benefit of all those involved: staff, customers and suppliers or perhaps a combination of all three. I just haven’t quite worked out how to do it yet.