Five years ago, I sold 74 per cent of Riverford to its staff, making us employee owned. The price was set at a quarter of what accountants told me it was worth, but staff (now co-owners) were buying what they had helped to build, and I wanted to avoid burdening the business with debt.
On a good day, I am still a useful – if occasionally cantankerous – part of the Riverford team, and plan to continue in this way for the foreseeable future: growing veg for your boxes, writing this newsletter, and using my experience to keep us moving in the right direction. But the business now rightfully belongs to all of its nearly 1,000 co-owners, so it’s time to sell my remaining shares.
I do so happily, with no regrets, and in full confidence that collectively, co-owners, customers, and suppliers will make more of Riverford than my waning energy could. I will continue to use that waning energy to support the business and the values it espouses, so don’t expect me to go silent.
It has been a long road since 1987 when, with a wheelbarrow and a borrowed tractor, I planted three acres of veg next to the house I was born in. I worked insane hours planting, tending, harvesting, and delivering to shops in my Citroën 2CV. There was no plan; just my love of growing veg and sharing it, combined with an inexplicable need to prove myself by growing ever more of the stuff.
Perhaps the time spent alone hoeing lettuces or picking artichokes gave me space to question what I was doing and why. As an 80-year-old neighbouring farmer and mentor once advised me: “There are no pockets in a shroud, Guy.” I couldn’t take the business with me, and selling to external investors felt like selling a loved child into prostitution. The idea of employee ownership took root in the early 2000s, inspired by John Lewis – but it took a decade before Riverford was in the right cultural, operational, and financial state to make employee ownership work. Patience paid off; via years of research and careful implementation, we nailed it.
I still harbour dreams that other businesses may follow our path in a quiet revolution – but at least, as Scott, one of our founding co-owner council members, put it: “Together, we have made a small part of the world a bit more like the world I, and so many of us, want to live in.” When my time comes, with my final breath, I will take comfort in that thought, and leave my tractors, trucks, land, trees, and artichokes to fellow co-owners. I know they will use them well.
Find out more about Riverford’s journey to employee ownership.