I am a trainee solicitor at Fieldfisher and recently had the opportunity to attend the 14th Employee Ownership Association Annual Conference in Birmingham together with colleagues from the firm wide Fieldfisher Employee Ownership team.
I found this conference very engaging and informative. Before attending, I understood the basics of employee ownership structures from speaking to colleagues at Fieldfisher, particularly the employee ownership trust model. However, I did not fully grasp the extent of the benefits of this structure for employees as well as the business.
Sir Charlie Mayfield, the current Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and one of the keynote speakers, shared some of his experiences of employee ownership in the retail industry. Sir Charlie Mayfield focused on the fact that employees, within an employee owned business, tend to be more knowledgeable about the company they work in (such as the company's goals, difficulties and direction), are more driven to do well and generally feel valued by their employer. He also highlighted that the John Lewis Partnership has recognised that employee owners and technology can work alongside each other and this is a competitive strength.
I went to breakout sessions and it soon became apparent that there really is no "one size fits all" when it comes to the detail of employee ownership structures. I had a fascinating discussion on electing employee representatives with delegates from different companies, who each spoke about their tailored approaches and processes for electing or selecting representatives. I realised you need to understand how a particular business works and to take advice from experienced employee ownership practitioners on which structure works best for that business.
Another session focused on retaining employees after converting to employee ownership. An employee of Gripple spoke about her experience of the company’s employee ownership, which has direct (rather than trust) employee share ownership. The retention rates for the company were staggeringly high and other benefits were key “take aways” that made me think further about the advantages of making a business employee-owned.
Prior to training at Fieldfisher, within my legal studies at University and University of Law, I had not been introduced to the idea of employee ownership. Even though employee ownership has become more popular in recent years, one key activity for this sector has to be to continue to raise awareness of the employee ownership business model. Helped by the capital gains tax exemption on selling a controlling interest to an employee ownership trust, shareholders need to realise there is a business succession solution that can maintain the integrity of the business they created. However, as I discovered from the EOA Annual Conference, there are many other benefits to employee ownership such as increased productivity and innovation in the business, as well as happier staff.