Reflections on the Employee Ownership Association Conference 2022
When we became employee owned, we joined a new community and it’s one of the fastest growing in the UK business world
For me, one of the best things about more in-person working is the return of conferences and events.
While I’ve enjoyed speaking at online events over the past couple of years, it was great to be back at a conference again, the 2022 Employee Ownership Association conference in Liverpool earlier this month.
A group of us from dxw were there learning from peers and making new connections over 2 days of talks and sessions.
dxw has been a long-standing member of the communities around government and public sector digital since we started 14 years ago. When we became employee owned, we joined a new one and it’s one of the fastest growing in the UK business world.
There were people from every type of business imaginable at the conference from travel to specialist manufacturing, professional services to camper van makers. There were some household names like John Lewis, Richer Sounds and Riverford Organics.
Everyone there was either employee owned, or thinking about it, and there were a lot of shared values proudly on display like sustainability, fairness, equity and community pride. There was a degree of openness and desire to learn that was truly inspiring.
Kath Cooper (one of our 2 Employee Trustees), Harry Metcalfe (dwx’s Founder and Chair of Trustees) and I did a panel discussion on our experience of becoming employee owned. We had about 70 in the room and we got some great questions. Many of the people who came along were either planning to become employee owned, or had recently taken the plunge.
Our attendees wanted to understand why we chose this path. Harry and I explained our backstory, how he and I began to discuss his exit from the day to day running of the business around 3 years ago. We described the thinking that led us to become employee owned, mainly our desire to protect the long term future of dxw. Harry wrote about his aspirations for dxw’s future last year.
We wanted to retain our independence and ability to choose our work, the keys to protecting the culture we’ve developed through working together. We felt this ruled out a trade sale, taking private equity investment or seeking to list on the stock market with the loss of agency this would bring.
This chimed with many in the room, especially founders of purpose driven businesses that were looking for ways to exit their companies without fundamentally altering their culture and ways of working. For most founders, legacy matters and they want to see their companies thrive in the future without them at the helm.
We described some of the challenges we are working through, like how to constitute the new governance structures and define the role of a staff council. Kath talked about her experiences of becoming a trustee director and how it felt to become an Employee Owner Trust (EOT).
The main one for me is that we’re not alone. Many others are following the same path for similar reasons. We’re also not unique in the challenges we face, in particular the role of trustee boards and staff councils in EOT businesses.
Some companies don’t differentiate their executive leadership from their trustee board in the way that we do. Often the managing director or CEO also has a seat on the trustee board. For some businesses, they have staff representation on the board of trustees but no staff council. In one case, there was a staff council but no trustee board.
We need to find what works best for us and our particular set of circumstances and be patient. Alongside the pressure of operating a business day-to-day, there is no single right answer to all this.
Where it’s worked, businesses have allowed themselves to try a few different approaches and settled on whatever works best for them. (Sounds a lot like how dxw approaches problems to me).
dxw has a head start on many businesses because of the way we have operated in the past few years. We provide regular updates on our finances and prefer to work in the open. Our playbook drew a lot of plaudits from conference delegates and this predates our move to employee-ownership.
While it might feel hard sometimes, it’s a source of great pride that we’re already doing many of the things that other businesses on this journey have to do for the first time. If we keep going, I’m sure that in years to come, dxw will be the keynote at this conference and the exemplar that others follow.