Employee ownership: enabling the UK’s ‘Mittlestand’ to prosper

Last week saw the Ownership Effect Inquiry move out of London and into Edinburgh, as we held our first regional Inquiry, followed this week by our second regional outing in Manchester.

Once again, we were supported by a brilliant Panel of colleagues from business organisations who generously gave their time to hear evidence from 19 different employee owned businesses and six professional advisors across the two hearings.

The format of the regional hearings differs to the two held in London so far. In one day, the Panel takes evidence from each of our key topics of corporate governance, performance, succession and growth. In this way, the Panels in each region are exposed to the full picture of when and why employee ownership is chosen as a business solution; how it is implemented; and the benefits it delivers.

For me, these regional hearings in particular have started to uncover the economic opportunity of employee ownership in developing the UK’s regional economies.

We heard time and again how employee ownership is helping to root jobs in the local economy; how it helps regional businesses to prosper; how it is supporting greater regional social mobility through is fairer distribution of wealth; how it is delivering positive impact to local communities; and how it is a catalyst for enterprise and innovation.

With expert insights from groups representing SMEs, family businesses, business directors, and regional economies – it was clear to me that we are starting to uncover evidence of employee ownership’s potential to answer some of the UK’s burning challenges; spreading wealth more evenly across the country, closing the productivity gap – especially in the regions – and growing the nation’s SMEs and independently owned business community.

In Edinburgh, we heard how the Scottish government is committed to inclusive growth and ensuring its nation of independently-owned businesses are supported as they figure out their options for succession. We heard how employee ownership is now becoming an increasingly popular route in securing jobs in Scotland, and how it is key to the regional economies of Scotland as it helps to protect jobs in more remote areas.

It has been a key contributor to the resilience and survival of businesses during tough economic times. More recently, we heard how employee ownership is supporting a new generation of professional service companies, helping them to attract, retain and recruit the best talent.

In Manchester in particular, we were treated to a plethora of proud northern manufacturing businesses, with long standing heritage, an appetite for growth and an ambition to source and develop product in the UK. Whilst these traits may be similar to many businesses, what struck me was the confidence of these businesses in their own ability; based on their passion for employee ownership and their own self-belief.

There was no talk of Brexit, or of any possible economic slowdown. Instead, what we heard was businesses where employee owners work collaboratively – with the same ambition and shared purpose – for the long-term success of their business. Businesses that, when things get tough, pull together; sharing the pain and responsibility. I am sure I was not alone in getting a strong sense that anything was possible for these firms, and that employee ownership was providing not only the structure, but a culture that was enabling this to happen.

In fact, it was best summed up by one of my colleagues on the Panel in Manchester yesterday, who commented: ‘Employee ownership is supporting the UK’s equivalent to the Mittlestand’.

For those of you not familiar with the Mittlestand, this is the name used to refer to medium-sized businesses, mainly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, that are often independently or family owned. This observation seems highly relevant – as every business we have heard from so far is proudly and fiercely independent, many with family routes, and all purposed and focused on securing the same long term, independent growth.

With four hearings now completed, we move to Wales and Birmingham in the next two weeks, with our final hearing in London taking place in between that. With each hearing, I can see the evidence for our business case for employee ownership strengthening, especially as a route to securing the future of the UK’s independent business sector.

However, we still want to hear from more UK employee owned businesses and their advisers and our invitation is certainly not limited to members of the EOA. So, I hope that as many employee-owned businesses, accountants, lawyers and funders as possible take the chance to have their voices heard and their views shared by providing a submission to our online survey by clicking here before the 21st July, when our evidence gathering sadly has to come to a close.

If your organisation has already, or will contribute to one of the verbal hearings taking place, we would still appreciate your written evidence. Thank you in advance for your support in this and we look forward to receiving your submission, and of course, the next hearing of the Inquiry on July 14th.