7 key takeaways from the EOA’s event featuring Dame Sharon White, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership

More than 100 EOA members turned out for our South East Regional Network Meeting at Arup’s offices in London on 7 June to connect, learn and discuss the unique challenges and opportunities they face with other employee owned businesses.

The event, which was sponsored by RM2 Partnership, heard from:

  • David Whittleton, Chair of Trustees at hosts Arup
  • Richard Cowley, Director at RM2
  • Head of Membership and Business Development Oliver Smith and Head of Comms and Policy Fran Lord from the EOA team
  • Malcolm Clarke, Managing Director and Chairman at employee owned Baxall Construction, along with its Non-Exec Director and trustee Clive Stuart
  • Dame Sharon White, John Lewis Partnership Chairman
  • A panel discussion on incentivisation and share schemes
  • Plus insight sharing sessions on key roles, and open space networking

Here are our 7 key takeaways from the employee ownership meeting:

1. Importance of engagement

When attendees shared how they’d summarise the day, two people immediately shouted ‘engagement’.

From the moment David Whittleton talked of the “high level” of engagement at employee owned Arup whilst kicking off the event, engagement continued to come up as an important theme during presentations and in conversations around the room throughout the day.

Clive Stuart from Baxall remarked that “communication was fundamentally key to success” when asked about managing expectations after going EO, and that it was important to the business to be “very prepared in advance of going live”.

Russell Brown, the Chief Executive at Shaw Healthcare, who had been part of an earlier panel, said that engagement was “very, very important” to get right to ensure there is “two-way communication” – both letting employees know what is going on in the business, but also actively listening to the ideas and thoughts they have as well.

Sharon white

2. ‘Employee ownership is a given’ at the John Lewis Partnership

Dame Sharon White addressed the event amid the recent public debate about the John Lewis Partnership, saying that if the Partnership explores external investment, it will still remain an employee owned business.

She said the strength of two of the best loved brands in the UK, Waitrose and John Lewis, “is rooted in – not incidental – to the model”, and that the recent debate about its future direction can be explained by how the business is viewed “as much a national institution as the BBC or the NHS”.

“Our customers and the country feel like they own part of the Partnership – that they have a stake,” she said. “That is an extraordinarily privileged position to be in as a business.”

Sharon added: “Employee ownership is a given. What makes us special is not incidental to being a Partnership. It’s because we’re a Partnership.”

3. No business can stand still

During the case study presentation from Baxall Construction, which is a regional contractor, Malcolm Clarke, pictured, ended with a series of tips for other EO businesses.

He stressed that it was crucial to “avoid complacency”, and used a sporting analogy to stress that teams usually pay the price for being complacent, adding that companies should “always seek continuous improvement and innovation to do better”.

Dame Sharon made a similar point when she laid out the future vision and transformation of the John Lewis Partnership, where she concluded that “no business can stand still”, having earlier remarked how “an unconventional business model has to be innovative and efficient to survive”.

She highlighted that the partnership had come through two once-in-a-generation events in the past three years – a global pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis – and had survived where many retailers had not. She emphasised that the company has a solid five-year plan, which began in 2021, to get the Partnership back to sustainable profit.

Sharon remarked: “The Partnership is modernising by staying true to its historic values. We are unapologetic about what we stand for, and that’s what our customers have come to expect: a business built on kinder capitalism. Responsible capitalism needs to adapt to the modern era.”

4. ‘Evolution, not revolution’

Baxall Construction’s presentation shared useful insights on its employee ownership journey, with Malcolm Clarke remarking it had been “an evolution, not a revolution”.

Baxall’s EO story highlighted the thorough planning they had had to put in place, and outlined how different phases were put in place as part of its EO strategy. For example, post completion of the EO transition with its immediate implementation of a planned, renewed ‘modus operandi’.

As part of this planning, he said a business should always be thinking “succession, succession, succession”, to plan what a business will look like and who will lead it in future years. This included thinking about the future leadership skills needed by new, junior talent.

5. Be true to your values

The theme of being true to your values was also a key thread during the event.

At the start, David Whittleton spoke about how the values set out in the early days of Arup are “still at the heart” of everything they do at the company, which transitioned to trust ownership in 1977.

Dame Sharon, pictured, also commented how a 100-year-old Partnership is transforming itself in today’s highly competitive market by “staying true to our enduring values”, spelt out as “a commitment to people: partners, customers and the local community”. Also central to John Lewis’s values are the democratic nature in which it is governed, with partners being involved and included in decision-making.

Malcom Clarke spoke about the challenges of finding the right succession option for Baxall Construction, and how they wanted to ensure whichever option they went for was consistent with its values and culture. He said that when they learnt about the EOT route, it was a “lightbulb moment” in the process linked to this motivation.

6. EO has fantastic impact

Baxall shared how EO has had a great, positive impact throughout the business, while RM2’s Richard Cowley spoke about how their employee ownership advisers were “enjoying life” being an EO business itself – and these sentiments were echoed in conversations throughout the room.

As well as the positive effect EO has on a business itself and its employees, several people in the room referenced the community elements of EO, as well as its wider economic impact. There was plenty of excitement in the room about sharing this messaging by taking part in EO Day 2023 on 23 June, our annual national celebration of all things employee ownership.

The theme of EO Day this year is #TheEOeffect – where with the help of members and partners we want to showcase the impact employee ownership has on employees, businesses, communities, the wider economy and the environment. You can find out more about EO Day 2023 here.

Furthermore, members were encouraged to join our three roundtable events in June and July to take part in our wider consultation exercise as part of our policy strategy work, which will inform EOA action across a variety of areas. Register here.

7. Sharing insights

We know from members the great value they get from coming together to share knowledge, insight and best practice at our face-to-face events.

After the presentations and speeches, members split off into smaller groups to share insights on key roles in EO business, which were kindly facilitated by members. These covered topics including independent trustees, HR, finance, leadership, and the role of employee trustees.

There were also open space group chats on topics set out by members when registering for the event, followed by networking with other EO businesses over refreshments. All of this meant that there was an enormous amount of peer learning and sharing over the course of the event, and attendees emphasised that this remains one of the best elements of attending EOA events.

‘Informative’, ‘inspired’,  ‘useful’, ‘purposeful’ and ‘highly enjoyable’ were just some of the words shared in feedback at the end of the day, with John Bezzant, Corporate Finance Director at RM2, remarking “there’s so much energy in the room when EO businesses get together, it’s quite contagious”.

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