‘In my last month as CEO, I can look back on 2021 as a year of adaption and innovation for employee ownership’

As we start 2022, looking back to this time last year, I guess no one could have imagined we would still be deep amid the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

After almost 24 months of significant restrictions to our personal and business behaviours, and with the tragic loss of so many lives, most of us were hoping that 2022 would be the start of a new, Covid-free, or at least restriction free, future.

However, humankind is highly adaptable and innovative therefore I’m sure that in time we will overcome and learn to live with the ‘new normal’ of coronavirus. And it is this adaptability and innovation which has also marked the last year of employee ownership.

Building on previous years, 2021 saw continued growth of employee ownership; in June we reported 730 employee-owned businesses, a staggering increase of 250 over the previous 18 months and 113 since the start of the year. We now believe the sector to be 800 employee-owned businesses.

The anecdotal evidence is that this growth and the pandemic are related; that the virus has caused more business owners and founders to adapt their plans and prioritise their business succession/exit planning.

This was reinforced by some of the attendees at the EOA’s Annual Conference in November who were there to explore if and how employee ownership could support their plans. And we were delighted that the founders of one of the UK’s best loved adventure brands, Go Ape, were there and able to tell their story of their recent move to employee ownership to these explorers.

But we also conclude that the growth of the sector is a product of the much higher levels of awareness generated by an increasing number of professional advisers who are now proactively advising on employee ownership.

This growth in professional advisory support for employee ownership comes three years after the EOA’s launch of the Ownership Dividend, which saw a range of business and trade bodies including the ICAEW, ICAS, IOD, FSB, ACCA, CMI and CIPD endorse a strategy to grow employee ownership.  Therefore, thanks are due to all these organisations, and to the many individual Supporter Members of the EOA who continue to champion and advocate for employee ownership, contributing to its significant growth.

employee ownership

CEO Deb Oxley OBE, top left, speaking with the Go Ape team at the EOA’s first, fully virtual Annual Conference in November 2021

2021 was also a year of continued innovation for the EOA as we were faced with delivering our range of services and events digitally – including the 10-year commemoration of our founder’s passing, via the annual Robert Oakeshott Lecture, the eighth annual EO Day celebrations, which surpassed all previous years’ impact with over 3.5 million impressions created by #EODay, and the hosting of our first, fully virtual Annual Conference, which included the hosting of the EO Stories celebrations.

We were also delighted that during 2021, despite a pandemic, alongside our partner Co-operatives UK, we were able to launch our innovative, place-based project to grow employee and worker ownership, the Ownership Hub, in the first location of South Yorkshire. Supported by the Mayor, Dan Jarvis, it is hoped that this new approach to encouraging localised growth of employee and worker ownership will directly contribute to economic recovery and to the Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ policy.

As we ended a year of adaption and innovation, I was personally delighted that we were able to announce my successor, James de le Vingne, who will be joining the EOA in February as our new CEO, bringing with him new energy, vision and ambition for the EOA.

Working with many of you for the last nine years has been an honour and the greatest of pleasures and I have learnt so much. I always believed that business could be a force for good, but it was only after discovering employee ownership, nine years ago, that I worked out how this could be done.

Whilst the high-profile speaking engagements, the media interviews and even the award of an OBE have been extraordinary experiences, it is the helping founders and owners to hand over the reins of their much-loved businesses, fully confident in its future and that of the employees that has been the biggest thrill.

And to meet some of those founders years later and hear their stories of how the business has gone from strength to strength, them knowing that they had enabled that via employee ownership, has been a huge privilege.

As ever, it is the people that have made the last nine years the experience of a lifetime. The EOA team both past and current, the Board members who have given their time generously, the members of the Membership Council, our supporter members and of course the hundreds of members who I regularly engage with.

I am going to miss everyone when I leave the EOA in March, but I could not be more proud of what we have achieved together during my time as custodian of the EOA, and feel confident that we have reputationally, financially and operationally strengthened the organisation that Robert Oakeshott created some 43 years ago.

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