Summer Dinner 2016 Address

A real highlight of the EOA’s events calendar, our annual Summer Dinner – my first as CEO – took place on Thursday 9th June at the Palace of Westminster.

As part of the evening, I had the pleasure of addressing more than 150 of our members and felt very lucky to be doing so in such wonderful surroundings and, of course, at such a momentous time.  You could almost smell the anticipation of what might happen there on 23 June.

Whilst the EU referendum campaign has been polarised – and in most people’s opinion, too-often negative – the one thing that most commentators do agree – is that no-one can predict the outcome and that life after the referendum will most definitely be changed, regardless of the result.

And change was the first of two themes I spoke about last night.

Not the change that will inevitably follow the referendum vote, but the change that is informing and shaping business today – and importantly the opportunity that this presents for the employee ownership sector.

A heady climax of economic, political and social unrest, combined with a new generation of workers and, the arrival of ever-more sophisticated technology, has placed almost every business in 2016 in what some find an uncomfortable situation of constant change.

Whilst markets continue to evolve – it is the way in which markets are viewed – by their consumers, their employees and the media however which is now changing most dramatically.

There is an entirely new narrative in play.

And this narrative is now demanding answers to questions about how business behaves.

This narrative is a result of new expectations and growing confidence in both consumers and employees, the advent of a new generation of workers – the so-called Millennials, a more searching media – and the continuous changing face of technology.

Sites like Glassdoor, TripAdvisor, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are new platforms for our voices to be heard.  From where we’ve been on holiday, to where we work, to what we’ve just eaten or even our experience of a recent hospital visit – we can share our views on all of these with millions of other people around the world, in a matter of seconds.

The popularity and reach of these platforms means their content can have a profound, and sometimes devastating influence, on personal and corporate reputations.

And along with these new platforms, comes a demand for new levels of transparency, including ever higher expectations of fairness.

This sees very public displays of discontent, often leading to media scrutiny when corporations are challenged for not paying their ‘fair share’ of tax, or that their CEO is receiving far more than a ‘fair’ amount of pay for their role or that the business owner is not behaving responsibility towards their employees – as has been seen very recently in BHS and Sports Direct.

So why should this matter to employee ownership?

Unlike other forms of ownership however, employee owned businesses are perfectly placed not only to deal with the new demands of society’s expectation of business – but to exploit this for competitive and business benefit.

For it is employee owned businesses that invest heavily in employee engagement – involving staff in decision making, giving them a voice and empowering them with transparent information about how the business is performing.

Because of this, they regularly report exceptional scores in their staff surveys – and it’s not surprising that a good selection of them regularly appear in the Sunday Times Top 100 Businesses to work for.

It’s these self same businesses that are better structured to listen to their customers, enabling them to respond more flexibly and quickly to what they hear.  Only last week I was with one of our members who told me how positively their clients viewed the empowerment of the employee owners in their business which gives them the ability to make decisions quickly on behalf of their clients in a way that their competitors cannot.

These same employee owned businesses are also proven to be more innovative – using the resources, talent and skills of their employee owners to create and deliver new products, improved ways of working and different approaches to business challenges.

And of course these businesses manage to do all of this with fairness embedded in their DNA – often sharing the rewards of labour through profit and bonus or supporting their staff through charitable foundations.

So change most definitely is the new constant – and every business, no matter what the outcome on 23rd June, will undoubtedly continue to face uncertainty over the coming months and even years.

But it is employee owned businesses, that through their higher levels of engagement, greater transparency, more innovation and proven resilience that will be able to respond more quickly to such change, seizing the inevitable opportunities that arise.

With such a compelling proposition and a strong economic case, it’s a wonder that every business is not employee owned.

That’s certainly a question I’m regularly asked.

My answer of course is simple.

If only more people knew about employee ownership, there would be more employee owned businesses.

So my second point of the evening was – how do we ensure, together, that more entrepreneurs, business owners and advisors are aware of employee ownership?

In the final two weeks of political campaigning in the EU Referendum, I made my call for our own ‘campaign for change’ – comprising three key calls to action.

Firstly, a call for every accountancy firm to have at least one specialist accountant who can advise clients on the business benefits of employee ownership by 2020.

Secondly, a call to ensure that the business education curriculum across both higher and further education includes comprehensive coverage of employee ownership as part of the syllabus.

And finally a call to ensure that every lender has at least one local expert who fully understands employee ownership as a positive and credible business model and is favourable to lending to it.

These will be the focus of our own calls for action – part of our already positive campaign for more employee ownership in the UK.

Change may well indeed be the new constant, but, employee ownership provides the perfect model to both embrace that change and exploit opportunities it may present, as together, we can campaign for more employee ownership and a better way of doing business.