EO Day Guest Blog | Gaining authority by giving it away – UMi’s approach to employee ownership

From creating a culture of togetherness to simply doing the right thing, employee ownership has helped UMi become a better business for both its customers and its staff. Here, Simon Allen, Chair of UMi’s Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) explains how the company became employee-owned back in 2011 and why #BetterTogether is a fitting philosophy for its 130+ strong team.

Now in its 10th year of employee ownership, UMi has come a long way since becoming an organisation run by and for its people.

That was the motivation for the Board of Directors back in 2011 – to develop a culture of shared responsibility and give its team a real stake in the business and with it an appetite to contribute more of their ideas, talent and expertise.

Simon Allen, current Chair of the Employee Ownership Trust (EOT), which owns the shares of UMi, joined the business in 2013 and is now Investment Centre Director.

Reflecting on why he chose to come on board, he says: “For me, the real attraction of UMi was that it was employee-owned. I felt I would have some influence and be able to make a real contribution to the success of the business.”

How UMi does employee ownership

Employee ownership means something different to every business that adopts it.

For UMi, the model that seemed best suited was the indirect employee ownership model, where all shares in the company are held in trust.

“We chose that route for a couple of reasons,” says Simon.

“Firstly, it’s quite a simple structure in that you don’t have to be an individual shareholder to benefit, all you have to be is a current employee who’s served out their probationary period.

“This causes a lot less bureaucracy when we take on new people or when people leave.”

He continues: “The second reason is that it’s really inclusive.

“All shareholders don’t have to be equal, but all beneficiaries of the trust are equal.

“Whenever there is any sort of benefit as a result of the long-term health of the business, every fixed beneficiary of the trust gets an equal share of that benefit.”

The board of the UMi EOT is made up of staff from across the business, working at all different levels, as well as an independent director and representatives from the main UMi Board.

“We made the trust model our own in the sense that we openly invite anyone in the company to put themselves forward as a director,” adds Simon.

Appointments to the EOT are made through a selection process whereby nominations are taken to fill vacancies on the board as and when an existing director’s tenure comes to an end.

Any employee who has served out their probationary period can apply.

Going above and beyond

This open model of governance has significantly enhanced the culture of togetherness within the business where each employee feels empowered to contribute and get involved and engaged in cross-cutting projects as well as delivering the requirements of their role.

Simon adds: “It’s a virtuous circle because we’ve tended to attract people into the business who are interested in having a real stake and contributing above and beyond the salary they get paid to the success of the business.”

Going above and beyond has been a key theme for how UMi has operated over the last 16 months.

With many more businesses needing support in light of COVID-19, UMi has stepped up to deliver more business grants, loans, advice and information than ever before.

Simon believes that UMi’s culture of togetherness, fostered through employee ownership, has provided the agility and dynamism needed to support businesses in their hour of need.

He says: “The fact that we are not owned by a small number of shareholders who are focused primarily on the return on their investment or personal gain, means that when making decisions, we can be much more dynamic and agile, making the best choices for our business and customers.

“In the context of the last year, this has meant we could prioritise being a responsible business, perhaps much more assertively than we otherwise would, helping more businesses get through the pandemic.

“This required us to deviate slightly from our pre-existing plans to do what we thought was right for the broader business community, not just what was best for UMi.”

Better leadership, #BetterTogether

One of the best things about employee ownership is that everyone in the business is an employee – from the CEO to new recruits and everyone in between.

That’s doesn’t mean there are no clear lines of leadership to be respected. The UMi leadership team takes decisions and operates just like any private business does.

It is responsible for the smooth running of business operations, planning and executing on strategic priorities and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the company.

As such, employee ownership is not just about expanding the number of people sat around the boardroom table.

It’s more about recognising that business success is not just measured in terms of financial health, but in creating a workplace where talent can thrive and where everyone feels connected.

Simon says: “You absolutely need leaders, and we absolutely have leaders. They set the tone and set the agenda, but then it’s about doing it together.”

That’s why the theme of #BetterTogether for EO Day 2021 feels especially fitting.

UMi helps businesses to do more and go further, but it does so together.