Seven takeaways from the 2022 EOA Annual Conference at the ACC in Liverpool

More than 650 delegates spent two days learning more about ‘unlocking the potential’ of employee ownership at the EOA Annual Conference 2022 in Liverpool.

The event, the first in-person EOA Conference since 2019, had 30 sessions involving 43 speakers at the ACC, while delegates also had the chance to network with peers from a range of sectors to share insight and best practice about employee ownership.

EOA Chief Executive James de le Vingne, in his first conference since joining the organisation, launched the event with a keynote speech, which you can read and watch here >>

Here are seven takeaways from the conference, staged on October 3 and 4:

1. All about people

The first plenary session was presented by John Vary, Futurologist for the John Lewis Partnership, whose job is to notice pockets of the future and help translate them into new opportunities today.

John outlined 10 things important to him in his work. The 10th of these was the importance of people and working in a business full of people that care. He ended his presentation by saying: “Most of all, it’s people that give me hope when I look to the future.”

During a subsequent Q&A, he was asked about the fact people embrace change at a different pace and how you take that into consideration when talking about change.

He said: “Keep it as authentic as possible, these are people talking to people. When you focus on people, people find it easier talking about change.”

2. Be clear about where you’re going

One of the speakers during the breakout sessions was Director General of the Institute of Directors (IOD) Jonathan Geldart, who gave a talk on resilience and planning.

He used a rally driving analogy to get across the importance of knowing where you’re going and planning. He remarked that, much like in rally driving, in business issues arise if you don’t know where you’re going or can’t see where you’re going. He also stressed the importance of data to make informed decisions, adding “you only know what you know”, so use what data you’ve got to steer where you’re going.

He also said, at the IoD, they’re “big fans” of employee ownership, remarking: “Better businesses for the betterment of the economy are run by engaged owners.”

3. Being together

For many delegates who have been to a previous EOA Conference, there was real joy at being ‘back together again’ – a theme that was woven into different speeches and songs played.

But the fact over half of delegates had never attended an in-person conference before meant they were experiencing for the first time the benefits of ‘being together’ with other employee owners.

This was most evident in the exhibition hall where peer-to-peer networking proved incredibly useful for those in attendance, especially first-timers like Martina Hofner, Operation Director at Esteem Training in Glasgow, which transitioned to employee ownership earlier this year.

She told the EOA Podcast: “The biggest thing my colleague and I were looking forward to at the Conference was networking and hearing from others that were maybe a bit further ahead on their journey and having that knowledge sharing and listening to people’s experiences. That networking is hugely valuable and has really given me food for thought.”

4. Continued growth of sector

In his speech to kick-off the Celebration Dinner, EOA Board Chair Chris McDermott, who is managing director of employee owned The 1:1 Diet by Cambridge Weight Plan, talked positively about the growth of the sector.

On EO Day, we announced the sector had surpassed 1,000 businesses, having more than doubled in size in the space of three years.

“The continued increase in growth of employee ownership and the increased impact of employee owned businesses demonstrates the relevance of the model for economy,” Chris said.

“A model that looks to share wealth more equally, to root jobs resiliently in regions and has sustainability and the long-term in mind, and where ideas are not just top down, but supported from deep within the business, empowering everyone to share in both the responsibility as well as the rewards of the enterprise.”

5. Your challenge… use stories more

Six businesses were recognised in the EO Stories showcase and awards at the end of the Celebration Dinner, with Riverford Organic Farmers, DJS Research, Torchbox and Hayes Davidson announced as winners of the public vote, while Rochdale Boroughwide Housing was named Partner’s Pick, judged by EOA Trustee Member and dinner sponsors GLIDE and Gripple.

Alfa Leisureplex Group, pictured, was named President’s Pick, judged by EOA President Patrick Lewis, who in announcing his winner set a challenge to all those in the room.

He said: “Stories are incredibly important to getting the EO story itself out there and I personally want to really challenge all of us to use stories even more to convert more people who would love to be involved with employee ownership but haven’t yet heard enough about it or learnt what it can achieve.”

6. EO has key ingredients

To start day two in a fun manner, a special EO edition of the BBC panel show ‘Fighting Talk’ was hosted by Martine Croxall and involved Charlotte Tickle from Riverford Organic Farmers, Kingsley James from Emperor, and Olly Willans of Torchbox.

Inspired by national vodka day, the panel (pictured) was asked for the key ingredients that give EO businesses that special umph that makes employees act like owners.

Charlotte stated it takes a lot of ingredients to make a vodka cocktail, and how, just like EO, you “need lots of ingredients to come together to make it work”, such as governance.

Kinglsey said there are no shortcuts to making good vodka and that it’s the same with EO, there are no shortcuts and the key ingredient is “patience”, adding “if you get the right ingredients then employees will acts as owners”.

Olly said good vodka needs to be smooth, have the right smell and be crystal clear – and this links to transparency and the importance of this for EO businesses.

7. You’re always talking to an owner

The closing session was titled ‘Are the employees Richer?’ and featured Richer Sounds, with Chair David Robinson and CEO Julie Abraham sharing their EO journey.

They were asked when did they start to notice differences after they became employee owned, and Julie responded: “Almost immediately from the day we announced it – at which point you could hear a pin drop, it was like a tumbleweed moment. But from that moment we had more of a sense of ownership, especially when the pandemic hit and everyone threw themselves into it and there was a blitz-like spirit among the team.”

The pair said Richer Sounds uses EO at its shops to stress to customers that “you’re always talking to an owner” – an apt point for the Conference, where at every turn a delegate would be speaking to another ‘owner’.

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