What swung it for Go Ape to realise employee ownership was the right path to safeguard its ‘very unique’ culture?
What started out as a drawing and a vision of a future involving “trees, tepees, tree houses and bonfires” has evolved into an adventure company welcoming more than a million visitors a year – and one that is now employee-owned after Go Ape’s founders handed over control to their 1,000-strong workforce.
During the almost 20 years that Go Ape has been in existence its founders, husband and wife team Rebecca and Tristram Mayhew, have always wondered ‘where do we see this going?’
Safeguarding the “very unique” culture and values of the treetop adventure company – which offers activities such as zip wires, tree-to-tree crossings and bouncy nets – was always at the forefront of their minds, but what swung it for them to become employee-owned was the process of looking into selling to a private investor.
Rebecca and Tristram transferred 90% of Go Ape shares into an employee ownership trust in October 2021 to give its 1,000 employees an equal stake in the ownership and success of the business, which was founded in 2002 and operates 35 sites in the UK and 16 in the US.
With Go Ape “like a family to us”, the pair wanted to retain 10% of the business to still be involved – without being in control – so that they can have “an ongoing legacy with Go Ape”.
Rebecca said: “It’s been something that has been all the way along the journey, we’ve always thought ‘what’s it going to look like into the future?’
“We’ve got three children and we’ve always been clear that they would have their own destiny and their own paths and they’ve always thought that as well.
“We’ve built a business where the culture is very unique and the values are something that every one of our team lives every day and we want to see that go into the future.
“We’ve talked a lot along the way about how we still want to go to Go Ape courses and see what we have created, obviously moving on and developing, but very much having the essence we have distilled in it all the way through into the future, but how do we make that happen?”
Why process of speaking to investors proved ‘really useful’
Exploring how succession might play out, in 2019 the founders looked at the possibility of selling to a private investor to see if this was “the right way to go”.
During talks, potential investors spoke about their love for the culture of Go Ape, but Rebecca and Tristram soon started to ask themselves whether their ambitions were going to be different and not align with theirs.
But while they ended up concluding this was not the right route for the business, the pair admit they found the process “really useful” as it served to reinforce their desire to “have some control into the future of what we look like”.
Tristram added: “By going through the process of looking for an external investor, and then pulling out of that a few years ago when we felt they wouldn’t be the right custodians for our family of Go Ape, it was confirmed by some of the people that they didn’t actually want the whole business anyway, they just wanted six of our best courses and presumably they would have sold the others off.
“And then you think ‘well, there you go’, they’d all said they love our business and the values, but actually they admitted to us straight away that they would have just chopped it up and sold it on.”
Move to employee ownership seen as ‘the right fit’
Go Ape is all about “creating adventures and encouraging everyone to live life more adventurously” and it was the desire to see this culture carry on that led the pair down the path to employee ownership.
When they first heard about employee ownership they knew it was “the right fit” for Go Ape’s values and culture of empowering and engaging its 1,000-strong workforce.
As part of the move, an employee council will help channel all the ideas, innovation and passion for the business from the 35 sites across the UK.
Rebecca added: “After the news (of going employee-owned) was announced, people who know Go Ape said ‘we can see that, it fits and is the right way to go, we’ve been there and the team are so engaged, they’re so naturally encouraging’.
“I think the team know we’ve put that trust in them and that is massive. If you put trust in them and believe in them, they’re going to step up, so we feel very confident we’ve got the right people in place.”
Staff at Go Ape have said they believe it is a “great opportunity to make a difference and have a say in the day-to-day running” of the business and how there is “a lot of positivity coming out of the company” at the moment.
After coming through the Covid pandemic, the pair know the team are “ready to take it on”.
“We feel very confident that we can trust the business with our team more than anybody else, particularly a bunch of suits,” added Tristram.
Rebecca and Tristram were telling their story on day one of the virtual EOA Annual Conference 2021, which is available on demand for 60 days after the conference. To find out more or to register, click here >>