Jerba Campervans – Our EO Story: Importance of ‘complete involvement’ of all employees
I remember the day as clear as it was yesterday – 30th January, 2006. The day I finally put my money where my mouth was and signed a one-year lease for a tiny commercial building. I was committing myself (and my own money!) to launching a business from scratch and Jerba Campervans was born. I had plans, hopes, ideas, energy, but no certainty how everything would play out and I certainly wasn’t even thinking about business succession and employee ownership!
Jerba Campervans quickly outgrew that first tiny commercial property and today our workforce of 15 are all vital cogs of our 100% employee-owned business – now business succession is front and centre. My partner, Cath, and I transitioned Jerba into employee ownership in January 2018 and drew up with the company a vendor loan five-year payback schedule.
Despite Covid closing our doors for three months in the spring of 2020, the loan has been paid six months earlier than planned – an outcome which we have no doubts was almost entirely down to the success of the employee ownership model.
Productivity has grown by an average of 7% year on year, our profits have increased in each consecutive year and employee retention is at an all-time high – with just one person choosing to leave in the past four years.
We have now decided the time is right for us to pass on our day-to-day company responsibilities – Cath is stepping back entirely, I am moving from MD to Chairman and we have recruited a new MD, Paul Kimberlin. Leadership succession is a challenge for any business, but for a small, employee-owned business I feel it can be extra tough. You need to find a leader who has not just the suitable management and strategic skills, but also the commitment and belief in the values of the EO business model.
We began our search for a new MD in the late autumn of 2021 and in March 2022 appointed Paul, a fantastic candidate with excellent skills and true people values. Recruiting a person with a genuine commitment to the wellbeing of employees was vital, experience of working within an EO company we didn’t feel was necessary. This approach widened the net, but made identifying the right person a trickier exercise.
Jerba Campervans is now at a very interesting point, we have embedded skills, knowledge and contacts from which to move the company to the next stage. To develop and diversify, to move into new markets and to employ more people with the same voice, benefits and conditions that our current workforce enjoys. It is a joy to see that as a business we really can have an impact on our employee’s lives, on their overall wellbeing and more widely on reducing wealth inequality across society.
Winding the clock back again and reflecting on the last 16 years it is interesting to consider how becoming EO changed my leadership of the business and how it changed the behaviour of employees. Since signing that contract in January 2006, I have always had an open management style, I always encouraged all employees to input and innovate, to communicate and work as a team, to listen and be self-critical. It was an approach that was successful, but moving to EO took it to another level.
Involving, consulting and communicating
On signing the EO papers in January 2018, I was very conscious that for most employees fundamentally nothing on a day-to-day basis would seem to change, so to bring the EO model to life I needed to introduce new ways of involving, consulting and communicating with staff. I had to turn my words into actual actions.
We formed structured development teams across the business to cover three key areas of product innovation, continual improvement and employee environment. The teams were small and crossed over different departments, I joined the first meeting with each team to set out the objectives but then allowed them the time and space to take each group forward on their own. Employees rose to the challenge and ideas flowed.
The Employee Environment team was particularly interesting, sat at your office desk it’s simple to assume what you think is important to employees, but by giving them structured time and an opportunity to talk freely without feeling inhibited by the presence of the boss, this soon turned up some fantastic ideas – we brought in an independent financial adviser during working hours, developed aspirational signage throughout the business, rolled out full sick pay, refitted the canteen and even bought a company campervan specifically for employees to use for holidays away!
Employees fully understood that these ideas all had a cost to the business and would have an impact on their annual bonus, but they were their ideas so had their total support.
Stepping up the level and depth of information on company strategy and finances that I presented to the employees was also key. I knew that this would vital in helping the Innovation Team to understand what might make one idea better than another. With all staff we looked ahead two years, five years, even 10 years, we discussed scenario planning and the opportunities and obstacles we faced.
We talked over the challenges of cashflow, capital investment, technological changes, competition and much more – to give their best input employees needed to be aware of and understand the land that lay ahead.
It’s important to say that the Innovation Team was all about idea generation, not about final decision making. Giving employees a framework and understanding of how to look at ideas critically, to know what aligns with the overall company strategy, whilst allowing them time to think freely about more radical proposals.
We now have a mix of new products and services under review and/or development – with employees involved from the outset these crucially have their 100% backing. The complete involvement of all employees has and continues to be an undeniable success.
Anecdotally I have always said that our staff are happier now we are employee owned, but proving that is key. In the autumn of 2021, we introduced an anonymous six monthly staff survey, after which I split the staff into two groups and they met (Director free!) to discuss the survey and how areas it highlighted as being of concern could be addressed.
This open feedback has led to further ground up development driven by employees where they have a real say in their working environment and company culture.
As we move to hand over the day-to-day running of Jerba Campervans to Paul, the most fulfilling part of the past 16 years has been creating secure, well-paid and fulfilling jobs for 15 people, with a real opportunity for the business to grow further and in turn employ new people with the same job security and working conditions.
In 2006, the risks were high when we signed for that tiny commercial building, but in 2018 when we signed the employee ownership papers, we felt the wheel had turned and the risks were low.
We could not be more delighted with how the subsequent five years have panned out – to truly see the positive benefits that employee ownership can bring to employees, their families and the wider local community.
By Simon Poole & Cath Brookes, Directors & Founders of Jerba Campervans