Purcell – Our EO Story: ‘Community of many voices’ strengthened and empowered
Purcell is one of the world’s leading design practices with more than 70 years’ experience as architects, master planners and heritage consultants operating across regions of the UK and Asia Pacific.
Currently with 236 employee owners, the AJ100 architectural practice has provided expert services as architects, designers, heritage and specialist consultants on many of the UK’s best-known buildings.
The retirement of several co-owners between 2016 and 2018 left the remaining two owners of Purcell responsible for a global team and facing an existential crisis. The resulting shockwaves brought into question a previously secured ownership contingency model, with the immediate need to protect the organisation’s independence, ownership and – above all – people, now brought to the fore.
Over seven previous decades, Purcell had cultivated a unique place in the industry and a reliable reputation around the world, but the remaining owners recognised that opportunities to simultaneously reinvent, adapt, and safeguard a practice are rare.
With an enthusiastic, highly specialised, and extraordinarily talented workforce facing a prodigious level of uncertainty and inevitable change, its leadership embarked on a consultation process aimed at breaking down barriers of accountability and transparency, incentivising its employees, and giving them a substantial – even personal – stake in the company’s performance.
The lengthy process that led us to employee ownership (EO) has been enduringly positive, with strategic and financial benefits becoming almost immediately apparent: employee engagement is up significantly, and financial communication and awareness have notably increased, with profits to the half-year point almost double the profit for the full year to April 2019.
The need for transformation
Purcell’s architectural legacy, created by founder Donovan Purcell in 1947, was threatened by quick and unforeseen ownership changes, leaving two remaining co-owners accountable for the whole body of staff, spread regionally and internationally across 16 studio locations. Their clear desire not to sell to an external buyer was tempered by the acknowledgement that a pivotal change to operations was needed to continue the future of the practice.
Exploring methods of leaving a legacy for a new generation of owners without putting financial strain on the company or its working capital, the owners focused on creating a culture that drove results and a solution that would endure through employees’ emotional engagement. Creating a clear line of sight between employees’ individual actions and the cumulative impact Purcell’s bottom line – and with that our own rewards – would ensure Purcell could thrive and operate in perpetuity.
Insights from our staff were fundamental to our transition – without their wholehearted buy-in, EO would be unviable. Through a series of ‘Roadshows’, CEO Mark Goldspink visited each studio to articulate his vision: intrinsically linking the needs of both the company and the individual employees, empowering each of them to be accountable for our success or failure.
The unanimous agreement to move to the EO model meant an opportunity to clarify the kind of culture we wanted to build and to understand the specific behaviours that entailed.
To re-establish our organisational capability through a shared mindset, staff members volunteered to create Purcell’s new values and behaviours. Drawing on ideas and consultation from all levels and regions of the business, as well as gaining thoughtful insight from some of our longest-serving clients, staff became united by a sense of common purpose and began encouraging the notion of ownership to less engaged colleagues.
Translating this to a set of day-to-day actions was the first step in tangibly linking our strategic goals to how they should be delivered under the new model. To provide a clearer means of communication between employees and the new board, and to give employees the opportunity to raise concerns or ideas, the Purcell Voice was established. This ongoing forum continues to act as a powerful mechanism for reminding all Purcell’s people of their responsibility to act as owners and make a difference.
Our next step was the launch of Purcell’s Collective Ambition. This document sets out our five-year business plan in line with our principal objectives, aspiring to underpin the daily actions of all employees, and with key performance indicators to provide measures for holding the board to account.
Integrating EO’s participatory culture meant fresh thinking for our operational model and structure. With a stringent focus on our clients’ needs, we re-organised our studios into regional groups, paving the way for more focused leadership, management, and work-winning strategies. This has contributed to overall growth through the regional integration of resources, offering frequent opportunities to create efficiencies and share knowledge.
Our evolution from Donovan Purcell’s philosophies was outlined in our final key document, the Purcell Constitution. Though still inextricably bound to the original ethos and philosophy, the constitution highlights both the process and practicalities of our reinvention; now thriving within a fairer, grassroots-driven structure that corresponds to the practice’s developing ambitions and central to our identity.
Strategic and financial results: What was achieved?
EO has transformed employee engagement culture in our organisation; encouraging employees to take control of their own learning and development journey, deepening scrutiny in our everyday business decisions, creating distinctive local identities for their studios, significantly increasing costs awareness, and contributing to increased inter-regional collaboration and success.
A new generation of owners has found their voice, playing an active role in leading the business to greater successes. The extensive commitment and effort put into realigning our culture has already started to pay off – as demonstrated through responses to our employee engagement surveys, where 72% of our staff shared the belief that the Board and Partners are taking the business in the right direction to achieve success; 79% agreed that Purcell provides equal opportunities for all; and 69% advocated our new ownership structure.
Our Employee Trust now owns 70% of the business, with the remaining 30% transferring from May 2026. With the metrics of our Employee Inform surveys showing marked increases this year – including engagement up 8%, belief in the board to achieve success up 34%, trustworthiness of leadership up 7%, and employees’ sense of importance up 31% – there is significant confidence amongst those who matter most that EO is bringing tangible benefits and an optimistic future.
Our profitability is improving, with a profit at the end of our first EO year of £2 million, compared to annual profits of £1.3m (2021 and 2020) and £720,000 (2019). Revenue is now back to pre-pandemic levels and our bank balance has tripled in the last two years, despite making significant repayments to our former owners since May 2021 as part of our move to EO. Our bank balance and net assets value have already returned to nearing pre-EO levels.
Our journey has reinvented and enhanced the collaborative approach that we have perpetually strived for in the way we work. Purcell’s identity is unchanged, but our community of many voices – who come together with enthusiasm to support each other in achieving and celebrating collective success – is undeniably strengthened by our new sense of participation and self-empowerment.