Becoming Employee Owned: Reflections from our Founding Partner one year on

In November 2020 The Nursery converted to employee ownership. A year on Peter Dann, one of our founding partners, reflects on what’s changed and what’s stayed the same.

Yesterday I came into the office to find someone taking down our company signs and replacing them with ones with our new logo, and very smart and up-to-date they look too. As he left, a couple of the Partners asked if I wanted to keep the old ones. I couldn’t resist the quip ‘but they’re not mine anymore, they’re yours’, but I appreciated the sentiment along with the sentimentality: I had after all ‘designed’ that logo 20 years ago with Microsoft Word on the Sony Vaio I’d just bought in Comet.

A couple of years back I would have been briefing and approving the new logo design, probably meddling with it, and hiding my regret – badly - at changing the old one. I would almost certainly have had the masonry drill out fixing it to the wall – the life of a small business owner is so glamorous. This time I didn’t see it until it went live on the website, and I have to say it’s probably better without my input.

That little episode sums up what the process of moving to employee ownership has been like, and what has made it so satisfying. The principles with which we founded the company 20 years ago are still as sound as ever: to deliver constructive research that helps brands grow; but the way we do it has changed beyond recognition, and our ideas that were fresh and even occasionally radical then are mainstream now. So we’ve always relied on the creativity of the whole team to keep our offer evolving while staying true to our principles. In that model, the more the company evolves the more intellectual and professional ownership is shared around: there are clients, methodologies, industry sectors and whole business streams that as business owners we facilitated but couldn’t claim much direct ‘ownership’ of.

In our minds there was also going to be tension when it was time for us to ‘step back’ (no-one retires in the 21st century): in our 20 years we’ve seen too many examples of founders hanging on too long while their company drifts and their talented people get frustrated and leave, or where their supposedly excited new parent company quickly sees opportunities to improve the bottom line at the expense of their brand and vision. An Employee Ownership model – where a Trust set up for the benefit of all employees acquires the business and pays the shareholders over a few years – looked a far more appropriate solution, and a year on opinion seems to be ‘so far, so good’.

The obvious changes have been in management – we now have a board of directors which is primarily supervisory and the majority of whom are not founding shareholders; the day to day running of the business is in the hands of senior managers. This too is an evolutionary process – the shareholders step back only as fast as the management team want them to, balancing progress with stability.

Less obvious but equally important is beginning to challenge conventional career paths. There are now two founding partners (of which I am one) who have little if any direct ‘management’ responsibilities. As in many creative industries, the brain that makes a great researcher isn’t always at its best wrestling with issues of company management. Why shouldn’t experienced, senior researchers progress professionally and get rewarded doing what they do best and enjoy most, without the need to acquire the dubious status of a ‘management position’? We believe that when employees own the business they work in, they should as far as possible be able to purse the career that best benefits both them and the business.

But the changes that I find the most satisfying to see are the many subtler ways in which our Partners are beginning to take ownership of their business. We made it clear from the point of transition that getting involved was entirely optional – not everyone has time or inclination; we have also tried to delineate ownership (having a say in how the business is run) from management (responsible for running it).

Initially we used ideas that are common to many employee-owned businesses: we have an elected Partner Representative who attends board meetings and facilities direct communication from partners. Gratifyingly much of this communication has been about bright ideas we wouldn’t have thought of alongside the (equally important) challenges to the status quo. We share budgets and financial performance with the whole team and work on the principle of ‘transparency by default’. And we refer to the team as Partners not employees, a term that seems to have come very naturally and is all the more significant as a result.

Alongside this are a range of Partners’ Working Groups set up with specific short- and long-term briefs ranging from EDI to workplace benefits to socialising. These not only allow everyone the opportunity to contribute beyond the day job if they want and are able to, but are genuinely useful in sharing the management workload and setting direction from the people who are most affected by the issues.

The principle of Employee Ownership of course is that because Partners have a vested interest in their business succeeding they bring added engagement to everything they do – whether that’s project work for clients, new ideas for our business, sharing best practice and learning or just being active members of the team. I’ve seen plenty of signs of this already, with many people - younger partners and recent joiners especially - volunteering to take more active roles and responsibilities than I could have imagined doing at their age, which for me is the most satisfying characteristic of the ‘new Nursery’. My spectacles may be getting rose-tinted with age but could it be that this is because people are more invested in the company’s future as well as their own?

I do hope so, because one of them is editing this copy and if she doesn’t agree she will simply take that bit out, along with any other inappropriate ramblings. And that’s exactly the way it should be.