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Employee ownership – resilience in a time of uncertainty

Five things investors and listed companies need to know about the common ownership debate and why it matters

By Stephen Greenwood, Owner of Valloop

White House economist Jared Bernstein is a major advocate for employee ownership, in which employees buy the company they work for. In a recent study, he notes the model’s various benefits, such as how it both improves job quality as well as increasing workers’ wealth and productivity.

As a long-time adviser to President Biden, it’s highly likely Bernstein will be pushing the US Government to encourage more private businesses to transition to employee ownership. Given today’s financial uncertainty, now would seem an opportune time for businesses everywhere to consider the concept, not only for the economic and emotional stability and resilience it can offer to their employees, but also for the positive impact it can have on their bottom line and wider society. In the study, Bernstein references Federal Reserve data which showed that over half of corporate stock was held by the wealthiest one percent of households – conversely, the bottom 50 percent hold just 1 percent of the value of corporate entities. Bernstein emphasises the role employee ownership can play in redressing this imbalance: “ESOPs (Employee shared ownership plans) transfer capital ownership to wage earners, directly reducing extremely high levels of wealth concentration, and ESOP firms appear to have less internal wage dispersion”.

Wide-ranging benefits

As a form of business buy-out, employee ownership offers owners the chance to sell their company or retire but, rather than see their legacy subsumed by a competitor or PLC, it allows them to see it remain a going concern, simultaneously protecting a loyal workforce and the business’ wider community. At Valloop, we take an ethical approach to buy-outs by providing the financial instruments required for SME employees across Europe to buy their businesses via its intelligent buy-out (IBO) frameworks, creating employee co-owned companies driving value and change through greater social inclusion. This ensures a strong financial performance for investors in a way that also benefits society. In the past five years we have seen compound annual growth of more than 15%*.

The benefits of employee ownership have been proven. Underpinned by the simple idea that no business can thrive without its people, an employee ownership structure gives everyone involved a common goal – that of commercial success. Knowing they have a stake in the business, employees feel directly involved in a company’s success and that they will be rewarded for it. Indeed, research shows that the approach leads to a happier workforce: a greater involvement in the decision-making and future direction of a company results in a greater sense of satisfaction and wellbeing.

Its benefits spread beyond a company’s employees too. Companies in which employees have a stake often tend to remain rooted in the community, for example. Not only does this help protect jobs, but it can also give the company a competitive advantage, encouraging local business opportunities, and maintaining legacy company-supplier relationships. What’s more, it’s likely that employees will spend their greater take-home pay within their local communities and transition those who are classed as in-work poverty towards greater financial independence.

Essentially, the community inclusion enabled by employee-owned companies can create better performing businesses while, at the same time, transforming the fabric of society. And in the current climate, this inclusion has never been needed more.

This begs the question of why aren’t there more employee-owned businesses? Arguably, the reason there aren’t more is because the financial products have not existed to enable buyouts like this that benefit all stakeholders – investors, owners and employees. Valloop does that and has democratised access to its Private Markets Fund with the £100k point of entry for investors. By opening the market in this way, employee ownership can be brought into the mainstream.

For greater resilience

Stephen Greenwood

Stephen Greenwood

According to the Employee Ownership Association, “employee-owned businesses achieve higher productivity and greater levels of innovation and are more resilient to economic turbulence.”

By acting in the long-term interest of its workforce, an employee-owned business will tend not to deliver short-term benefits for a select few stakeholders. It will typically enjoy a significantly healthier – and, importantly, stable – bottom line. And, with better informed, more engaged, and more trusting employees, it will be highly resilient to economic changes.

Of course, the impact of COVID-19 means the country is undergoing a level of economic turbulence not seen since the Second World War. With almost one in five UK businesses either temporarily or permanently ceasing to trade by the end of 2020, the need for business resilience has never been more critical – and not just for the businesses themselves.

While a company’s resilience will come from the ability of its employees and processes to adapt to change, a mix of different business types will help make a community more resilient to economic shock, and the assurance of job and financial security will enable workers to better weather the storm. As Deb Oxley OBE, Chief Executive of the Employee Ownership Association explains, now is the time to consider employee ownership: “The Valloop solution launches at a time when the interest in employee ownership is rocketing across the UK SME sector as business owners and their management teams seek alternative ways to secure the future of their businesses. The long-term resilience of businesses and regions is increasingly more relevant as the UK builds back from the pandemic and innovations such as Valloop are very much welcomed by the Employee Ownership Association as a way of ensuring more businesses and their employees are able to experience the benefits of employee ownership, whilst contributing to a more inclusive and sustainable economy.”

This need for resilience is echoed in the US. According to Stephanie Silverman, President and CEO of the Employee-Owned S Corporations of America (ESCA), “as hardworking Americans grapple with staggering economic uncertainty driven by the pandemic, we hope more policymakers in Washington will… encourage private companies to become [employee]-owned, giving more Americans the chance to have financial stability and giving more companies the opportunity to see productivity gains as well.”

For the good of society

The concept of employee ownership is nothing new. The John Lewis Partnership, for example, has been at least partially owned by its employees for over 100 years. It’s the largest of over 370 such businesses in the country which, together, deliver 4 percent of UK GDP each year.

But it has become more relevant in the time of COVID. It matters to society. Not only does it offer owners an alternative to selling to a competitor or overseas buyer but, by creating democratic ownership of a company for all of its employees, it protects jobs, and by keeping the business and its productivity in the region, it protects communities.

Given the wide-ranging benefits of employee-owned companies, the title of Bernstein’s study is apt in this current period of economic uncertainty – “Why aren’t there more?”. The simple answer is that there were not liquidity investors, until now…

* past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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