In my career to date, I’ve been self-employed for as long as I’ve been employed. Self-employment brings a strong sense of ownership in a different way than does traditional employment. Generally speaking, if you have vested interest, ‘skin in the game’, then you are likely to be more dedicated, more impassioned and more likely to work for the benefit of the business as a whole.
Employee Ownership (EO) does all that. At Aquascot, while we as individuals don’t have actual skin in the game, i.e. we don’t have money invested directly (shares are owned collectively by the Aquascot Trust on our behalf), we do have ownership.
That ownership comes with responsibilities and there is vested interest at every turn. There are no other owners, no distant shareholders, no one who can come to our rescue were we to be lazy or take a wrong turn. There is no one making decisions on the business on our behalf. We must step up, as owners, and make those decisions, create the direction of travel and make things happen. So, for me, EO provides a very strong sense of ownership and a feeling of independence which, as everyone slowly changes their mindset from employee to owner, leads all of us to act like the business is our own, take action to improve things at every turn and care that little bit more.
There’s an analogy here with land ownership. I’m an advocate for community land ownership across Scotland, and I have seen first-hand the mindset change that occurs when land passes from a distant land owner (often feudal in attitude) to the community that lives on it. Back in the early '90s, while salmon farming in the Highlands, we played our part in supporting the Assynt crofters purchase of the Assynt estate. The energy that was released by this seemingly simple act of transfer of ownership (and it was far from simple, by the way) was wonderful to behold, and the success of the Assynt crofters paved the way for communities all over the country to take ownership.
Land used and managed by the few was transferred to those with direct vested interest, and a different sort of decision making, e.g. for land use, community housing, services, etc., was born. Community ownership has not been plain sailing in every case of course, but it is still pursued by communities, rural and urban, and our government puts money to support that change – just as they do for employees seeking the same empowerment that is Employee Ownership.
I hope that more companies will go EO — not just in Scotland, but elsewhere too — and it’s up to us now to demonstrate that we can make it work. We’ve got to run a good business and make sure the finances stack up, but the change is that we don’t have to make money for distant shareholders whom we never meet. The money, if we make it, is ours to do with as we wish: to support personal development, to pay a partner bonus, to put money to local charities, to invest in a new plant or machinery, to innovate with research or even to invest in start-up companies such as New Wave, our seaweed farming partner business.