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What It Means to Be an Employee-Owned Business — Q&A with Rachel Hannah, Chair of Partnership Council
Aquascot has been a fully employee-owned business since 2016, and we are one of the largest EO businesses in Scotland. It's a huge part of who we are, how we do business and how our partner employees approach their work here in Alness. We caught up with the Chair of our Partnership Council, Rachel Hannah, to discuss employee-ownership and everything that comes with it.
You are the Chair of the Partnership Council, can you explain your role and how it affects a typical day of work?
The Partnership Council (PC) is our employee forum and it is our mechanism for ensuring our partners have a voice. It is formed up of a team of partners who represent areas / departments across the business. My role as a Chair is to look after that team and chair our monthly meetings. We have created formal governance within the PC so the Chair is supported by specific roles such as Treasurer, Secretary, etc.
In terms of my typical day, the key thing I find is always coming back to that bit about having a partner’s voice. Currently and throughout COVID, the Leadership Team (LT) started having daily morning meetings. I have been attending those meetings as a PC representative, to make sure that the LT is held to account and keeps the partners’ best interests at heart when taking decisions.
Other than that, we have a whole host of projects and activities ongoing that move month to month, such as coming out of partners’ queries or suggestions to make Aquascot (AQS) a better employee-owned business. I’ll spend some of the day working on those or encouraging and influencing members of the PC or within other teams and other parts of the business to work on those activities.
I am also an industry representive on the board of the Industry Leadership Group, Scotland for Employee Ownership, working to champion employee ownership in Scotland.
Oh and then there’s my day job to do as a Compliance Manager. It can be tricky to fit it all in at times, but I enjoy the challenge!
What advice would you give to a company considering employee ownership?
If you’re interested, reach out to Scotland for EO and Co-operative Development Scotland – which is part of Scotland Enterprise – for advice, first of all.
Most importantly, make sure your employees are informed very early on about the journey that is going to happen, make sure that they are engaged and understand it.
That’s really important. It’s not just about the transaction, it’s much more than that. It’s about embedding employee-owned principles into the business; and employees – partners – are at the very heart of that.
What are the benefits to the local community of having an EO business in the area?
For Aquascot, being employee-owned means that the business remains rooted in the Highlands of Scotland. We have a business that’s been around since 1987 and that is a major employer in the local community. By being employee-owned, we as partners can make sure that it isn’t sold off or moved and relocated to somewhere else, so it remains at the benefit of the community of Alness and the surrounding areas.
We also look further than that to see how we can play our share of social responsibility. The PC is always keen to look at ways to raise funds to support the local community outside the business bubble — that means being involved in running raffle events, being part of sponsored events, donating fish, etc.
“Employee-owned business means you can create your own destiny...”
As a partner in an EO business, what are the benefits from your perspective?
First of all, there is the obvious one – as employee owners, we are eligible to tax-free bonuses, which is always a perk. But it’s much much more than that, that’s just a financial thing that’s nice to have.
Employee-owned business means you can create your own destiny within the business. It creates a culture where your contribution is recognised. We are striving to ensure that Aquascot is a sustainable, well-run, values-driven business and undoubtedly partner wellbeing is at the heart of those values.
What was the process behind the creation of the new Aquascot values?
Four years ago, we completed a Gallup survey and the PC reviewed the results, developing an action plan. Part of the action plan was that we wanted the Aquascot values to be refreshed because they’d been in place for over a decade. We felt that the current partners were very disconnected with them.
The PC led the development of the new values process and recruited a group of partners who would be involved in determining what the new values set should be. Having decided it was not just a refresh, we needed to start almost from 'square one' — what it felt like to us to be working at AQS.
We had two workshops which about 40 people attended from across the business. Within those workshops, we discussed what our own personal values were, why these values were important to us, what was the good and bad about the existing values and the business — so a bit of soul-searching in that respect. Then we selected key words representing the values which we could build the values on.
There were then further sessions with values champions who were a selection out of the 40 people, who really worked to create values statements. A small subgroup then worked to finalise the values statements and supporting wording.
After a lot of work (about six months in total), we had our four core values: ‘Actively Ambitious’, ‘Power of Partnerships’, ‘Integrity Matters’ and ‘Naturally Kind’.
What are the positive business impacts for the company as a result of being Employee-Owned?
The whole thing about employee-owned businesses is that they are very principled and well-run.
There is proven evidence that they have much higher levels of engagement, so they’re run much more efficiently and are more profitable. For more information, I highly recommend you refer to the Employee Ownership Association website.
How do you think being EO has helped us thrive during the COVID-19 crisis?
Personally, it’s been a feeling of ‘we’re all in it together’. I think it brings out that we’re all part of that one team and that we all care about each other in a collective way.
We care about the business, we don’t want people to get COVID — and there was genuine concern that we might have to close down, impacting our supply to Waitrose. But because of the commitment our partners made, we have remained operational and busy — and we felt that it was appropriate to reward partners with a bonus in July as a "thank you".
You’ve worked in non EO companies, do you feel the difference?
There are many anecdotes about EO businesses where you just walk in and you can feel it. For me, what I feel about Aquascot is the importance it has in the community and how much it is part of the community. You know, it’s been there since 1987 and it is really important that it remains in Alness.
Personally, joining Aquascot was an opportunity to progress in my career while working with a business in the Highlands and that wasn’t something I had anticipated I’d be able to do before. Being part of the PC also means I have a better understanding of where we are as a business and where we want to go and obviously being able to influence that as well.
In a traditional company, hierarchy is very important and only people at the top make decisions – whereas in a good EO company, it’s the servant leadership model where the voice is coming from the bottom. It does have an impact on my daily job because it’s like that voice is there, I can have that voice. I feel like I’m listened to, which is really important as a Compliance Manager. Things are changed and improvements are made. It makes my job easier.
How do you see the future of Aquascot?
The Aquascot Trust believes there is a need for diversification to complement the existing Aquascot-Waitrose business. Therefore, as we develop into this diversification process, we might have different types of businesses that complement what we do currently.
What we want to do is become more and more principled in EO and become a great EO business, somewhere people want to work, reaching wider than the local community.
Aquascot are pioneers in a lot of ways that things are done, like having a Trust or the diversification business and investment in those, it’s not many EO companies that do that. There aren’t any other Aquaculture businesses that are EO and very few Food & Drink businesses are either.
When Dennis (Overton) started out there weren’t the same tax incentives as there are now, and there weren’t the same lawyers to advise you on employee-ownership. Dennis, Robert (Murray) & Charlie (Bullock) really worked from what felt right to them — and it's given us a unique culture as an EO business.
For more information on Aquascot's Employee-Ownership, Values and Partnership Council, visit our Employee Ownership page.
Author: Justine Fourny (Category & Marketing Officer)
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