Features / Cooperatives

The Bristol companies finding an alternative way of working

By ellie pipe, Monday Sep 9, 2019

Bristol has a proud tradition of breaking the mould and doing things a bit differently when it comes to business.

One of the city’s most globally successful companies, Aardman, transferred into employee ownership in November last year in a bid to safeguard its creative legacy for years to come.

In doing so, the team behind Wallace and Gromit joined a growing number of firms turning away from the more traditional hierarchical business model, driven by profit, and opting instead for a more equitable way of working.

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Read more: Aardman to transfer ownership to employees

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Cooperative companies, which are run for the mutual benefit of members, and employee-owned firms, represent some of Bristol’s biggest and smallest ventures and make an important contribution to the city economy.

“The strength of community in Bristol means that it is the perfect place for cooperative businesses to thrive,” says James Berry, the CEO of Bristol Credit Union (BCU), a cooperative bank based on Cheltenham Road that’s been serving its members and communities since 1999.

“BCU is owned by its members, with each member having a say in how the credit union is run at our AGM. The advantage of this that we’re able to focus on providing the best possible services for our members, as they are involved in the discussions,” continues James.

“There is only one set of masters to please, unlike most other banks where satisfying shareholders often comes at a high price to customers.”

Beyond the ethical impetus to share profits and benefits more widely, companies are reporting additional positive outcomes, including a more engaged workforce and customer base.

Explaining why Aardman opted for an employee-owned model, co-founder David Sproxton says: “When Peter Lord and I started Aardman over forty years ago we didn’t really think about how we would let go of the company or retire.

“There aren’t actually that many traditional options for a company of our size; a trade sale, a management buy-out, or close it down. None of these were going to work for us, as we were keen to ensure the company had a life after we had retired. Having spent over four decades building up a brilliant body of highly-skilled people and an enviable reputation, it would seem highly wasteful just to let it all go.

“Everything about this model seemed to fit our desires, especially the idea that profits would be shared amongst those who had helped produce them, rather than a bunch of external shareholders who never set foot in the place.

“Employee-owned companies tend to have more resilience than conventional companies and this is mostly to do with the level of engagement and concern that the co-workers (or partners as we call them) have, promoting a much more collaborative approach, a more open, communicative culture where everyone is listened to.”

David predicts it’s a corporate structure more companies and startups will adopt.

Bristol Energy Coop has more than 500 investor members and operates on a one member one vote basis

The team behind Bristol Energy Cooperative, which operates as a not-for-profit community benefit society, agree.

Chris Speller, of Bristol Energy Coop, says: “In many ways what Bristol Energy Coop, and other similar organisations, are doing is simple and straightforward. It has identified the need for an infrastructure to connect technical resources, financing and people to build a more sustainable future.”

There are challenges though and Chris admits the work can often feel like “swimming against the tide of business as usual”. He adds: “Things are definitely on the change though and Bristol is undoubtedly a hotbed of sustainably-orientated businesses.”

The team behind TIGER want their company to reflect their principles

For the team behind TIGER (Teaching Individuals Gender Equality and Respect), a Bristol-based cooperative that works to challenge gender inequality, it was about running an organisation that aligned with its principles.

“It just doesn’t make sense to us to challenge inequalities but not reflect this in our own working practices,” says programme coordinator Natalie Bennett.

“TIGER is one of the few gender equality youth organisations that runs as a grassroots workers coop. For us this means we live and breathe the change we want to see in the world.

“We hope that by working cooperatively we can find new ways of working that do not reproduce the various forms of inequality and oppression that are often found in and as a result of more traditional business models.”

Read more: Bristol’s sustainable business success stories

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