In the case of the conversion of Aardman Animations to employee ownership, the founders will not only retain a personal shareholding, they will also continue to work in the business for a period. This is vital to avoid the sort of abrupt hair-raising transition which would be familiar to Wallace and Gromit but is best avoided in changes of company ownership! Not only will the presence of the founders ensure that the business is not trying to change both ownership and management simultaneously, it should also enable the managers to develop a way of speaking to all owners on an equal basis.
It is a curious paradox that the sort of owner who is considering transferring ownership of their family business to an employee ownership trust can be very naïve about what ownership of the business might mean to others. This may seem a bizarre thing to say but if you have owned the business for years and invested your whole life into it, it is quite likely that you have not had much time to think about what your ownership looks like from the outside. You will have spent all your time thinking about the needs of the business and be as acutely aware of the downside risks as of the upside potential. But to the outsider (and on occasion even the insider) it probably looks as though you have lived a gilded life and all that is necessary is to spread the profits more equitably.
This attitude can sometimes spread even to the highest levels of the management team. It can result in a senior team which starts to behave more like populist politicians than strategic managers. I vividly recall an excruciating meeting during which the Finance Director and the newly promoted Managing Director of a recently converted employee-owned company told me that they thought the biggest problem they would face would be distributing the profits. This may be a compliment to the way the recently departed founder was able to shield his board and enable them to concentrate on problems in their immediate area of responsibility but it is also a terrible condemnation of his failure to prepare his team for their new reality.
If the founders stay on for a period, their presence should ensure that the developing senior team will gradually adjust to their new relationship to the workforce owners. The senior team will also come to realise the precise nature of the gap which will be left by the founders when they finally complete their exit.
Dr. Paul Sawbridge is a Founder and former Chairman of Alfa Leisureplex Group, a family-owned hospitality and travel business employing 670 staff which converted to a 75% EOT in 2015.