LAURA GORE Make was founded as a 100% employee-owned company. I don’t know of any other companies that started out that way, so I’d say that’s a distinguishing factor for us, especially in terms of our culture. When companies become employee-owned after operating in a different way, they sometimes struggle to adapt their culture in line with their goals. But being employee-owned to begin with meant we could shape our culture that way from the start.
JASON PARKER Yes, it’s worked for us because we had a blank sheet of paper at the beginning – we’ve evolved and grown around this, writing our own story and changing it as needed. Without a set hierarchy, we’ve always been able to respond quickly to demands from inside and outside. There’s a value to being responsive and listening to each other.
LG It’s interesting to think about how our approach has evolved as we’ve grown. It shows that there’s no set structure. For example, we had a forum for several years – a place to help voices be heard and listened to – and then it went on hiatus, but now there’s a group of people interested in bringing it back in a new form. We’ve also revisited things like how we calculate our profit share over the years to ensure it’s done in the fairest way. There’s a lot of knowledge sharing in these kinds of actions, and they also have the value of prompting people to ask the right questions and engage with the way the company’s run.
JP You have to work at something like the forum. You’ve got to be prepared to make mistakes and think about what works and what doesn’t. Geographically speaking, I’d say we’re certainly thinking about how the model flourishes across different countries, including in our studios in Australia and Hong Kong. Ultimately, I think it helps us stay connected as One Make. And of course from a design point of view, the whole process is much more energised. The best idea wins; there’s no top-down instruction, which is empowering. Design is not necessarily A to B; it requires lots of directions and voices. So the more diverse and collaborative our teams can be, the better. Employee ownership underpins that.
LG When we started Make, employee ownership was unknown. We didn’t used to shout out about it in case the structure put off clients who misunderstood what it meant. However, the opposite is true now. Employee ownership is coming to the forefront of discussion in corporate governance and is seen as an asset. The sector grew by 17% in 2017 and 19% in 2018. I don’t think it would have grown so much without the advocacy of the Employee Ownership Association, which champions the cause.
JP Joining the EOA in 2006 definitely taught us how the model works to begin with, and I think it’s helped us realise how employee ownership can sustain a company through good times and bad. For us, employee ownership means transparency and a sense of investment. Everybody’s looking over the horizon; everyone has that longer-term view of the life of the practice. That common purpose helps us through the ups and the downs, which is a good test of the model.
LG There are some really great companies coming into the EOA now, and it’s an increasingly important lobby to the government. For example, we were part of the steering group that helped shape the policy implemented in the Finance Act 2014. This directly impacts our profit share and tax we pay. The more companies there are in the EOA, the more influencers there are and the more the government can listen to and support employee-owned businesses. Our structure’s not for everyone, but it works for us and should have appropriate attention. The profile is certainly rising.
JP At the 2019 EOA conference, we heard a lot about the challenges companies are facing as workplace trends shift and it all becomes more fragmented and flexible. It’ll be interesting to see how our model helps us evolve and embrace that. I gave a speech at the conference dinner where I talked about our own challenges and growth over the years, telling our story and what employee ownership means for us. It all comes back to that sense of trust and pride. That’s what gets us up in the morning, and it’s a great thing to be part of. If you’re proud of and love what you do, it’s an easy sell.
LG That was a definite takeaway from your speech – your pride in our company structure.
JP I just think whether you’re an architect or a graphic designer or you work in finance or communications, we all share that pride. We want to bring our families into the studio; we want to hang out after work. And that goes for all three of our studios. It’s a real balance, though. We want to be culturally connected to each city we work in and part of that place, but equally we want the Make ethos to flourish. I think it does. We’ve had Makers move internationally to set up studios and locals who’ve joined them, and with both of them embracing employee ownership, it works.
LG Clients hopefully feel that too – that they’re getting a great product wherever we work. Make has a specific feel. It doesn’t matter which studio you’re in; it’s the same Make.
JP We talk a lot about giving people the ability to express themselves not only with each other but also with our clients. That’s such a positive thing. We have all sorts of different people and skill-sets around the practice, and this model is the glue that binds us. It allows us to feel part of something bigger and embrace every asset we have.
Article extracted from Make Annual 16.