The benefits to Employees include working in a business with the Prepress Values and the ability to have a voice in the direction of the Company’s affairs, have a participative work environment and share in the profits they help create.

The Prepress Projects Employee Ownership Trust

Our employee ownership trust (EOT) was established in October 2022. Now, a little over a year later, is a good time to look back and review how closely experience has matched expectation.

Three trustees manage the trust: one appointed by the board of directors of the operating company (Lucy, our managing director), one selected by balloting employees (Gillian) and one (your author) representing the founders of Prepress Projects Ltd. The EOT doesn’t set strategy or make operational decisions: its role is to hold the board to account and monitor business performance and employee welfare.

The duties of a trustee may not be onerous in terms of time required – which isn’t much, as we meet but quarterly – but the responsibilities are weighty, including the right to appoint and dismiss directors of the operating company. Of course, the initiative to propose new directors ideally lies with the operating board, which has been considering how and when new appointments might be made.

Trustees are furnished with performance information such as financial reports, progress on tenders for new work and annual accounts. The pre-sale company shared much of this sort of information with managers and senior staff. However, Lucy has extended information-sharing to all employees, so everyone in the company – trustees included – knows basic data about revenue received, which clients pay promptly (and which don’t), what tenders have been submitted and our success rate with quotations. 

Sharing confidential information with all employees, such as the prices we charge clients, monthly income, or recruitment decisions, is a reflection of the level of faith the company places in its workforce. As a result, many management decisions often don’t need further explanation: reasons and objectives are self-evident.

The company isn’t a workers’ co-operative, of course, and Lucy isn’t a business anarchist: performance appraisals and salaries, for example, remain private, as do colleagues’ health issues and anything sensitive that has been necessarily shared with management team. The employee-owned company is perhaps more egalitarian than those that aren’t, but it remains client-focused and profit- and cost-conscious, like any other well-managed commercial enterprise. Protecting the future of the business, meeting or exceeding clients’ expectations and rewarding individual effort, among other Prepress Values mentioned above, are written into the Deed of Trust that guides the trustees’ behaviour. The EOT protects these values.

The trustee board meets quarterly, with a standing agenda that includes a review of monthly information supplied to the trust, company policies, matters raised by employees and the long-term outlook for the company. Our meetings have minutes, so there is a permanent record of discussions and recommendations made. The EOT is charged with considering benefits to future, as well as current, employees, and that long-term view always comes across in our discussions.

There is always thought-provoking activity, albeit low volume, on the trustees’ private MS Teams channel – obviously I can’t disclose this in detail, but I can pass on, for example, that in recent months we’ve been involved with plans for improving the company’s tendering, banking and foreign currency conversion processes. As owners of the company, the EOT’s sign-off is a legal requirement for major changes.

Some tasks seem more structured than when I served on the operating board; for example, trustees play a key role in drafting polices for management team to review. In the past year the three of us have drafted policies on employees’ financial wellbeing; retirement; equality, diversity and inclusion; loneliness; and personal relationships in the office. We even now have a policy on how company policies should be formed.

The EOT isn’t responsible for implementing these policies – it makes recommendations and suggestions for management team to consider – and the ultimate responsibility for their content and operation lies with the board of directors.

The first year of being an employee-owned company culminated recently in the company’s annual general meeting (AGM). Strictly, we, as trustees, constitute the only audience that should attend an AGM (the EOT holds all the shares in Prepress Projects Ltd). However, we decided to invite all employees to the AGM, and gave them the right to question the operating board as well. What was hitherto an all-employee annual meeting with a one-way flow of information is now more participative – at least in my opinion. After all, each employee has a stake in the company through the EOT and each contributes to its success. 

Ending any update on a high note can be difficult. I have no such trouble on this occasion. If company funds permit, an EOT can approve an income-tax-free payment to all employees. This isn’t salary but more consonant with dividends that shareholders receive – large employee-run organisations such as John Lewis function similarly. The operating board proposed that such a payment be made on 1 December, and I’m pleased to report that the trustees took little time in approving it. Tax-free cash is, of course, just one aspect of working in an employee-owned business, but it may well be the most popular. It will not surprise you to learn that no employees objected.

Finally, in the coming year I plan to resign as trustee director, probably around the second anniversary of employee ownership, and let my co-founder, Helen, take my place. It’s not impossible that I may return to serve another term at some point, and if my experience to date is representative then I look forward to doing so.