Equal profit shares for all: Chester firm embraces employee ownership

Kay Cook and David Owen with some of their employee owners

A Chester-based law firm has become the latest to transfer ownership to its employees, in a move the now former owners say will secure its future.

Oliver & Co has 85 staff offering a traditional blend of private client and business law services, and chief executive David Owen and managing director Kay Cook have transferred all of their shares into the employee ownership trust.

Ownership is being transferred over time in some of the other 12 employee-owned law firms in England and Wales.

Mr Owen and Ms Cook have received an initial lump sum and will be paid the rest over the next five years – or sooner, depending on the firm’s performance – following an independent valuation of the business.

All staff who have been with the firm for six months will become employee owners and receive an equal share when the firm declares a profit, irrespective of their role or seniority.

Mr Owen told Legal Futures that he and Ms Cook – who have owned and run the firm for the past 12 years, having each been there for over 20 – had not been actively looking to sell up but had discussed succession planning.

He explained: “A management buy-out involves people having to find a lot of money and third-party sale quite often leads to a clash of cultures and people end up leaving.

“For us, it seemed a total no-brainer. It enables us to sell the firm back to the employees who have made the firm what it is today. A lot of them have been with us for a significant period of time. It just seems a natural progression… It will secure the business for the future.”

The pair will remain in their management roles but will be joined on the board of trustees by two staff members and an independent trustee. An employee forum will also be set up to ensure their views are passed on to management.

Ms Cook observed that employee-owned businesses “tend to see higher levels of profitability and productivity, along with improved employee and customer satisfaction”.

She continued: “Employee-owned companies excel in engaging employees, who in turn drive performance and innovation.

“We’ve always encouraged colleagues to make suggestions and contribute to the way the business is run. Becoming employee owned takes that a step further.”

Mr Owen added that there had been an “extremely positive” reaction from staff. “This is an incredible opportunity for them. I’m excited and they are excited.”

He predicted the move would be “great” for both recruitment and retention, and a “big selling point” for clients too.

It was a lengthy process, taking over a year – the firm had to become an alternative business structure as part of it – but Mr Owen praised the Solicitors Regulation Authority for being “very helpful”.

One in every 20 private company sales is now to an employee ownership trust, according to the Employee Ownership Association.

Its chief executive, James de le Vingne, said: “We congratulate our members Oliver & Co Solicitors on their transition to employee ownership, securing the ethos, values and culture of the business, as well as rooting jobs in Chester.

“Businesses that give employees a stake and a say build trust and shared responsibility, uniting leaders and employees behind a common purpose, and leaving businesses in a better position to flex and adapt.”

Nikki Poole, who is selling her ownership of Oxford firm Hedges Law to an employee ownership trust, will be talking about the experience at next month’s Legal Futures Innovation Conference. The early bird discount ends tomorrow.

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