“I’ve never had any intention of selling the company to a third party," explains Desbarats. "Employee-ownership was in our founding business plan as a long-term goal.
"We had a first stab at creating a shared-ownership scheme in 2002 but that was hampered by changes in the trust law – so we had to abort it. Frankly, the whole idea had a bad taste for a while but we got back on the horse a couple of years ago. My 50th birthday was looming, so it felt like good timing. The scheme had gone from ‘idealistic opportunity’ to ‘boring pile of work’ to ‘I must get on with this’.”
Not knowing who to turn to for help but inspired by companies such as John Lewis, Loch Fyne Oyster and Arup, Desbarats did a Google search and came across the Employee Ownership Association. “They put us in touch with the Baxi Partnership Trust, who started advising us on how to create the scheme," he says. "You essentially need someone to broker the sale between the owners and the employees.” Implementing the scheme isn’t cheap – Desbarats reckons he’s spent in the region of £20,000 on fees.
Desbarats currently employs 15 people, all of whom are classically trained industrial designers. The business pulls in sales of £1.9m a year, with clients including BT, Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard. “We have various generations of talent within the business,” says Desbarats. “I didn’t want to favour one employee over the other, which is what would have happened with an MBO.”
Desbarats currently owns 70 per cent of the business. When the transaction is complete, he’ll own nothing – everything will be held in a trust and all the profits will be split among the employees. “The staff will manage the business and decide how to reinvent it," comments Desbarats. "There comes a point where you have to break out of thinking, ‘Oh, I’m the founder’. This organisation is bigger than me. I have a ‘fade out plan’ for the next ten years – I’ll take on more of an ambassador role."
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