Giving workers a share of the company

News Analysis: New Labour is intent on emulating the US where hundreds of millionaires have been created through option schemes
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The Independent Online
WHEN, EARLIER this year, the Japanese securities firm Nikko beat arch-rival Nomura International to buy the motorway service station group Roadchef, it was not just the top brass who benefited. Tim Ingram-Hill, who led the 1983 management buyout of the company, picked up pounds 75.2m in cash on top of retaining shares worth more than pounds 12m, while three senior executives shared pounds 2.5m. But about 325 employee-shareholders - typically kitchen workers on modest salaries - also gained pounds 6m between them.

It is the sort of good fortune that is about as likely to befall the average employee as winning the Lottery. But Chancellor Gordon Brown wants it to be much more commonplace.

In his pre-Budget report earlier this week, he announced plans to double the number of companies in which all employees have the opportunity to own shares. "I want to encourage the new enterprise culture of team work in which everyone contributes and everyone benefits from success," he said. "So, in the Budget, we will make it easier for all employees - and not just a few - to become stakeholders in their company."

More detail on how this might be achieved will emerge shortly. But it is clear that New Labour is not seeking to follow the Conservatives in creating a wider shareholder democracy. Instead, it is intent on emulating the example of the United States, particularly the powerful cluster of hi-tech success stories in Silicon Valley, as a method of creating a more enterprising climate and hence closing the productivity gap.

In California, and Microsoft's home state of Washington, of course, hundreds of millionaires have been created as a result of start-up companies making up for their inability to pay competitive salaries by granting key employees share options. Nigel Mason, managing director of Capital Strategies, a corporate finance house specialising in employee-ownership plans, explains that options can be "a good retention tool" in such circumstances in that they lapse if an employee leaves within a certain time but can yield serious wealth if, as is typical in such a sector, the company goes through a change of ownership.

But it is not just Silicon Valley that has embraced the idea of employee ownership. According to Mr Mason, there about 10,000 Employee Share Ownership Plans (Esops) covering about 11 million employees in the US - about two-thirds of them in private companies.

In Britain, the figures are far smaller. The National Freight Corporation and FI Group, the IT company founded by Steve Shirley, were early trailblazers. More recently, the advertising agency St Luke's broke convention by setting itself up as an employee-owned company.

But these are exceptions. Most companies in the FTSE 350 have introduced all-employee share schemes, with the retailers Kingfisher and Asda among the more prominent supporters of the idea, but only about 25 to 30 per cent of smaller quoted companies have taken this step. In the unquoted sector, the level is lower still.

According to Malcolm Hurlston, chairman of the Employee Share Ownership Centre, only about 50 small and medium-sized enterprises have introduced "statutory Esops" in the past decade. This is because the rules surrounding this creation of the late Eighties are so tight that they put off many people, especially small business owners.

Mr Hurlston, who helped import the Esop idea to Britain in the early Eighties after seeing it in action in the US, says that if the Government is to make any progress with this sector it must design a plan that is "cheaper, simpler or more attractive to the business owner".

Esops are potentially attractive in this area because they get around the problem of an inability to easily trade the shares by giving employees an indirect stake in the business, via a trust that typically acts as a sort of savings scheme.

However, opinion differs over how much the Treasury would have to spend on enticing business owners to offer employees a stake in the business.

Patrick Stevens, a tax partner with accountants Ernst & Young, points out that the notion was reminiscent of profit-related pay, which had been abandoned largely because it was by the end of its life costing the Exchequer nearly pounds 1bn a year. But Mr Mason argues that it need not cost very much. Tax reliefs or other inducements could be targeted at smaller quoted companies and the increasingly important majority outside the stock market, he says.

All this assumes that employee ownership enhances performance. Jeff Gates, a lawyer who has been heavily involved in the US Esop movement, argues in his book The Ownership Solution that a lack of capitalists is one of the biggest problems holding back business, and entrepreneur Richard Koch says in The Third Revolution that such an approach helps society by putting more people in a position to create wealth.

And there is evidence to suggest it is especially powerful in businesses with a high proportion of customer-facing staff, such as retailers, and in IT. The 1995 buyout of Cadbury Schweppes' IT arm, ITNET, which floated last July, is said to have been at least partly influenced by the need to reward employees.

Others are less convinced. Mr Mason's company publishes an index that consistently shows quoted companies where employees have significant stakes outperforming conventionally-structured organisations. But even he is reluctant to claim a direct link. Companies that adopt such plans often subscribe to many other aspects of good management practice, he says.

And in the US, the backlash against excessive share options has already begun. The change of mood is indicated by Stanford Business School professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of the book The Human Equation: Building Profits By Putting People First. Software companies paying their employees in stock options were creating the conditions "where people come to work so they can make enough money so they can leave," he says in an interview in the magazine Fast Company.

But it is clear that an initiative that first surfaced in the Labour manifesto is gathering pace in Britain.