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Inside Business: Esops 'set to become key perk'

COMPANIES that do not have broad-based employee share ownership schemes (Esops) will be shunned by skilled jobseekers in the coming years, predicts a key supporter of the concept, writes Roger Trapp.

Malcolm Hurlston, chairman of the Employee Share Ownership Centre, will give this warning at the centre's 10th anniversary conference at the offices of City solicitors Linklaters & Paines next month.

He says that, while more UK listed companies are launchingsuch schemes, Britain is still far behind America where millions of workers participate in broad-based stock option plans.

"The time is fast approaching when almost all the FT-SE 250 companies will have broad-based share ownership schemes," says Mr Hurlston, citing the insistence by the pilots' union on Thomson Travel Group making such a scheme part of its flotation as a sign of "the way the wind is blowing".

British Airways is also committed to having 10 per cent of its equity owned by the workforce, while employee share ownership plans are now common among such retailers as Asda, Kingfisher, Safeway and Tesco, he adds.

The centre helped put Esops on the UK statute book in 1989, but it has been a battle to convince UK companies that employee ownership can improve performance and build a partnership between shareholders, management and employees, says Mr Hurlston. He will be joined at the conference by Lord Thomas of Macclesfield, the former Co-operative Bank managing director who helped bring the concept to Britain.

Delegates will hear from leading Esops practitioners and have the chance to question Inland Revenue officials about the tax implications of the schemes.

Mr Hurlston, who set up the centre as a not-for-profit organisation in 1988, says skilled job-seekers will start to include the schemes among the criteria by which they judge career opportunities. "Within a decade I suspect that most skilled jobseekers will regard the provision of an employee share scheme as just as important as an occupational pension scheme. Companies that ignore or refuse to set up employee share ownership plans will find themselves shunned by jobseekers with the brightest prospects."