They reap as they sew

A Fife garment firm is pinning its future on the owners - the staff who cut the cloth
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Helen Allen is the first to admit that she has had little formal business training and not much more managerial experience. But what does that matter? Over the past four years the small textile firm she runs has made light of the woes that have bedevilled the British clothing industry.

Helen Allen is the first to admit that she has had little formal business training and not much more managerial experience. But what does that matter? Over the past four years the small textile firm she runs has made light of the woes that have bedevilled the British clothing industry.

Since emerging in March 1996 from the ruins of a business that collapsed when its proprietor became ill and died, Namedroppers Manufacturing has grown from seven employees to 25. In the past year alone it has seen turnover double to £1m.

Mrs Allen is in no doubt that the success of the uniform maker - which is based in an old fire station in Cowdenbeath, Fife - is down to how it is run. Determined to avoid the fate of their previous employer, the seven founders opted to share the decision making. At the time, says Mrs Allen, who in her late forties took on the role of managing director, they "had never heard of employee ownership".

They put things on a formal basis with the help of Employee Ownership Scotland, creating the structure whereby the employees own about 52 per cent of the company and Mrs Allen and her fellow managers have the rest.

Mrs Allen points out that it is not a co-operative. While a co-op will typically be run by a committee, an employee ownership scheme recognises that not all the workers are "equal" and that managers need to be rewarded for managing. But it is still a far cry from the "command and control" way of doing business. For instance, when the company was restructured to better reward key workers, the shareholding formula was agreed by all the employees together.

As a privately owned company, Namedroppers does not have a market for its shares and employees must give them up if they leave. But there are dividends, and Mrs Allen remembers the first pay-out as "very exciting".

Not surprisingly, the employees are closely involved, which, says Mrs Allen, leads to better productivity. "They help me because they are taking some of the responsibility. It's not just me who worries if things aren't going out on time. They know it's important to produce on time."

The staff have not had formal financial training but have been encouraged to take a keen interest. "There's a meeting every month and we've been showing them what banks look for, what we need to push for. My door's always open. They're allowed to see how the business is trading because they are investors."

Mrs Allen is conscious of what employee involvement means to her. "It's a huge responsibility because I've got to protect their investment. If it's your own company you can do what the hell you like. Here, you have to think again. People want to know you're doing the right thing by them."

It is made clear that employees will only see a return on their investments by hitting targets and meeting customer requirements. Indeed, bonuses depend on the success of the previous month. If bonuses are not paid because, for instance, too much fabric has been used, the employees are told why. Customers also see the benefits. "Our labour turnover is zero," says Mrs Allen, pointing out that that level of commitment makes buyers confident the firm will deliver.

Since West of Scotland Water showed it had, in Mrs Allen's words, "the courage to give a little company a start", Namedroppers has built an enviable reputation for supplying public sector uniforms. Among its customers are several police forces - including the Irish Garda and one in Africa that placed an order for raincoats - and Parcelforce.

But, though the business has been "working out quite nicely", Mrs Allen stresses that it has not always been easy. Fife County Council is among the company's long-term supporters, but initially would provide funding only if the company had a bank. And the banks she turned to would not oblige - until the Bank of Scotland stepped in.

Given such a start, Mrs Allen and her colleagues have reason to be proud of their progress in a field where competitive tendering is the norm. But they do not want to be confined to this market. Since they regularly make variations of Barbour-style waxed jackets and fleece garments, they see potential in the popular leisure and outdoor pursuits market. Already, they supply garments for use in activities run by PGL, a company organising activity holidays for teenagers.

"The garments are difficult to make. But I feel the smaller the company, the more you can offer," says Mrs Allen.

Almost to prove her view that this is a small company which thinks big, Namedroppers plans to move to much larger premises this autumn. Among the new facilities will be a training unit, aimed partly at attracting young people into the business. The company has also begun working with Scottish Enterprise to market its lines and develop fresh markets.

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