CSR Views: Q&A with Wen Quek on employee owned businesses

With the employee owned business sector on the rise in the UK, Heart of the City wanted to find out more about what this means for businesses and the impact this has on employees. We interviewed Wen Quek, HR Director at Cullinan Studio, Employee Ownership Association Membership Council member and Heart of the City Foundation programme member to find out more.

What does it mean to be an employee owned business?
A business is employee owned when all employees can have a stake in the business, and the combined employee stake is accompanied by significant and meaningful engagement in the way in which the business is run.

How is an employee owned business run compared to a regular business?
An employee owned business puts employees at the heart of its organisation with a mechanism for employee voice to be exercised, normally through a council, board or employee representative. It offers a high level of transparency and sharing of information so that employees can take more responsibility in helping to drive performance, thereby benefitting from reward.

What were some of the key drivers that made your company look into becoming employee owned?
Employee ownership is an option for businesses of all sizes, from all regions and sectors but is most prevalent as a succession plan for SMEs and family businesses with no natural successor, and is growing in popularity with businesses as part of a growth strategy.
Our architectural practice Cullinan Studio was originally established in 1965 based on a co-operative structure and belief in the designing of buildings as a social act. If it was to reflect concern with the progressive social relations and hope for the future, the social and financial organisation of our practice should match that belief; as such, employee ownership as a business model fits with our social values.

What impact has this had on staff?
Our staff are empowered through employee ownership as they share in the responsibility of running our business. As co-owners, they develop into resilient and highly motivated professionals, committed to work together to continue Cullinan Studio as a relevant and sustainable business for the long term, with improvements in operating profit and productivity. Our staff feel more in control of what they do which contributes to their personal well-being, whilst also helping us to retain talent and diversity in our workplace. They are proud to co-own a business with responsible corporate values.

Have you seen an increased commitment to CSR?
Our commitment to CSR has existed from the start of our business. We see CSR as inherent within employee ownership which is a business structure that puts people before profit. Our staff are socially committed individuals who use CSR activities for their personal development to engage with social issues, coupled with tackling climate change as responsible architects.

What made you join Heart of the City’s Foundation Programme? Is there an aspect you are particularly enjoying?
We joined the Programme on the recommendation of a contact made through Islington Giving. We are in the process of refreshing our CSR policy and wish to measure and benchmark our CSR commitment and impact so that we can improve on planning our CSR activities from year to year. We particularly enjoy how members of the Programme network and share information and experience openly and positively.

How easy is it to become an Employee Owned Business?
Employee ownership can be exercised in a flexible way, with several models of ownership with varying governances and structures – how easy it is to become an employee owned business will depend on the model.

Becoming an employee owned business requires leadership and a clear proposition, and the time to engage the workforce in raising awareness and understanding about employee ownership, managing employee expectations, and making the change to employee ownership.

To find out more, the Employee Ownership Association is a not-for-profit organisation that supports businesses interested in exploring and transitioning to employee ownership. 

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