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In 2001, Mike Thompson, chief executive took the bold decision to turn the nursery chain Childbase Partnership into an employee-owned company. Twelve years later and the company which employs 1,343 employees in 41 day nurseries, is now 70 per cent owned by its employees.
This radical move has paid off as Childbase was recently named eighth best company in the UK to work for, according to the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work for Lists. This year also saw Mr Thompson, voted fifth place for leadership. It was the only nursery group to appear in the list.
The company was founded in 1989 as a family business by Mr Thompson and his father, former National Freight Corporation chairman, Sir Peter Thompson.
For Mike Thompson, employee ownership was the best way to secure the future of the company.
“Employee-ownership was, quite simply, the right thing to do. We are committed to 100 per cent employee ownership of the company but in the meantime every employee is considered a partner in the business. We operate under the banner ‘We all contribute, We all benefit’.”
There is a 42-member partnership council of elected representatives from each of the nurseries and their approval is sought on all major strategic decisions, such as the purchase of new nurseries. “Without it we do not proceed,” says Mr Thompson.
Childbase also regularly holds lunches with the senior team for small groups of employees.
This is where ideas like a phased plan, reducing the working week from 40 to 37.5 hours, while maintaining pay and benefit levels, and a 'well-being' strategy originated, recognising the fact that while rewarding, work in the early years sector is also demanding. Employees are also given paid leave to support local charities and community projects and recognised and rewarded for their efforts as volunteers.
Mr Thompson began on the path to employee-ownership by setting up ‘Save and Buy’ share schemes, with ‘Buy one get one free’ incentives.
Now over two-thirds of Childbase is owned by individual staff shareholders or the employee benefit trust. It is a member of the Employee Ownership Association which counts among its members, the John Lewis Partnership and Tipree Jam.
Shared ownership means the company can only be sold to a third party if the majority of shareholders want it to be. It is also a great motivator to everyone to make the company a success, according to its chief executive “because that success is shared”.
“We have always believed that a happy, engaged and motivated workforce is the key to achieving the best possible outcomes for each and every child in our care. People do not work for me but with me in pursuit of excellence. Success and recognition is never about the individual.”
Mr Thompson believes in finding out for himself the challenges his nursery staff face, so he took the unusual decision six years ago to qualify as a nursery practitioner by undergoing NVQ training in childcare.
“I undertook NVQ training and qualification because I needed to understand the challenges my colleagues face every day in nursery. I learned a huge amount then and the process continues with each visit to a nursery where I can also see how decisions impact colleagues and how they make policy work in practice.”
Mr Thompson founded Childbase over 20 years ago, after acquiring his first nursery in the village of Sherington near Milton Keynes. Since then the growth of Childbase has been rapid. However Mr Thompson has ensured core values remain central to all company activity.
The Government recently published its ‘More Great Childcare’ report which proposes increasing staff ratios in nurseries. Under the proposed changes, ratios for two-year-olds will increase from four children per adult to six children per adult, and for ones-and-under will rise from three children per adult to four children per adult.
Ratios for three-year-olds and over will remain at eight or 13 children per adult, depending on whether a qualified graduate is present. The Government is justifying the ratio changes by saying it will lead to a reduction in childcare costs for parents.
Mr Thompson said Childbase will not be adopting this proposed increase in staff child ratios in its nurseries.
“We believe our commitment to achieving the best outcomes and opportunities for each and every child in our care is best served by maintaining current staff/child ratios in nurseries and not increasing the number of children cared for by our colleagues.
“We do, however, welcome any Government initiative which seeks to improve the quality and availability of early years provision, and whole-heartedly support the commitment to raise the status and quality of the workforce engaged in this sector.”
He admits he feels “cynical that the ‘end play’ is about affordability and how that can be achieved without increasing the financial burden upon the Government. If the right foundations were laid now the benefits would be there for future generations but, unfortunately, Government is all about a short-term focus.”
I’m afraid nearly 25 years in the sector has taught me to look beyond the public statements made in the political arena,” he added.
As for the future of Childbase, “the challenge for us will be how to achieve a happy balance between continuing to grow the company and sharing the rewards of success now with cash or shares. One thing is certain, we will be talking and listening until we settle on a place where we are all comfortable.”
What is your favourite book: ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett
What is your favourite film: The Long Good Friday
What has been the best present you have received: Fatherhood. It is the gift that ‘keeps on giving’ as I have been blessed with three wonderful children who are a constant source of pride for me.