A venture that you can trust

Sophie Thomas and Ed McCann outline a business model that benefits employees – and helps bosses

The Useful Simple Trust is a newly formed employee benefit trust, set up by consultant design engineer Expedition Engineering. It operates through pioneering design projects, as innovator in design education, and through real-world activities in sustainability and communication. It offers an alternative to profit-focused, socially unaware business models and opens the door to the new and the good.

Five years in, Expedition, a design-led practice [of which former Master of the Royal Designers Chris Wise is also a partner] responsible for the engineering design of the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome, found itself facing problems common in design.

The UST is an effort to address these problems and an example of a ‘designed’ business. Expedition’s partners weren’t happy with old models, so they invented a new one. The trust draws its inspiration from consideration of excellence, justice, fractal mechanics and biomimicry.

Most consultancies are set up by ‘heroes’. If things go well the consultancy grows, the equity value skyrockets and the hero becomes rich – at least on paper. When said hero decides to share out the equity spoils or hand over the reins, the succession nightmare begins.

One problem is that the value of a group is based on the brand and the reputation of the hero. The hero may want to leave, but their wealth is contingent on hanging around. Even when the founders give equity to the new generation, the recipient ends up liable for huge Capital Gains Tax – one of the reasons so few make it into a second generation.

Of course, good leaders have great value and deserve reward, but this doesn’t have to be through equity. The UST aims to solve this challenge as it removes the link between equity and leadership by setting up as an employee benefit trust, sidestepping one of the key succession challenges.

The second challenge is the ‘niche brand paradox’ – highly branded groups known for doing something well. As far as the market is concerned, they don’t do anything else, which hinders diversification.

The UST seeks to overcome this by adopting a structure where each enterprise can be strongly branded, but where people are free to diversify across the trust companies.

This also helps to answer the question, ‘How can we keep the inquisitive nature of our designers alive?’ When designers leave the office they do things that expand their mind. They read, watch TV, knit jumpers, and so on. Unless they are fresh out of college where experimentation is obligatory, designers at work have a tendency to stay still. They get stuck in front of the computer until they go home.

The trust reminds us that we need to be trailblazing. It asks everyone, ‘What do you want to do, and how can we help?’ It has set up a simple means of starting new enterprises within the trust, which allows great entrepreneurial freedom.

The courts measure employee benefit in financial terms, and trusts must have regard for the financial interests of the employees. But the UST goes further, redefining benefit in terms of welfare. It is run for the welfare of all, incorporating things like a pleasant working environment and the opportunity for self-realisation. Somewhere on that list is fair financial reward, but probably close to the bottom. It’s a much simpler model than most employee benefit trusts.

It may look like a generous move to gift a group that has been profitable and forged its reputation, but it is going to a home that offers stability, companionship and opportunity. Put it another way: who knows what a graphic designer will come up with, having had breakfast with an engineer and lunch with a textile designer?

The Employee Benefit Ethos

  • We will encourage employees to assume responsibility for maximising their contribution to the business, having regard to the interest of future as well as present employees
  • We will ensure that employees receive information concerning the major policies and actions of the trust
  • In addition, the trustees and Useful Simple Limited have agreed the following principles:

– The purpose of the trust is to blaze a trail in the field of integrated, intelligent and ethical provision of the human environment
– We will aim to do our projects so that they meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
– We will have regard to the benefit of the employees of the trust consultancies, where that benefit engenders well-being
– We will work together across the trust and with others to achieve the purpose of the trust
– We will aim to provide a stimulating working environment where all can give their best and develop to their full potential
– We will aim to reward employees on the basis of ‘best in market’ for their field
– We will educate ourselves and others. To grow the next generation, we will play an active role in framing the educational curriculum, and make time to help deliver it

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