Meet … Deb Oxley, campaigner for employee ownership

'We believe in a fairer type of capitalism and focus on people as a strength of our organisations'

Deb Oxley is chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association, which offers guidance and support to businesses wishing to be part of a growing sector which currently employs over 200,000 people in the UK with an annual turnover of £40bn. She joined the Hull-based EOA in 2012 after running her own marketing and business consultancy.

Why did you take on the role?

I didn’t know anything about the EOA when I first came across it. I saw there was an opportunity to make a big impact. Back in 2012 we needed to sustain membership and raise awareness. A lot of it was about marketing which was where I had started my career. I had the opportunity to go to an EOA conference and was blown away by their enthusiasm. Before that I ran my own small business consultancy for six years dealing with place and destination marketing working with public/private partnership regeneration in Hull. I had not worked out exactly what I wanted to do and was interested in the challenge.

Can you describe a typical day?

There isn’t one but when I think about where do I spend time it’s helping our members – connecting them up with others and helping them to understand employee ownership better. That can be over the telephone or face to face when I have the opportunity. I spend a lot of time influencing stakeholders, dealing with media, government and professional organisations. I attend events throughout the year and then there is day-to-day stuff like governance and finances and board meetings. We have also just launched a membership council which is really exciting, I spend a lot of time at regional gatherings we have a national conference in Birmingham and an annual summer dinner which this year was at the House of Commons on election day.

Deb Oxley, CEO of the Employee Ownership Association

What’s your difference?

The biggest difference is giving a voice to the sector, which is important for the economy. We use our voice in campaigning and provide a platform for employee-owned businesses in England.

We are also providing the first port of call for any owner interested in employee ownership because there is no government-provided service – in Scotland and Wales they are government-funded. We provide support to those that want to find out more and an important network for employers to learn from each other. It’s good to be part of that community.

Related: Is employee ownership the business model of the future?

What is the best thing about the job?

It’s about making a difference. Every day we are either helping an owner move their business to the next stage, changing someone’s opinion of what employee ownership is, or helping existing businesses to do better. I love working with the team I have. They are really dedicated and we have been really lucky to recruit such fantastic people. There are seven of us and I am the longest-serving member. In the four and a half years I have been here we have made great progress as an organisation.

And the hardest?

There are always more opportunities than resources and that is frustrating. It means we have to be clever in the way we use our resources. I would love to spend more time meeting members but we have to be very targeted and focused in our activity. On one level it makes you more productive but the downside is not always having the ability to take opportunities when they crop up.

How do you see your relationship with the co-op movement?

Co-ops, social enterprises and employee-owned businesses operate in a similar space. We are all promoting more progressive forms of capitalism. The employee-owned model does what it says on the tin. They are not all necessarily co-ops or social enterprises – some of them are distant cousins but part of the same family. However, we all share the basic DNA when it comes to doing business. We believe in a fairer type of capitalism and focus on people as a strength of our organisations. We believe in organisations that recognise their wider societal impact whether through being mission-led or having a positive impact. The fact they have done what they have done embeds them in the same supply chain.

Where would you like to see the EOA in the next five years?

It’s more a case of, where would I like to see the sector? Whatever we become is in line with that. We have a big bold statement to make. At the moment, not every professional adviser has heard of employee-owned business, so we need to change that. By 2020 I would like to see every accountancy practice with at least one person who knows what they are. I would like to see more high street banks lending to employee-owned businesses. There are pockets of understanding but it would be good if higher and further education covered employee ownership as part of the syllabus for graduates coming out with business degrees. We act as a sectoral voice and where we do not have to raise awareness we will be driving for more influence on a range of topics – delivering a very buoyant successful organisation which is part of the mainstream.

What achievement are you proudest of?

Setting up my own business in 2006. I did not think I had the confidence to do that. I have also welcomed the experience to grow an organisation.

The single bit of advice I have is to trust your instincts because what you learn as you get to a certain age is that your gut instincts are right. I have done things in this role I have never done before. I have been to Number 10, been on BBC-held discussions with senior leaders of business and spoken at a conference before 700 people.

There is nothing to be scared of and anything is possible. I see myself as a custodian. The EOA is 40 years old and it’s my turn to be the guardian of that and take it to the next stage so it is better than it was when I started.

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