Coping with employee engagement in a time of crisis

While 80 per cent of aluminium foundries have closed down in the past five years in France, a co-operative specialising in aluminium technology has managed to overcome the...

While 80 per cent of aluminium foundries have closed down in the past five years in France, a co-operative specialising in aluminium technology has managed to overcome the crisis without making workers redundant.

Employee engagement has played an important role in achieving these results. Formed in 1981 by a group of former employees of Cafap who had been made redundant, the co-operative currently employs over 150 workers, all having an equal say in how the business is run. Fonderie de la Bruche is the second most important employer in the city of Schirmeck.

Between 2008 and 2009 the foundry lost 40 per cent of its turnover. The employees had to work part-time and applied for partial unemployment benefits. Their contracts were also negotiated, leading to a 10-20 per cent decrease in salaries. In spite of the severe economic context, the Foundry proved it was possible to overcome a difficult situation without making people redundant.

The co-operative managed to overcome these challenges and from 2010 it started to grow again. Its annual turnover reached €15 million in 2011. According to the co-operative’s General Director, Michel Straumann, while workers were united at times of crisis, it proved to be difficult to maintain their motivation and engagement once the crisis had been overcome.

Mr Strumann has been the co-operative’s General Director since 1997. While long-term stability is desirable, having the same General Director for a number of years can lead employees into thinking the enterprise could be run effectively, even if they did not get involved. This means workers had to be reminded that they still needed to engage in the decision-making.

As the co-operative’s General Director, Mr Strumann was also the driving force behind adopting statues that enabled a new distribution of profits. This helped to stimulate and engage employees through a dividend scheme. “We wanted to avoid having employees perceiving their contribution to capital as a constraint or as their only obligation towards the enterprise,” he says.

Employee members take part in general assemblies where they vote on important decisions related to the co-operative’s development. As a co-operative, employees tend to respect their executive board even more, considering they were the ones electing it. Members meet two or three times a year for general meetings.

“I refuse to do this in any other way. Otherwise, the core co-operative values would disappear,” says Mr Straumann. “The co-operative model involves an example set by directors and at the same time a good and transparent communication process.”

Pascal Vuillemin, industrial strategy director of the Fonderie, started working in 2007. He says that most people tend to have misconceptions as to what co-operatives are, thinking that giving employees power is risky. “What struck me the most at first was how involved workers were as opposed to employees from other enterprises.”

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