Pandemic teaches Go Ape co-founders the value of employee ownership

Twenty years before the Covid pandemic made it fashionable for city workers to rethink their lifestyle, Tristram and Rebecca Mayhew quit their London-based jobs as marketing and fundraising managers and moved to the country. Their move follows a chance sighting of a treetop attraction in France, which inspired them to launch Go Ape.

The Mayhews rope adventure company is now an international brand operating 35 courses in woodland and city parks across the UK. A sister operation in the United States has 14 locations.

The pandemic has put everything at risk. Go Ape was forced to close its UK venues in March 2020 due to government lockdown rules and was only able to reopen in July, cutting into its busiest season.

The challenge was to keep the business afloat. The fulfillment process – in which staff flexibility and a willingness to help were key – convinced the Mayhews to turn Go Ape into an employee-owned business.

The immediate impact of the lockdown was that the company’s £1.5million emergency cash reserve was consumed by Go Ape’s £500,000 monthly fixed costs, even with the closure of Site (s. It survived by laying off 97% of the workforce and borrowing £2m through the UK government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme.

Those who still had to work had to double their roles. “We had £400,000 in advance bookings that needed to be moved or refunded immediately and our call center didn’t have enough capacity,” recalls Rebecca, 53. “It was people like our marketing copywriters, who turned to producing customer service emails, that got us through.”

The commitment of their reduced workforce caused the Mayhews to reassess their long-term succession plans. “Our relationship changed with those who stayed at work to cover customer service and other support roles because of how we all had to mingle and get by together,” says Rebecca.

“There’s nothing like a crisis to see which people are 100% invested in the business.

“These people clearly liked the [Go Ape] brand, they loved the culture and they showed that they thought the company could be very successful if we pulled through.

Prior to the pandemic, the couple had begun investigating an exit for themselves and other shareholders.

“Go Ape is about encouraging people to live more adventurously, so it would have been crazy for us to hang on until we were 60 at the helm of this company when there are other things we want to do,” says Tristram, 53.

The Mayhews and their co-shareholders – Jerome Mayhew, Tristram’s brother, who quit as chief executive of Go Ape to become a Tory MP, and Will Galbraith, a friend of Tristram’s from their former career as officers of the British Army – had appointed advisers for a private cabinet. sale in 2019, but the process stalled, in part because potential investors worried about what the management team might look like without the founders. Moreover, a major investment – including a new reservation system and a recruitment campaign – initiated in 2016 with the aim of doubling revenue did not bear fruit. Instead, group sales had fallen from £27.1m in 2018 to £22.7m a year later.

“The whole process of finding buyers was painful, slightly humiliating and very expensive, so we ended it,” says Tristram.

Staff reaction during the pandemic convinced the Mayhews to revive an exit option that had been rejected by advisers because it would not achieve the highest monetary value for the business: turning Go Ape into a trust owned by the employees (EOT).

“Covid coming right after we dropped the private sale process was in some ways cathartic and helpful,” Tristram says. Rebecca has a different memory. “You forget the sleepless nights,” she told her husband.

After discussions with the other shareholders last year, the group reached an agreement that it would sell 90% of the shares to an EOT, leaving the Mayhews with the remaining 10%.

EOT is governed by a six-person board of directors, which will include two members of an elected staff council and will be chaired by Tristram. The purchase of the shares will be funded by Go Ape’s future earnings, spread over 10 years, to prevent the EOT from starting life with significant additional debt.

“It was a real eureka moment,” Rebecca says. “We realized that these people who had allowed us to do so well until then and whom we considered employees were actually much more like our family.

The Mayhews say they have been inspired by other UK founder-led businesses that have recently taken the EOT route, such as organic farm and food delivery service Riverford and high-end retailer Richer Sounds. range of home entertainment equipment. The couple spoke with the two before deciding to go the same route.

Such EOTs are rare. There are only 800 employee-owned businesses in the UK, and 250 of them have been created in the 18 months since March 2020, according to the Employee Ownership Association.

One of the benefits of an EOT has been the “localism effect” it produces, where decision-making is decentralized, according to Malcolm Hurlston, who founded the Employee Ownership Center (Esop) in 1988 to promote such business structures.

However, Hurlston is concerned about the way Go Ape has structured its board, noting that three of the six founding members are former shareholders.

Three questions for Rebecca and Tristram Mayhew

Who is your leadership hero?

Rebecca: I met Jackie Pullinger[a missionary] in the walled city of Hong Kong when I was a teenager. Through her courage and unwavering faith, she brought hope to the hopeless by working with the poorest of the poor in this drug-infested region of Hong Kong.

Tristram: Field Marshal William Slim, ‘the soldier of soldiers’, who in World War II transformed the battered and dispirited ‘forgotten’ 14th Army in Burma [now Myanmar] with pragmatic skill and quiet charisma, until the ultimate victory against the Japanese.

What was your first leadership lesson?

Rebecca: One of my first jobs was managing sales teams in magazine publishing. The business manager I worked for was focused and driven, but the most important lesson she taught me was the benefits of the outdoor adventures she planned for teams. At Go Ape, we call them “Naturally Powered Adventures” and they have always been available for any of our employees to sign up for during the year.

Tristram: The Sandhurst [the British military academy] The motto is “Serve to Lead”. In my experience, if you take care of your employees the way you would like to be taken care of yourself (and this goes for suppliers and owner partners as well), the loyalty engendered will pay dividends.

If you hadn’t founded Go Ape, what would you have done?

Rebecca: I would have run or started my own charity.

Tristram: I would have been parched in corporate life until I decided to either join the military or disappear across the oceans in a boat.

Tristram defends this as a necessary precaution in the event of critical business decisions that must be made before the trust redeems its shares.

“We have chosen to waive the right to sign the business plan each year, as long as it meets the agreed parameters,” he says.

“However, until 75% of our deferred consideration is repaid – over the next seven and a half years – we will have control of the board, which ultimately has the power to remove and replace the MD in a car accident type of scenario.

For the 1,000 staff that Go Ape employs part-time or full-time for its UK operations, the most obvious immediate benefit will be a potentially significant pay rise if the business remains profitable. Last year it made a pre-tax profit of £4.9m, although write-downs for IT investments resulted in a loss of £1.5m the previous year.

Tristram says, “For us, it’s not about what the business is worth — we made a collective decision about what was fair and reasonable to get out of the business without affecting future success. We created [the EOT] so that Go Ape can thrive.

“We had to find a responsible way to support the business. We’ve always thought about that as a family, that we want to have a long future. Why then would we sell to the highest bidder? »

The Mayhews believe that staff can find new innovations to build the business on what they have accomplished. “We hope the result will be more, not less, growth ambition,” Tristram said.

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