All systems go as ‘co-ops’ beat downturn

Swann Morton,Owlerton Green....Present Day picture of the Company of Penistone Road
Swann Morton,Owlerton Green....Present Day picture of the Company of Penistone Road
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As the prospect of a double-dip recession looms, Star reporter Rachael Clegg visits three businesses which have weathered the storm – and discovers that co-operation is key.

FRAMED on the wall of the meeting room of one of Sheffield’s most established companies is its founding manifesto.

Swann Morton,Owlerton Green....Copy of Walter Swanns Vision of the Future of the Company in 1944

Swann Morton,Owlerton Green....Copy of Walter Swanns Vision of the Future of the Company in 1944

Here, at Swann Morton, scrolled in neat handwriting, is the company’s founding philosophy, outlined in four statements.

These statements, written in 1932, were written by company founder WR Swann, who established the business to manufacture and sell razor blades.

The business is based on a co-operative model, much like that of John Lewis, where the welfare of the workforce is key and where profits are shared.

The statements stressed – among other things – that the individual came first and ‘if the industry cannot pay the rightful reward of labour (while they are producing for profit for the owners) then a new policy is required on the part of the management to make it do so’.

Swann Morton,Owlerton Green....Copy Picture of Walter Swann

Swann Morton,Owlerton Green....Copy Picture of Walter Swann

This was almost 80 years ago and yet, even today, those same principles are adhered to, where possible, by the company.

Mike Hirst, chairman of Swann-Morton, says: “The company is based on a system whereby it’s 50 per cent charitable trust-owned and 50 per cent employee trust-owned.

“I suppose it’s more like John Lewis but it seems to work. We have a low turnover of staff, we get 10 weeks holiday a year and work a four-and-a-half day week. And we’re still here.”

Having worked in conventional companies as well, Mike says coming to a co-operative like Swann-Morton was quite a culture change.

Swann Morton,Owlerton Green....Walter Swanns hand written Original Principles of the Company

Swann Morton,Owlerton Green....Walter Swanns hand written Original Principles of the Company

“It is an unconventional set-up but again, it has been here a long time. We still look to Mr Swann’s founding principles and try to work for them.”

Clearly, those principles have served the company well. Swann-Morton is a global leader in the manufacture of surgical blades. Indeed, the company has come a long way since it started making grooming products in the 1930s.

And like many co-operatives, profits are shared among employees, an incentive, Mike says, for people to feel a greater sense of responsibility for the company.

But while Swann-Morton may be one of the most established co-operatives in the city, it is not the only one.

Rude Shipyard . Rude Shipyard

Rude Shipyard . Rude Shipyard

At the other end of the city, over at Wincobank, is another co-operative, Traffic Systems, which does exactly what it says on the tin – it services traffic lights and other mechanisms for traffic-control across the country.

“We’ve been a co-operative since 1982,” says Gillian Kelly, a manager at the company.

“I came here in 2005 and the strangest thing about joining a co-operative at first is that you don’t have an immediate boss. There is nobody on your back so it’s down to the staff’s sense of responsibility.”

But this has its disadvantages as well. “It’s great that there’s a shared sense of responsibility and it is very democratic in that all staff are consulted on any important decisions but it’s hard work trying to get everyone to agree on something.”

And like Swann-Morton, Traffic Systems is also a company that has weathered the recession relatively well, compared to conventional capitalist companies.

Swann Morton, Traffic Systems and other co-operative giants such as the Co-operative Bank and John Lewis have marched on through recession where many businesses have collapsed.

As a result, more and more, people are looking to the co-operative model as a solid option in a turbulent economy.

And all the time, newcomers are joining the co-operative movement. Barely one week ago, the Rude Shipyard café on Abbeydale registered as a co-operative.

Other Sheffield co-operatives include the Children’s Centre on Shoreham Street and Beanies Wholefoods.

Gary Whittaker, a co-owner of the Rude Shipyard, says: “It’s just easier to have more people investing than relying on funds from one person.

“Sally Smith has managed it up until now so it must be quite a big thing for her to relinquish her responsibility as this is already an existing business. But it is exciting and it is lovely to be involved.”

The Rude Shipyard, like many co-operatives in Sheffield, sought support from Sheffield Co-operative Development Group.

Alan Dootson, manager of the group, said the co-operative model works because of its focus on the long term.

“Co-operatives tend not to be about short-term gain. They tend to be democratic in their decision-making with every member having a say in what’s going on.” Alan’s something of an expert in co-operatives, having worked at the Co-operative Bank for 30 years. And this year is an especially important one for Alan and the co-operative businesses in Sheffield as it is the United Nations Year of the Co-operative 2012, which aims to raise awareness of the contributions of co-operative enterprises.