Organic veg box company Riverford is celebrating five years of employee ownership by completing the sale of shares from founder Guy Singh-Watson, to become 100% staff-owned.
Singh-Watson (pictured) will remain a co-owner of the business – which recorded sales of £97 million in 2022 and delivers 65,000 organic veg boxes every week – sitting on its Trust Board and acting as a non-executive director, and continuing to act as an important voice in food and farming affairs. All shares will now be held by the Riverford Trust for the benefit of all staff.
Riverford has been owned by its employees since 2018, with Singh-Watson retaining 23% of shares. Since then, the business has gone from strength to strength, growing turnover, profits and its investment in both planet and people. Its governance model consists of the Trustees, the Board and the Co-Owner Council. The Council meets once a month, and works with the two other governing bodies to grow the business whilst maintaining the founding values of sustainability and fair treatment of staff and suppliers – summed up in its commitment to ‘Good Food, Good Farming, and Good Business’. The final transfer of shares to the Trust speaks to Riverford’s belief in co-owners as the best custodians of the success and ethics of the business.
The development sees Riverford become one of the UK’s largest fully employee owned businesses, behind bigger enterprises like retail chain John Lewis and other well-known brands to embrace the model including music business Richer Sounds and Bristol animation company Aardman Animations.
Singh-Watson, said: “It has always been my plan to transition Riverford into a 100% employee-owned company. When the business became employee-owned in 2018, I wanted to ensure that the move was a successful one, and that the values of the business were safeguarded by its new owners and governance arrangements. Since then, it’s been a privilege to witness the business grow in ways we couldn’t have predicted, all whilst remaining committed to its founding purpose: to balance the needs of customers, suppliers, the environment, and wider society, and provide fair and rewarding employment to our staff.
“As for me, I don’t plan to be a stranger. In my role as trustee and non-executive director, I’m looking forward to working with the co-owners to further Riverford’s impact as a trailblazer in the UK when it comes to sustainability, climate action, good food, and fair treatment of our farmers.”
Singh-Watson told The Guardian that a proportion of the money he would receive would invested in more solar power and agroforestry on his own farms – in Devon and France – with some going to the Ripple Effect charity, which helps farmers overseas, and local community projects in Devon.
In a swipe at parts of the political class, Singh-Watson told the newspaper: “After much consideration and despite the example set by many politicians … I have decided to make no attempts to avoid tax liability on the sale of the shares,” he said.
“After much consideration and despite the example set by many politicians … I have decided to make no attempts to avoid tax liability on the sale of the shares”
“I’ve not set up trusts to avoid tax, even though much of the money will end up supporting charitable projects. I will pay my tax as others who can’t afford creative accountants do, and I strongly support the idea of a wealth tax.”
In becoming 100% employee-owned, Riverford builds on a legacy of advocating for the wellbeing of its staff, as well as the farmers, growers and pickers that supply the business with its organic produce. The business has consistently been transparent with its customers about the importance of paying its producers fairly, even raising prices to ensure that growers were not adversely affected by the rising cost of labour in the UK.
Charlotte Tickle, Riverford’s director of people, finance and change, commented: “We’re absolutely delighted that Riverford will become 100% owned by employees. Our co-owners are central to our business. As the driving force behind Riverford’s day-to-day operations, as well its long-term goals, they ensure that the company remains authentic, and true to its founding principles.
“The Co-owner Council meets once a month, and works with the two other governing bodies to ensure Riverford’s long-term success. They leverage the power and voice of all Riverford’s co-owners, offering insight and perspectives from every part of our varied business – all to help our leaders make the best decisions.”
Rob Haward, managing director of Riverford, added: “Since Riverford became employee-owned in 2018, we have had some of our most successful years to date. We have also successfully navigated the enormous challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting co-owners in their role as key workers, delivering great food to our customers without any interruptions
Our governance structure ensures that co-owners attend Board meetings every quarter, acting as a driving force in the running of Riverford. Over the last five years, engagement with all our fellow co-owners has proven to make us a better, more successful, more resilient business that can think both for the short term and the long term. We are proud to model this better way of doing business, and as we move to becoming 100% employee owned, we look forward to seeing Riverford continue to flourish.”
James de le Vingne, chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association (EOA), said: “Congratulations to Riverford Organic Farmers on the news that the business is now 100% employee owned. Riverford is a powerful example of the potential that can be unlocked through employee ownership, and thoroughly deserved its good governance award at the EOA Annual Conference last year.
“I’m always struck by the passion and commitment in our employee-owned member businesses that are joined by a common purpose, that business and society are better when people have a meaningful stake and say in their work. The EOA is excited to continue working with Riverford as it carries on its employee ownership journey.”
Combatting climate change and biodiversity loss through better business practices has been a key mission for Riverford since the business was founded in 1986. Recent investments have included the largest on-roof solar panel array in the South West, electrifying its van fleet with a goal to be 100 per cent electric by 2025, an ongoing investment into home compostable packaging, and new refrigeration systems to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency.
In 2021 Riverford also launched a major agroforestry trial on organic farmland in Devon and began a native tree planting programme and wildlife surveys as part of its biodiversity action plan. In 2022, the business announced a £1.8m ‘fund for the planet’ – the start of a continual annual investment in tackling the climate and biodiversity crises. The company will continue to invest profits in its zero-carbon strategy, with the aim of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2030.