Boardmans EO Story:

How Communication Has Shaped Our EO Values

Established in 1925 in the heart of Manchester’s hatting district as a modest, family run business, Boardmans has evolved into the go-to design, source, and supply provider for many retailers (UK and worldwide) in the soft accessories category. We focus primarily on hats, gloves and scarves. Our diverse customer base includes Next, Aldi, Accessorize, ASOS, TU, Mountain Warehouse, Carrefour and Hush to name a few.

The company was originally owned by the Boardman Brothers, and then another family took over the company for 3 generations before one of the non-family Directors, Phil Wright led a MBO in 2005.  In 2018, Phil got diagnosed with cancer and, although it was thankfully unlikely to be life-threatening, he started to plan for the future and a possible exit.  An MD was working alongside Phil but neither the MD nor Phil were keen on pursuing another MBO. Phil’s experience of the MBO was that it drew unfair dividing lines based on those who could raise personal stakes and affected some relationships where Managers who became shareholders felt they should be Directors, even if not qualified or ready. Reading a newspaper article about EOTs, Phil started to investigate this option and learnt more through joining the EOA and going to a number of events.  The Boardmans culture already embraced many aspects that are important to a successful EO business: openness and transparency around financials; employee engagement at good levels; a fun working environment, and a significant number of long-standing employees. The process of going down the EOT route was started with accountants and solicitors engaged, a valuation conducted, and an EMI scheme agreed for the MD to incentivise him to see the business pay for the shares over 5 years.

Then 2020 brought on challenges that no-one could have predicted with lockdowns resulting in store closures for much of our customer base, as well as office closures resulting in our Manchester team working from home. At Boardmans we pride ourselves in innovative thinking and the past two years has shown how versatile and adaptable we can be. For our business to continue effectively throughout covid we had no option but to increase communication and adapt the ways in which we communicate internally, as well as externally with our customer base. Previously we would conduct face-to-face development meetings with buyers at customers’ headoffices, but we modified our presentation methods and found effective ways to present online with product boards and shared physical samples over video.

During the pandemic our EO plans were shelved, but as we emerged post-pandemic it was clear that the EO route was still a great fit for Boardmans, and the desire to recognise and reward the whole team was stronger than ever.

So, we put the plan back on the table…

There were some obstacles (some not insignificant), but we moved forward. The MD handed his notice in which encouraged members of the management team to adapt because nobody wanted this to be a reason to pause our EO journey once again. The Managers agreed to take on some of the previous responsibilities of the MD and Phil agreed to become part-time C.E.O. Our agreed focus was on forward-looking strategy and development of the senior team whilst championing the transition to EO status.  The move to Employee Ownership finally completed on 21st October 2021 after 3 years!

Boardmans has an excellent reputation within the industry as a great place to work, and we believe this is down to the people. We are a close team of 15 members of staff in the UK, who take an interest in each other’s lives and offer support on a personal and professional level. Since January 2022 we’ve welcomed 3 new members of staff to the company, across 3 different teams, and our employment search continues. Despite the recent difficulties we’ve experienced in relation to the pandemic, the company continues to grow and attract new talent.

Once Boardmans had transitioned into an EO business, the board of directors made it a priority to hold a ballot to appoint three members of our Employee Forum. They hoped that the employees would select a diverse group who could represent the whole team in Manchester, and we feel this was achieved. In the last few months, the newly formed Employee Forum have organised team activities (Bongos Bingo!), and celebrated individual colleagues’ personal milestones (baby showers, weddings). They have also introduced a comments box into the office and circulated their annual Employee Engagement Survey in which all staff members were encouraged to be open and honest with their anonymous responses. Questions included:

  • The Management Team keep people informed about what is happening within the company – How much do you agree with this statement?
  • Now we are an Employee Owned company, I feel more committed to the future of Boardmans – How much do you agree with this statement?
  • What do you think we do well at to support positive employee engagement?
  •  What would you like to see more of (office environment, company culture, working aspects, social side etc)?

Once the feedback has been collated the Forum will present back to the rest of the colleagues in our quarterly update and actions will be taken to make any improvements that have been suggested. Previously our company updates consisted of Phil sharing information with the staff however this time speakers will include our Operational Director, Employee Trust Director and members of the Employee Forum. They will each share different aspects of our journey so far from financial reports to the results of the employee engagement survey, to our new EO bonus scheme. The EO bonus scheme was an early priority of the EO Trust Directors as they felt this would be key in encouraging increased levels of motivation with clear goals and targets for the trustees to work towards.

A recent example of this is the Design and Sales teams working closely together to broaden our product offering in such a way as to correct our current erratic seasonal sales trend. This, along with increased collaborations across departments is an example of the whole team being invested in and proud of the success of our EO journey.

Overall, we believe that effective communication across the whole workforce at Boardmans since transitioning to Employee Ownership has encouraged us all to be more accountable – reaching the sales we need to achieve our bonus, whilst being mindful of how incurred expenses can impact.


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