Guy’s news: Anxiously awaiting utopia

Easter has passed without a seed going in the ground. With no sign of let up from the weather fronts sweeping in off the Atlantic, it is starting to get serious. A knot of anxiety is growing in my stomach; it could be impatience to plant, but I suspect a larger part is the momentous change just two months away.

After twelve years of research, thought and consultation, Riverford becomes 74% employee-owned on the 8th June (with me holding onto 26%). It all seemed so straightforward when I was planning my utopia, hoe in hand, with only a field of unquestioning artichokes for company. The reality involves lawyers, governance, banks, and hardest of all for me, lots of listening, questions and communication. I have no doubt that it is the right path but, as with sowing my first organic leeks, I never stopped to consider the journey.

I want so much more for Riverford, its staff, suppliers and customers than I have been able to deliver while owning it myself. Management should be about getting the most from staff while giving the most back. Yet in so many organisations, particularly in the UK, people are estimated to achieve only one to two thirds of their potential – resulting in low pay and unfulfilled staff. This is a miserable indictment of the short-term, narrow-minded management so often demanded by conventional ownership.

Too many managers are excited by the numbers and technology that offer predictable returns on investment, but understandably scared of the emotional complications and unpredictable results from investing in people. I should know; I am one of the (mostly male) managers who made it this way. But after thirty years, I am frustrated by the result and want to be part of something less wasteful of our human potential. Over the last year, as we approach employee ownership, we have taken the first steps towards more people-centric management. It will be a long, scary and exciting journey, full of learning, along an unmarked path. But if each of us at Riverford achieves three-quarters of our potential we will fly – and we hope others will follow. I find myself as excited about my involvement in this next leg of Riverford’s journey as when I sowed those first leeks.

Guy Singh-Watson

26 responses to “Guy’s news: Anxiously awaiting utopia

  1. Although l totally understand where you are coming from regardless of gender,ethnicity ,age etc. equality to me is not just us all having the same pay,skills,or goals. As an artist needs an appreciator,an orchestra needs a conductor,and an audience ,but maybe l dont understand the role of management .?Surely your role is far more complex and skilled and maybe more to do with aspiration than potentials?Sorry,bit out of my depth here but always fascinates me,the devisions between art and business and am not sure that ‘Riverford’ is purely the latter,

  2. Well done Guy! I’ve been very keen on democratic ownership and management for a long time , And so has John Lewis.

    Maybe your anxiety will become a memory, like the cold wet weather, once it starts to warm up

  3. Your doubts and fears are understandable, venturing onto uncharted waters, so to speak; especially so with a delayed start to planting.
    I’m sure , however , that all will be well, veggies can catch up if the weather turns kind; Our Ancestors managed, and so what if a particular season is a little late? We customers know things cannot be guaranteed when at the mercy of the British Climate.

  4. I love your forward thinking Guy, all in this together, team work and working for the highest good of all I feel is the way forward :-). The sun will shine again and we will be forever grateful to our Earth and those who care, nurture and love the soil and all life that depends on her.
    I agree with Jill, we the customers do know that season and produce can not be guaranteed as we eagerly await our next box.

  5. I applaud your step into employee ownership and look forward to renewed vigour and energy being poured into Riverford that will gladden your heart!! It’s a great move you’ve taken, counter-culture, but so worthwhile. Well Done!!

    I’m a long-term customer of Riverford and thank God for your move into organic farming and for all the good food that’s been produced and shared. At this Easter time, may you know the blessing of God and see the amazing love of Jesus that’s poured for us. At church today I sat next to Gilbert McPherson, who you know, and has recently come to receive Jesus into his life with all its transforming joy.

    • Can you ask your God and that Jesus fellow to stop sending so much cold, wet weather? That’s not good for crops. Obviously, the all-knowing God should already know that, so this is no doubt some kind of test. Growers don’t need another test… we need to grow food to feed our families. Thanks.

  6. Tony William Powell

    I feel sorry for so many farmers and growers right now as the Air Temperatures, and more appropriately the soil Temperatures remained depressed, almost imitating ourselves. A recent bird survey I undertook still revealed many birds either battling against the elements searching for food, or defending their territories already. So equally, we should be thinking of them as we will undoubtedly bounce back just as nature will itself, eventually. The problem is, often the general public’s perception of “farming as a business” is lost in the noise of other mainstream ideas about what it means to farm the land. I may be a townie, but not in mindset, as my mind is firmly in line with your struggles in what is currently a terrible start to our so-called spring. As I’m told, many a farm will be suffering a loss in the region of £10,000 to £15,000 a week due to their inability to get out and manage their lands. Try telling that to the BBC and the rest of the media elite. Chins up, guys, things will inevitably turn the corner soon.

    Best Wishes

    Tony Powell and naturestimeline

    • Can you ask your God and that Jesus fellow to stop sending so much cold, wet weather? That’s not good for crops. Obviously, the all-knowing God should already know that, so this is no doubt some kind of test. Growers don’t need another test… we need to grow food to feed our families. Thanks.

      • Oops.. sorry.. reply submitted to wrong post… please ignore the god bit.

        Birds: we feed many birds in our garden. They *are battling for food and territory, even thought we leave plenty out for them.

        Plantng and farming… it’s been 8c today in the midshires. We need 10-15 to plant courgette seeds that could have been sown at the start of March. With 4c and snow forecast from Sunday night into Monday, there’s no chance of planting those seeds.

        We are just a family with a garden plot. The stress to farmers trying to make a living under these conditions must be horrendous.

  7. Guy – I always loved your rants (and missed them when you stopped).
    I also like this step you are taking – very much.
    Having worked in a co-op in the past, I know that it can be frustrating at times and decisions can take longer to make. But in the end, it beats the alternatives by a mile. You get the most out of everyone by taking them with you.
    I, for one, am very, very glad you didn’t opt to sell (out) to some big food company or equity buyer. This way, Riverford survives and thrives. I don’t just want organic veg delivered to my door, I want it produced and sold ethically.

  8. I wanted to plant some seeds today too (courgettes, pumpkins amongst others). Minimum temps of 10-15c required. We don’t have that, and are due snow early next week, so cannot sow the seeds.

    Whilst tidying the garden outside, husband and I heard the disembodied wailing of the God Squad in town, on their Good Friday demonstrations. Hmmm.

    Employee ownership under such testing conditions could be the best way to start. If it doesn’t work under these conditions, it won’t work. Like starting life in a new country, but under snow and ice instead of sunshine and warmth.

    Wishing you and Riverford all the very best. We’ve enjoyed everything we’ve bought from Riverford, and would rather buy from you than any of your competitors. YOu haven’t sold out to venture capitilalists. Looking forward with interest. Keep up the standards, and we’ll stay with you.

    Onwards and upwards.

  9. Hello Guy
    I’d like to wish you all the best with the new organisation. I remember you saying that this was the plan some time ago – it’s encouraging to see it being put into practice.
    Best wishes, John

  10. It’s really heartening to hear your business model is going to be as progressive as your farming practices! We are pleased to be a small part of it in being long term customers – in the past and, with luck and a fair wind, in the future too.

    Roll out the practical utopia!

  11. My father was a trade unionist and I work for the NHS and am also a member of the trade unions. I see your vision. I also see history. This is the future, business and cooperation with the people who make your business. I love your food. Good luck for your future.

  12. Congratulations, Guy, on your move to employee-ownership.

    It has always been a disappointment to me that despite the obvious success of the business model invented by John Spedan Lewis, so few businesses have followed his lead.

    When in a few years it’s all running smoothly, I hope you will devote some of your energies to encouraging others to follow suit.

    And be of good heart. There should be no need of hosepipe bans this year.

  13. When I spoke to your market researcher I said that buying Riverford veg was an investment in our future, for my husband and I re our health. I stand by these words and extend them to Guy’s brave leap for Riverford’s future. It will be an investment in all our futures.

  14. I wish you well Guy, and all your staff. If they are half as passionate and dedicated as you have been, Riverford will go from strength to strength. I am excited to see what the future holds for us all, and in the meantime, I wish you a long and fruitful semi-retirement.

  15. Congratulations Guy on your brave and forward thinking handing on of three quarters of Riverford to the people without whom there would be no business. Your and their dedication to growing and providing us with an alternative to mass produced veg and meat, the production of which is ruining our countryside and wildlife, should be applauded and I look forward to the day when there are local shops in all towns where my grandchildren will be able to choose produce like yours. The next step??!!

  16. I have just read the above comments, and can’t really add to the sentiment they all share. Except to say that I love your veg Guy, and I love your rants and I love your business ethics. Now go sort out the useless politicians with your practical down to earth (no pun intended) and generous philosophy!!! Best wishes for the next bit of the journey

  17. Seriously Guy have you thought of going into politics?

  18. Hi Guy, almost 6 years ago I took a decision to stop paying attention to the news. The negativity espoused by tv, radio and newspapers and social media is something I chose not to engage in for the sake of my mental wellbeing. As a riverford customer your blog is one of the very few pieces of content I read without fail each week. As a fellow business owner in a different industry entirely (furniture manufacturing) I see the same core industry challenges; dominated by large players focusing purely on short term profitability. Your voice gives me hope and let’s me know I’m not alone in my belief that their is an alternative to large corporate greed and dominance. I wish you good fortune in your employee ownership journey. I had no doubts it will be a great success for both employees and customers alike.

  19. Hi Guy. Thank you and God Bless you for what you are doing. I fail to understand why, when people come from all over the world to be taught so many various skills in the UK, so many industries are happy to be bought by foreign investors. But for people like you this Great Britain would be owned and run by other countries. I have a love of all people regardless of nationality, religion or colour but, coming from Sheffield, where our steel and cutlery industries were once known world wide, I do fear the United Kingdom is slowly being sold to the highest bidder.

  20. Hi Guy, I do appreciate you concerns over both this cold, wet, weather and the huge change that you and the rest of Riverford face. I am convinced though, that as surely as the sun will eventually shine, and the soil will warm & dry out, your experience and passion combined with your wonderful staff will make this next chapter of the Riverford story a massive success – eventually! Bon chance!

  21. Best Wishes for the Brave New World at Riverford (in the Shakespeare, not Huxley sense) from everyone at Delfland.

  22. I saw Guy on Spotlight today talking about the handover. I never post to blogs normally but having moved to Riverford a year ago (better late than never) I am so glad to be a customer of a truly ethical organisation. Society often seems morally bankrupt in the ceaseless chasing for bigger profits and the increasing gap between the super rich and poverty stricken. It’s great to hear someone speak out on this (particularly on Spotlight) and thank heaven there are pockets of resistance – hopefully they will get bigger and bigger.

  23. I always enjoy reading your newsletters Guy. This one particularly caught my attention. I have been running my own businesses for fourteen years now and a lot of my work is helping organisations develop their Managers and more importantly their Leaders. Most of the organisations I work with are over managed and under led. Far too much focus on targets and “measurables” and insufficient on the people aspect. What you have chosen to do is brave but the right thing for all involved. I’m absolutely sure it will work for the benefit of all.

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