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Agency in the Workplace: ESP Projects

Jason Francis, Managing Director at the Sheffield IT company, tells us how worker ownership transformed his life. 

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The management team at ESP Projects, with Jason Francis (R).

Series supported by Ownership Hub logo

This piece is part of our generative inquiry entitled Agency in the Workplace, exploring worker ownership and worker control of organisations in South Yorkshire through the stories of local people. We are also hosting two events as part of Festival of Debate 2023: What if everyone had real agency in their workplace? (17 May) and Co-ownership drop-in session (23 May).

ESP Projects is a managed IT service provider formed in Sheffield in 2002 with the aim of creating a sustainable business with social aims and objectives. ESP provides services to small and medium sized businesses, primarily in Sheffield but also nationwide, while prioritising employment for people in the city from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Following a restructuring of the business starting around 2008, ESP moved towards an employee ownership model, with workers now owning more than 40% of the venture. Managing Director Jason Francis told us about his personal journey since joining ESP.

How has having ownership in your workplace changed your life, Jason?

There's a bit of a history lesson, with this one, for it to make any sense in the final context!

When I came into the business, there was a policy that meant that once I was a permanent member of staff that the [initial employee ownership of] 8% would be divided in two, so I ended up with four shares. As time progressed and we employed more people, that 8% was diluted further and further, until there was only one [share], at which point, the model came into question. So, [ESP founder] Morgan [Killick] set out on a plan to try and change that model.

In 2014, I bought Morgan's private shares and his staff shares, which collectively amounted to around about 57% of the business. I donated 8% of my shares to existing staff. We now have just over 40% staff ownership.

So going back to the beginning, which was the question: what does staff ownership mean to me? What it means to me, from my point of view, is opportunity. If I had not been a shareholder of the four shares which Morgan kindly donated to me […] then I wouldn't have had the opportunity to purchase Morgan's private sector shares. So as an individual, the biggest thing that's come out of that entire story is opportunity.

How has that changed your life specifically?

It's totally transformed my life. Not that I had a bad life in any way, shape or form before my ownership, but I lived in a relatively disillusioned community of Wybourn in Sheffield. Opportunities there were few and far between, I would say. Of course, the city as a whole offers a plethora of opportunities to everybody. But you have to go out and seek it, and in those disadvantaged areas, sometimes people aren't even aware that there's opportunity at the other side of the fence.

Because before I came to ESP, I was struggling to find the opportunities [...] In joining with Morgan, those opportunities arose. Now I live a comfortable lifestyle with what I consider to be a healthy salary, with good benefits from the business. My family is well looked after. My son now works in the business. It's transformed my life.

What commitments do you hold that are important for you to honour in your work with ESP Projects?

When Morgan started the business […] ideals were that people would be employed from the local community. By the local community, we mean specifically Sheffield. We're not talking about an individual neighbourhood; Sheffield as a whole is important to us. That's primarily because that's where we want the majority of our customers to come from. So our staff should come from there too. So that's number one.

And people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It's important to us that we offer those types of people the same opportunities that somebody with a more advantaged background would be offered. So in the business we've got people with disabilities, we've got people from different ethnic backgrounds, we've got people that have different sexual orientations.

We have hired over the years a whole raft of apprentices. There's probably 15 or 16 people in the business that have stayed with us that started as apprentices. So it's important that we offer opportunities to young people, but also people from diverse backgrounds. And it's important that they're committing something back to the local community, being Sheffield.

Now you're here, what would you like to see happen next?

We've just broken the £3 million turnover barrier. I've got a very clear personal plan, in that I want to have a choice to exit when I'm 55. I want to be in a position where personally, my finances would allow me to do that either by continuing to earn a living from my shareholdings from ESP, or by selling my shares. Most likely by transitioning my shares to my son, who's worked in the business for around five years now. We also have two daughters at home and so there might be a time where they get involved in the business too.

To do it in a really comfortable way, the business would need to be turning over £10 to £15 million. Then certainly the staff here will have been well compensated for their time at ESP as well. So that's the personal desired outcome.

In terms of what will the business offer? The product with the biggest potential is our Core software offering, that we've built ourselves that could be taken off the shelf by any business across the world.

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What’s the best case scenario?

That's the best case scenario, because the ratio which we have to increase our staff versus our turnover would reduce. In essence, it's an off the shelf product that can be sold to hundreds or thousands of businesses without us needing to increase our staffing levels.

What would you need most from the community to make that happen?

Well, I guess if we're talking about Sheffield businesses, we would need more Sheffield businesses to come to the table to look at the product and to help us get it off the ground, but also to help us develop it in ways that are suitable for their businesses. We're not trying to create a product here that is ESP focused; we're trying to create a product that's focused on whatever business needs it. And hopefully our primary customer base would be charities and third sector organisations, in keeping with our history.

Focusing on worker-owned organisations – if that became the norm, how might communities in South Yorkshire change?

Well, I mean, there are a lot of really, really big software companies in the world, but also in the UK. And if the Core product really did start to fly, then we would want to stick to our core principles of employing local people.

Again, the word opportunity comes into play. If we can drive the income levels and the profitability of our business up to multiples of where they are today, then we can drive multiples up in terms of employment opportunities for local people.

What meaning was made for you, if any, by the conversation we just had?

Okay, so to add a little bit to the personal story, and starting back towards the beginning – I had a child when I was 15 years old. School life ended in a very difficult scenario, in that I had a child whilst needing to deliver and perform in exams. Thankfully, I've got a really, really strong family around me, so it wasn't as much of a problem as it could have been.

Jason ESP Projects

Jason Francis, Managing Director at ESP Projects.

The biggest thing that the business has offered me is opportunity, and development and understanding, and certainly interaction with people from lots of different backgrounds in such a way that I feel like I'm relatively sympathetic or empathetic of lots of people from all different backgrounds that stands me in good stead.

I had to teach my own children how they should live their lives. And I don't think that would have happened if this business wasn't connected to the third sector businesses that it was connected to.

It's important to say that the business' biggest asset is certainly its people. We really try to engage with staff in such a way that they feel like a family, and that is important as we continue to grow, that that ethos stays through the business.

Who do you know who is working on something that you admire and whose story deserves to be shared?

I think it's not an employee-owned business that I want to bring into the conversation, but it is one that employs lots of local people and has lots of local volunteers – Green Estate. It's crucially right smack bang in the middle of my own community in between Manor Park and Wybourn. There are many, many things going on in that area that relate back to the history of Sheffield itself, but also that relate to local people and opportunities, which is where we started the conversation about myself. One such example of that is the Rhubarb Shed Cafe. A guy there had an opportunity to start a business [...] and now it's a jewel in Sheffield's crown.

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Next in series

Agency in the Workplace: Gripple

Our series on worker ownership continues with Sheffield manufacturing company Gripple. Team leader Liz Lake tells us about her experiences in part-owning the company she works for.

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