Last October, Tristram and Rebecca Mayhew passed ownership of their UK-based Go Ape and its 35 sites to the company’s 1,000 staff. According to a lengthy report in The Telegraph, the Mayhews will be paid in installments over the next 10 years, but will remain on the advisory board and will retain 10 percent of the shares even after the sale is complete.
The U.S. Go Ape operations were sold to Vernon West in 2019.
The Mayhews, who built their first Go Ape site in 2002, pursued selling the company prior to Covid, and initially entertained offers from outside investors. After two years of Covid, in which revenues plummeted and staff all performed multiple tasks, they decided employee ownership would be a better path.
“We’ve gone in knowing it’s an experiment,” Tristram told The Telegraph. “But we are very optimistic that this is a much better way of doing business.”
Go Ape’s new employee ownership trust is run by a six-member trustee board, including the Mayhews and two members of a 12-person staff council. The trust owns most of the shares in the company and the former shareholders—the Mayhews and two minority investors—will be paid over the next 10 years out of future earnings. Go Ape made a pre-tax profit of £4.9 million in Covid-hampered 2020.
Going forward, the employees are running the company. The Mayhews remain on the board of trustees, but will not be involved in daily operations.
The Mayhews believe they could have made more through a more traditional sale, but felt employee ownership was more true to the company’s culture. The Mayhews learned early on that an enterprise such as Go Ape required instructors with a passion for helping visitors explore the trees and accomplish things they had never tried. That approach to staffing created closely-aligned employees who share the company’s values.
“We thought about our financial plans as individuals and we could achieve them by going down this route,” said Tristram. “You could have twice as much as enough. But, actually, if enough is enough, it’s enough.”
The couple also discussed the concept with their three children, ages 16, 18, and 20. The kids were all in favor. One said, “’Dad, this is fantastic. You do realize this is socialism at work, right?’” said Tristram. “I said, ‘It’s not socialism, it’s stakeholder capitalism.”’
The UK has encouraged this sort of thinking; in 2012, the government introduced tax incentives for employee ownership trusts. There are currently about 800 such companies in the UK, according to The Telegraph.