On National Employee Ownership Day: Digital agency becomes first in UK to become fully employee-owned


Torchbox, a digital agency with 65 employees and offices across Oxfordshire and Bristol, has become the first digital agency in the UK to transfer 100 per cent of its business to its employees.

The announcement comes a day ahead of National Employee Ownership Day (who knew such a thing existed). According to the Employee Ownership Association (which celebrates 40 years this year), the economic contribution of employee ownership in the UK is significant and growing. Employee ownership delivers four per cent of UK GDP annually. Employee-owned businesses achieve higher productivity and greater levels of innovation and are more resilient to economic turbulence. They also have more engaged, more fulfilled and less stressed workforces, says the organisation.

Torchbox offers digital product development and marketing services to clients across non-profit, healthcare and higher education sectors. It created Wagtail, the popular open source content management system now used by the NHS, NASA and Google.

The founders first revealed plans to staff in March and expect the sale process to complete today.

Torchbox’s employees, who will receive a tax-free bonus of up to £3,600 every year as part of the deal, have elected a Trust of Directors from the existing workforce. The Trust will work alongside Torchbox’s Directors to oversee strategy and growth, with an emphasis on ensuring that the business’s sense of purpose and values remains paramount.

Torchbox founders Olly and Tom will be part of the Trust for five years, until their majority stake is repaid by the business. Staff will eventually be able to decide how to direct agency profits and will continue to input into the running of the business via the Trust, in a model similar to that of the John Lewis Partnership.

“When we were considering the future of Torchbox, we thought about the importance of retaining our independent spirit, continuing our fast growth and empowering our brilliant team to take an active part in our business,” explained Olly Willans. “We decided that by far the best people to own Torchbox are the people who have made it the success it is today, and the people who will continue to make it a success tomorrow. If we were going to choose employee ownership, then we wanted to commit to it entirely without maintaining any kind of minority shareholding.”

Tom Dyson continued: “We plan to spend the next five years focused on maintaining the business’s growth and success, continuing with our US expansion plans and ensuring we hit our targets. We’ve been lucky enough to work with an amazing array of clients who all have a strong purpose – from our first big client the MS Society to huge non-profit organisations like the NHS and NASA. However, the thing I’m most proud of is the team we’ve built at Torchbox – many of them have been with us for more than a decade and two employees have worked here since year one. To me, that says we’ve built something really special, which is even more reason for moving to employee ownership as a thank you for all that hard work and commitment”

Deb Oxley OBE, CEO of the Employee Ownership Association, said:  “We congratulate Torchbox on its transition to employee ownership. By widening ownership of the business to its employees Torchbox is securing the future of the business, including its ethos, values and employees, while rooting itself locally for the longer term to the benefit of the community which it serves.”

The four trustee directors were elected by staff after interested employees submitted a 100 word bid, explaining why they thought they’d be strong candidates. Bekah Evans, delivery manager at Torchbox is a newly elected trustee director. She commented: “Creating the Employee Ownership Trust will ensure the spirit and soul of the company will continue after Tom and Olly move on. It will help us maintain our independence and continue to grow in a way that benefits clients and staff alike. For me, this also represents a big opportunity to learn new skills while helping to shape the future of our business.”