A RETIREMENT village has become the first in the UK to be owned by its staff.

This week Middleton Hall Retirement Village, based in Middleton St George, near Darlington, became entirely owned by its 190 employees.

The transfer to become an Employee Ownership Trust, and join the likes of John Lewis, follows months of preparation since the move was first announced by the retirement village in September last year in a bid to safeguard its long-term future.

Employees have been kept closely updated on progress and, earlier this year, staff voted to appoint eight representatives from across the whole business onto a co-owners Forum. From this group, two employee Trustees have been elected to sit on the Ownership Trust.

Messages of support from other employee-owned businesses across the UK have been received including one from Aardman, the Oscar-winning animation studio behind Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and Morph, which has also recently transferred to Employee Ownership.

Simon Fowler, Director of Communications at John Lewis congratulated Middleton Hall in its transfer to employee ownership and said: “You’ve now joined a growing group of businesses across the entire UK who are realising the business and personal benefits of sharing ownership and influence whilst at the same time contributing to the growth of this £30 billion part of the economy.”

Staff cheered their new ownership status at a special evening celebration at the Blackwell Grange Hotel in Darlington which featured magicians, caricaturists and some cleverly-disguised singing waiters.

A project team representing all areas of the business had been formed last year to help co-ordinate the transfer over to employee ownership and a team of ten employees attended the Employee Ownership Association conference in November to network and learn from other employee-owned companies.

Former owner and managing director Jeremy Walford said that he wanted to maintain the long-term quality of the company after selling it and thought employee ownership was the best way.

He said: “I have worked hard to transform what was a struggling care home into one of the leading retirement villages in the UK and have taken considerable personal financial risk to turn it into a successful and profitable company that is financially stable.

“My motivation over the last 23 years has been driven by the desire to build a business that makes a difference to our customers and staff rather than purely for financial reward. I now feel a responsibility for ensuing Middleton Hall continues with the vision of being the best and maintains the values that make it the special place where our residents live and staff work for the long term.”

“I have received offers to sell the business but I am aware that in selling a company you never know who you are really selling to in the long term and I have seen good companies in our sector ending up barely a shadow of the business they historically had been when run by a caring owner, after being bought out.

“In a business world where capitalism and especially social care businesses often have a bad name, an Employee Ownership Trust offers a different model of how a truly caring company can operate, so my personal decision was easy.

“It should sustain Middleton Hall for the long term, ensure continued re-investment, high staff engagement and customer focus. That is far more important to me than the personal wealth from selling the company to a third party.”

Gail Jones, who has worked for Middleton Hall for over six years, was recently elected as one of two new employee trustees of the company with Sheenagh Young, care manager, fulfilling the role of the other trustee.

Ms Jones said: “This is a really exciting time for all of us at Middleton Hall. I feel employee ownership offers great security for both staff and residents alike and truly illustrates that employees are the company’s number one asset."

Middleton Hall Retirement Village includes a restaurant, pool, spa, gym and sports facilities and has a rarely-awarded outstanding rating in all categories from the CQC.