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Why becoming an employee-owned business was the “best thing” for First Event

First Event

The number of employee-owned businesses is on the rise in the UK, gaining recognition for its potential to boost employee engagement, productivity, profitability, and sustainability. 

First introduced by the government in 2014, the UK now has an estimated 1,418 businesses operating under an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) model and is on track for 2,000 by the end of 2024.

Three years ago, Leeds-headquartered corporate events firm First Event was one of those companies making the transition into employee-ownership.

To mark Employee Ownership Day later this month, we sat down with Catherine Wallace, employee engagement manager at First Event, to chat about the company’s journey so far and major milestones since becoming employee-owned.  

“The employee ownership journey, for me, has been the best thing for First Event. It just screamed our name and represented who we are,” Catherine Wallace tells Prolific North.

It’s fast approaching eight years since she first joined the business, a time when there were just a team of 20 with single-person teams working across the marketing or finance departments.

“We were a completely different company in look and feel. We mainly did incentive events for construction based clients.”

With an evolving sales offering, she says the business “really started to change” alongside her own progression within the company.

“I was lucky enough to be invested in and I was put through to undertake my level five CIPD qualification. 

“Our managing director Richard Murphy is super ambitious about us being the best place to work and the team experience was always at the forefront of First Event.”

Then the Covid pandemic hit. Unsurprisingly, as an events business she admits it was a “really challenging” time.

“We were a face-to-face event delivery agency. What we had to do is develop a virtual and digital event offering. It gave the team an opportunity to look at how we were going to develop that. 

“For me, that is a testament to the culture that we have at First Event because they felt empowered, entrusted and motivated enough to step forward and implement solutions.

“We actually won a significant number of new clients which allowed us to reevaluate our position in the market and expand further.”

Despite the uncertainty plunging the events sector during that time, First Event saw it as an opportunity to pivot towards offering virtual experiences.

Now, the company has expanded its agency proposition, broadening services through a 360-degree approach to meet the evolving needs of clients.

“We came out of the pandemic much stronger than when we went in and that’s only accelerated over the last couple of years.”

Catherine Wallace

Further change was on the horizon, when Richard Murphy began to ponder his own role and considered a potential buyout.

“It was essential to him to keep the culture and the values that he’d worked so hard to build,” she explains. “When buyouts do happen, some of that can be lost. You can have a new team come in with their own set of values so it was really important to him to have that longevity there.”

Following a discussion with an accountancy partner, it soon became clear that the EOT model would be the preferred option for First Event. 

“It meant Richard and the existing team would still stay in the business and, importantly, we would keep that culture and those values.”

For those unfamiliar with what an EOT is, it’s where a company has a board of trustees responsible for holding the business assets for the benefit of all employees, prioritising their interests. 

After transitioning to an EOT model three years ago, how has the First Event team adapted to the change?

“When we became an employee-owned company, there wasn’t a light switch moment where all of a sudden we were a different company. We didn’t have that. It just proved it was the right move for us.

“Having input from the team, making them feel included and empowered to use their own voice – that’s always been the ethos within First Event.”

There’s been plenty of benefits since the transition from an EOT tax-free bonus all staff receive once business triggers are met, to an employee council.

“The employee council ensures everyone has a voice, it’s a mix of people from all different departments who meet once a month to discuss ideas other people in the team have put forward to drive improvements and change,” says Steph Cawood, brand marketing manager at First Event.

Since 2021, there have been three employee councils that change and rotate each year. It has helped to pave the way for a number of initiatives including pension increases, charity days off, mental health days and the blood drive . 

Business is now booming with a team of over 70 professionals now working across 10 departments. Last year, First Event delivered over 220 events, hosted across 32 cities.

Some of the First Event team on site

Driven by the team’s input, the company has earned a spot on the prestigious Sunday Times 100 Best Places to Work list in 2024 for a second year running. It’s a further reflection of the company’s ambition, high level of engagement from the team and a benefit of being an EOT.

But with any change, there’s always a challenge. At the beginning of the transition, Wallace admits she too was unsure of what being in an EOT business meant. 

“What you do, or don’t do, on a day-to-day level influences and impacts on the company and in turn, yourself, from a bonus potential point of view.”

Showcasing the impact every individual could have on the business once it became an EOT was crucial to overcoming that.

To encourage that mindset change, the team are always kept in the loop and monthly updates are opportunities to talk “really honestly” about how the business is performing, from forecasts to sales.

“We communicate and make sure that everybody feels like they can actually contribute to their and the company’s success,” she says. “Naturally, we try to get feedback and opinions at every opportunity.”

When it comes to attracting talent, does having an EOT model resonate? “I feel like it’s still something that people don’t often hear a lot about. Everyone knows about John Lewis’ or Go Ape’s employee-ownership journey and there’s a lot of excitement about what it means. 

“There’s huge perks with the bonus scheme, meaning you can have tax free bonuses subject to financial performance within the year. That’s a huge driver, particularly in the challenging times that we’ve had recently.”

As for the future, a four-year plan for the business is now in full swing thanks to the agency’s recent senior hires and promotions including Marc Allot as creative director, Alex Stonall as client development director and Louise Gee as head of sales, all to help the agency consolidate its expanded offering for clients. 

“This has been a big year for us,” says Cawood. “We’re creating an experience as a full start to finish product, rather than just event delivery. With our new hires, we’re also expanding our team in marketing. 

“We’re growing. So it’s a lot of change!” 

With the skills and talent to “drive” the business forward, Wallace believes the business will make “major strides” over the next 12 to 18 months. 

“We have a clear ambition, a well-defined direction, and a strong vision for the future.”

First Event are event partners for Prolific North’s upcoming Northern Marketing Festival, designed to connect, celebrate and inspire the North’s marketing sectors.

On 25 June at VUE Cinema in Leeds, First Event’s creative director Marc Allott and head of tech & innovation, Max Collishaw, will be delivering a special session on how to harness technology and creativity in events.

“We’re excited to be part of Prolific North’s inaugural Northern Marketing Festival. Our creative director, Marc Allott, and head of tech & innovation, Max Collishaw, will showcase how events are more than moments—they’re the loudest part of your marketing strategy, offering a transformative journey for attendees. 

“At First Event, we specialise in leveraging technology and creativity to elevate event experiences. We’ll share cutting-edge strategies and innovations, empowering organisers to create unforgettable moments that leave a lasting impact.”

Take a look at the full agenda and secure your tickets to the event here.

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