A crack­ing idea! Aard­man staff get 75% stake to keep cre­ativ­ity British

The Guardian - - NEWS - Sarah But­ler

The own­ers of Aard­man An­i­ma­tions, the stu­dio be­hind Wal­lace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and Morph, are hand­ing over a 75% stake to its 140 em­ploy­ees to pro­tect the Bris­tol-based com­pany’s in­de­pen­dence.

Peter Lord and David Sprox­ton, who founded Bri­tain’s big­gest an­i­ma­tion pro­duc­tion com­pany when still at school, are set for a multi-mil­lion pound pay­out as part of the deal, un­der which they will to­gether con­tinue to own a quar­ter of Aard­man Hold­ings, the com­pany’s par­ent group.

The pair now over­see an in­ter­na­tional group re­spon­si­ble for an­i­mated fea­ture films such as The Curse of the Were-Rab­bit and this year’s Early Man, video games and ad­verts for com­pa­nies from DFS to Chevron.

Yes­ter­day the com­pany brought out its first ma­jor con­sole game, 11:11: Mem­o­ries Re­told, which fol­lows two char­ac­ters on op­pos­ing sides of the first world war. Shaun the Sheep Movie: Far­maged­don is out next year.

It also makes mil­lions from mer­chan­dis­ing and li­cens­ing the rights to its char­ac­ters. Aard­man Hold­ings is ex­pected to make sales of £30m this year and prof­its of about £2.5m, sim­i­lar to last year, boosted by in­come from sell­ing the rights to Shaun the Sheep, who now ap­pears on theme parks in Ja­pan and Swe­den.

Sprox­ton and Lord said the em­ployee own­er­ship scheme was be­ing funded out of the com­pany’s cash re­serve, which stood at £18m in De­cem­ber, ac­cord­ing to ac­counts filed at Com­pa­nies House.

Sprox­ton said: “We are balanc­ing what we are com­fort­able tak­ing out and what doesn’t stress the com­pany out. We have been think­ing about this a long time and built up con­sid­er­able cash re­serves so we could do this with­out bor­row­ing any money.”

Em­ploy­ees will own their ma­jor­ity stake in the busi­ness via a trust, sim­i­lar to the way the John Lewis Part­ner­ship is or­gan­ised. The 140 em­ploy­ees and 180 free­lancers cur­rently work­ing for Aard­man will also con­tinue to re­ceive a share of prof­its. Any­one who has worked for the com­pany for at least three months of any fi­nan­cial year is en­ti­tled to a bonus.

Staff will have an in­put into the run­ning of Aard­man via a work­ers’ coun­cil, while a se­nior team will sit on a board of di­rec­tors that will lead the busi­ness and de­cide on the staff bonus.

The com­pany is aim­ing to ap­point a re­place­ment for Sprox­ton, who acts as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, over the next year, af­ter which he will step back to be­come a con­sul­tant to the busi­ness. Lord will re­main in his role as creative di­rec­tor for up to five years.

“We are do­ing this be­cause we love the com­pany,” said Lord. “We al­ways be­lieved that in­de­pen­dence was our strong suit. We didn’t have to dance to any­body else’s tune and could make our own de­ci­sions.”

Sprox­ton and Lord made their first an­i­ma­tions af­ter meet­ing at Wok­ing Gram­mar School, us­ing cutouts from mag­a­zines and a clock­work cam­era owned by Sprox­ton’s fa­ther, a BBC pro­ducer and keen am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher.

They sold their first clips to the BBC’s Vi­sion On chil­dren’s pro­gramme while in sixth form, and con­tin­ued to treat an­i­ma­tion as a sum­mer job while at uni­ver­sity, cre­at­ing the hand-drawn Aard­man char­ac­ter that gave the com­pany its name in 1972.

Wal­lace & Gromit cre­ator Nick Park joined Aard­man in 1985. He met Sprox­ton and Lord while at the Na­tional Film and Tele­vi­sion School, where he was work­ing on his stu­dent film, Wal­lace and Gromit’s first ad­ven­ture, A Grand Day Out. Park will re­tain a key role in the com­pany, sit­ting on a new ex­ec­u­tive board. He will also con­tinue to re­ceive div­i­dends and roy­alty fees re­lated to his cre­ations.

Sprox­ton and Lord hope that em­ployee own­er­ship of Aard­man will en­cour­age the whole team to come up with more creative ideas and ways of work­ing now they have a stake in the com­pany’s fu­ture.

It is also in­tended to put less strain on the busi­ness fi­nan­cially than a man­age­ment buy-out backed by debt or sale to a ma­jor stu­dio might have done. “In an age of un­cer­tainty there is a sense of se­cu­rity as [our staff] know their job is safe as long as they come up with ideas,” Sprox­ton said.

“If we sold Aard­man [to a big stu­dio] it would just be­come an as­set on the bal­ance sheet to be traded. They could say, let’s turn it all over to CGI and shoot it in Sin­ga­pore.”

Sprox­ton and Lord be­lieve em­ployee own­er­ship and the com­pany’s var­ied slate of work will pro­tect Aard­man in the fu­ture when Brexit could make the UK film in­dus­try more vul­ner­a­ble than ever to US im­ports.

Lord said: “Our de­sire is to pro­duce British an­i­mated films. The world au­di­ence have got Amer­i­can films com­ing out of their ears.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES FISHER/AARD­MAN

On the set of Shaun the Sheep, who has be­come a star in Ja­panese and Swedish theme parks

▲ Peter Lord (left) and David Sprox­ton want Aard­man to stay in­de­pen­dent

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