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