26 August 2009

Case Study: Calverts

Calverts, one of our long standing worker co-operative members and has kindly updated their case study. If your interested in what makes a successful worker co-op, continue reading. If you want to help us promote the co-operative model, I am always looking for more case studies.

Founded in 1977, and based in central London, Calverts North Star Press Ltd (now trading simply as Calverts) is a successful graphic design and print co-operative employing 16 worker members, with a turnover of £1.4m. The co-op specialises in communications design, branding, graphics and print. Clients range from investment banks and marketing agencies to government organisations, arts groups, charities and campaigns. Services include branding, corporate identity, design, copywriting and photography; website design and development, and print media of all kinds.

Calverts is a market leader in environmentally positive design and print. It holds Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Greenmark and ISO14001 accreditations. In 2001 it was given the Inner City 100 award, in recognition of its achievements as one of the UK’s fastest growing inner city social enterprises.

Calverts was named in honour of Giles and Elizabeth Calvert, who published and printed many of the millenarian texts of the 17th century English revolution (and were frequently imprisoned for their efforts). Their workshop was in Clerkenwell, where the co operative had its first premises.

Calverts was set up after an industrial dispute at IRAT services, the design and publishing wing of the Arts Lab. The workers had understood that they were working for a ‘co-operative’, which turned out not to be the case when they found themselves in receipt of redundancy notices. Believing that there was a market for their work, wanting to preserve jobs, having no investment capital and wanting to work in a radically egalitarian way, seven of the employees decided to set up a common ownership, ICOM (Industrial and Common Ownership Movement) collective type worker co-operative. They incorporated as an Industrial and Provident Society in November 1977, and the first formal meeting was held at the North Star pub in Finchley Road (hence the other part of the co-op’s name).

Early barriers to success were many. The co-op had no capital other than a £500 loan from ICOF to buy equipment; initially, there was no money to pay wages. Calverts’ landlord required personal guarantees on the lease (two people volunteered, and the other members signed a legal deed in case things went wrong, to indemnify the two); suppliers had to be persuaded to continue delivering raw materials such as paper, ink and typesetting consumables on credit; membership of the NGA trade union had to be negotiated.

The biggest single weakness of the co-op was lack of capital. Calverts was a classic ‘sweat equity’ operation. It was decided to cease trading if all the members could not be on the trade union minimum within six months (they succeeded); apart from some small members’ loans at low interest rates, major equipment purchases were financed through debt (asset finance loans from Close Brothers merchant bank, United French Banks, and further ICOF loans.)

This has continued to the present day; Calverts last major investment was in a £750,000 Heidelberg printing press, financed by a loan from Close Asset Finance over 7 years. The view has always been that relatively expensive capital has been a price worth paying for autonomy and equality.

Essentially, all the early problems were overcome through a combination of militancy, hard work, solidarity and persuasion.

For the worker members, the main benefits of working at Calverts are good wages and conditions (slightly higher than average pay, and much better conditions than the industry standard), respect and equality in the workplace, education and skills development, and the opportunity to exercise democratic self-management. Average staff retention is more than twice the industry average, which means that as a business Calverts has built a body of considerable creative and technical expertise. This is reflected in high levels of quality, service and client care.

Trading through three recessions, no employee has ever lost their job by reason of forced redundancy, and continual improvements in productivity and service delivery meant that real wages have increased almost without interruption for 30 years. Apart from these obvious social dividends, Calverts has also developed an unusually strong management culture based on mutual respect, trust and consensus building. This is the true strength of the business, and it is maintained by paying close attention to good governance, which the members have interpreted as operating according to both the letter and the spirit of the co-operative principles.

Successful and innovative business initiatives in Calverts have come from all areas of the co-op, which has always invested for the long term, and attributes the success of its investment strategy to rigorous discussion and testing of its plans. As a result, the co-op has weathered the storm of the current recession, in a business market was already hugely competitive, much better than its competitors.

In Calverts early days, skills development was almost entirely ‘on the job’, and members rotated job functions. As the business grew, technical and creative skills became more specialised. All members have a personal training budget which allows them to develop knowledge relevant to their job role, but also to their personal aims. In recent years, the co-op has invested more in the area of new member induction and education in co-operative values, principles and the movement’s history, believing this to be an important aspect of skills development for any worker in a co-operative business.

Interestingly, Calverts is still a true equal pay co-op; the hourly rates of pay are the same for a founder member with 31 years’ service, who is now a trained financial accountant, as for a newly-qualified design or printing apprentice. The co-op has had to meet the needs of all its members by driving up productivity, and thereby improving pay and conditions across the board. As a result, it has no problem recruiting experienced and highly-skilled new employees.

Calverts demonstrates that radical ideas around worker co-operation can lead to innovative and successful businesses, bringing member benefits which other business models cannot equal. It believes the project to build co-operation as 'social brand' is now an urgent challenge for the wider movement. To demonstrate the kind of work it thinks is needed to raise public awareness and approval of co operative values and principles, Calverts developed the 'Co op Hands' stamp for worker co operative produced goods and services, and is working on ideas for a new ‘co-operative mark’.

The co-op champions socially and environmentally conscious design and print - but, like many other co-operatives, it didn't jump on the last green bus. It pioneered high quality printing using recycled papers and vegetable oil based inks before such things were popular or profitable. As one member explains: "our clients want the assurance and credibility which comes from eco-positive design and print - but in Calverts early days, it was as much about clean and safe working methods for our members."

Jess Baines, a former member now teaching at the London College of Communication, has set up a wiki about radical printshops, design studios and poster collectives of the 70’s and 80’s, and there are a couple of interesting reminiscences about Calverts here.

Sion Whellens one of Calverts members is a member of the Worker Co-operative Council and at present represents the WCC on the main board of Co-operativesUK

Other links:
Calverts Facebook group

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