Why worker ownership works: Leeds Bread Co-op

“Imagine having a boss – I mean, that’s an awful idea.”

These are the words of one of the six co-owners of an artisan bakery, Leeds Bread Co-op.

Using organic, locally sourced ingredients, Leeds Bread Co-op supplies local restaurants and other businesses – as well as delivering to a growing number of individual subscribers. An artisan bakery is not unique in itself, but it is what lies beneath that makes Leeds Bread Co-op stand out from the crowd.   

There is no overall boss and no pay differential. Instead, the workers all have equal control over business decisions and pay is the same, irrespective of whether an individual sells the bread, bakes the bread, or delivers the bread. They all, if you like, make the same dough. And the results have been impressive.

From ground zero less than five years ago Leeds Bread Co-op, which is defined as a worker co-operative, now produces 1,750 loaves a week and 3500 rolls and buns. It delivers to 60 businesses and has 170 individual bread subscribers who each receive a weekly loaf. Growing success means the bakery, with its highly motivated workforce, moved to its new, bigger base in 2016.

“The one thing that blows me away is that there was nothing there to start with,” says Zig Power, one of their co-founders. “It was a chance encounter and conversation. And so many years later you have generated, from absolutely nothing, livelihoods for 16 people and a product that we’re all proud of - that didn’t exist in 2012.”

The six co-owners of the business – the co-op members – will soon grow to eight. It is part of a 12-month rolling cycle that brings employees into membership and, therefore, into part ownership of Leeds Bread Co-op.

“I didn’t think I’d ever own my own business,” said Zig. “It is eminently possible if you really are motivated. It’s hard work but it’s very rewarding.”

The hard work involved a steep learning curve. At its inception Leeds Bread Co-op was blessed with plenty of baking talent, but much less business know-how. And before the switch to the bigger premises on Penraevon Industrial Estate that  came to a head.

Zig said: “We had been reactive and that has worked well for our first few years of trading, but we wanted to grow in a proactive way that benefits co-op members and employees, and also our local community and customers.”

Leeds Bread Co-op took a proactive step by applying to The Hive, a £1 million business support programme funded by The Co-operative Bank and delivered by trade body Co-operatives UK. The application was successful with the business benefiting through one-to-one advice based around strategic planning and their expansion prospects.

Zig said: “We were able to create long term budgeting plans to have a much clearer insight into the health, productivity and potential direction of our co-op.”

The successful move quickly followed and Leeds Bread Co-op is not intending to look back any time soon. Zig said: “Imagine having a boss – I mean, that’s an awful idea. It’s quite to imagine and remember what it’s like to be in a situation where somebody tells you what to do or is looking over your shoulder all the time. It’s awful isn’t it?”

Business advice via the Hive can be access via www.thehive.coop/reimagine