UKClimbing Limited Becomes an Employee Ownership Trust

© UKClimbing

We are delighted to announce that UKClimbing limited, the company behind UKClimbing, UKHillwalking, Rockfax print and Rockfax Digital, has become an Employee Ownership Trust. This significant move means that long term ownership and management of the company has been placed in the hands of its employees under the governorship of a Board of Trustees. This offers stability to the business and a much more certain independent future based on a highly motivated staff who have all contributed to the growth and development of the company, and who all share its ethos, and a passion for what we do.

Some of the UKC Team on the Costa Blanca.  © UKClimbing
Some of the UKC Team on the Costa Blanca.
© UKClimbing

Alan James, Managing Director of UKClimbing Ltd throughout its long progress from humble beginnings to today's thriving business, explains the thinking behind the change to the new model.   

When I started writing guidebooks back in 1992, I had no designs to make a significant business of it. In fact, even as late as 2008, when I acquired the rest of the shares in UKClimbing Limited to add it to the Rockfax print portfolio, the prospects for the fledgling company with limited turnover and only three staff working at below-par salaries didn't look great. However, since then, the addition of talented and committed members of staff, the ongoing development of UKClimbing and UKHillwalking as great online resources and our move into Rockfax Digital, have made it a significant player in the climbing and mountaineering world.

Early on in this process, we started going to trade shows as a staff team. This proved a worthwhile activity from a business point of view, but it also gave an insight into the wider world of outdoor small to medium-sized businesses. I remember being shocked at the staff turnover and also becoming aware of the distance between the people promoting products and those behind the money. Frequently we would see employees working one year for one company, and then 12 months later singing the praises of a rival brand. There was also a fickleness to their employment with some good people being dumped unceremoniously when the spreadsheet dictated.

This isn't to say that all outdoor businesses are like this, indeed we have an article looking at the specific growth of Employee Ownership Trusts in the outdoor industry in the pipeline; however, there are plenty of such businesses around and they obviously proliferate in the wider world outside climbing and mountaineering.

In many cases, the business becomes the product amongst very rich people trading their assets with little care for the end product seen by consumers. This end product often becomes irrelevant and the staff who help produce it turn from great assets in a growing business, to costs to be traded with on the company balance sheet.

The Costa Blanca has been a key book for Rockfax. Alan James, Tai Chi, Olta. Photo:Mark Glaister  © Mark Glaister
The Costa Blanca has been a key book for Rockfax. Alan James, Tai Chi, Olta. Photo:Mark Glaister

It became clear that a traditional approach to small business - namely fattening it up and finding a bigger company to sell it to for a tasty payday - was not right for us. The two main activities are more than just a small business producing things; UKClimbing and Rockfax have both become significant players in the long heritage of climbing in Britain, and UKHillwalking continues to grow in its own field. UKC is the most important media, the focus for discussion, a vast photo and video catalogue and the repository for the online climbing record of thousands of climbers. Rockfax books and Rockfax Digital help document climbing, building on the legacy of the great tradition of print guidebooks that date back over a century. 

This has not been without some controversy. At times our approach in producing our guidebooks and news and articles has been unapologetically direct. We have always wanted to produce the guidebooks and editorial content we ourselves want to read. This hasn't always fit in with existing practices, most classically being when Rockfax guidebooks came into a headlong collision with the established guidebook producers back in 2001. Thankfully the repercussions of that event have been almost entirely positive with all guidebook producers across the country now publishing stunning books that take full advantage of modern printing and desktop publishing.

UKClimbing website back in 2016  © UKClimbing
UKClimbing website back in 2016
© UKClimbing

Often said to me when discussing the legacy of UKClimbing and Rockfax: "great, but what happens when you sell the business?" This statement has sat at the back of my mind for the last ten years or so when I looked at my options for how to move the business on. It was obviously going to be attractive to someone, but who? Big media companies would have the cash, and might love to get access to a user database over 100,000, but would they want to deal with documenting obscure bouldering areas on distant moors, or writing about the quirky nature of trad climbing? The business-becomes-the-product approach would shave off many of the things that make UKC/UKH and Rockfax great, or at least the ones that didn't make a positive contribution to the balance sheet. An outdoor company would probably also be interested and may well get the significance of the quirky climbing things, but there is a danger they would want to, quite understandably, leverage it into more of an online shop.

With this in mind, an important phone call late in 2021 from Steve Frazer introduced me to the concept of Employee Ownership Trusts. Steve and I had crossed paths a few years earlier during a previous approach from a third-party investor that didn't end up going anywhere. Steve is a shrewd guy and he kept me in mind and sent a speculative email suggesting that I might want to think of an Employee Ownership Trust.

UKC Chief Editor Natalie Berry getting involved in the book production on the cover of the 2016 Mallorca Rockfax. Photo: Alan James  © Alan James
UKC Chief Editor Natalie Berry getting involved in the book production on the cover of the 2016 Mallorca Rockfax. Photo: Alan James

The more I read about them, and the more the staff got to know about them, the more we agreed with Steve's assessment that an EoT was the right direction for UKClimbing Limited. An EoT recognises the importance of the staff, which in our case is by far our biggest asset. They are attractive companies to work for since there are certain tax benefits as well as an enduring sense of involvement in day-to-day activities. Employees don't suffer the morale blow of feeling like a drain on the 'more important people', namely the shareholders, since they are in effect the shareholders (albeit in a slightly different way). They are also protected from hostile takeovers to an extent and have a foundation that means that team longevity doesn't rely on a single individual, or a small set of individuals, to keep going.

The creation of UKClimbing Trustee Limited as the owner behind UKClimbing Limited means that the future of the company is on solid ground. We have a great staff and we will hopefully be able to recruit more new employees who share our enthusiasm and desire to communicate and promote climbing and the outdoors to the world and stick to the ethos that we have established over the last two to three decades as the business has developed.

Rob Greenwood showing Alan James the way at Curbar  © Nick Brown
Rob Greenwood showing Alan James the way at Curbar

New non-executive director Steve Frazer  © Steve Frazer Collection
New non-executive director Steve Frazer

Part of the procedure of becoming an EoT means we need to create three company boards, two of which require independent non-executive directors. It was a great pleasure to welcome the afore-mentioned Steve Frazer to the Board of Trustees for UKClimbing Trustee Limited. Having been intimately involved with the process throughout, Steve is well placed to help us through the early days of the process. 

"I think the UKC team is fantastic" he says, "it is full of bright people, bursting with energy and with a passion for what they do. The EOT is entirely in keeping with the Company's culture and I am really looking forward to working with them."

On the Company Board, we are delighted to welcome Jeremy Wilson as an independent non-executive director. Jeremy is a keen climber and the founder and owner of The Lakeland Climbing Centre Ltd, which owns various walls around the country including Kendal, Harrow and VauxWall amongst others. He is also a partner in The Depot.  

"I am delighted to have been asked to join the Board of UKC" Jeremy says, "especially at the outset of its new employee-owned structure. Alan has built a fantastic business over many years and it is great to see him share the benefits of this with his staff colleagues." 

New non-executive director Jeremy Wilson on Roaring Silence, East Buttress of Scafell. Photo:Mike Hutton  © Mike Hutton
New non-executive director Jeremy Wilson on Roaring Silence, East Buttress of Scafell. Photo:Mike Hutton

The process of becoming an EoT allows a slow transition so, in many ways, nothing on the surface has really changed. I am still going to be the company director and the staff all have the same roles. Underneath that though the company is now owned and controlled by its employees and I am just another member of staff. The slow process of moving the business on to the next generation can take place. People who actually get Instagram and Tiktok can decide how we use these inevitable channels and I can slowly withdraw from the day-to-day business and go back to precisely what I started with - drawing, photographing and writing about routes on crags as a Rockfax author.

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7 Feb

Wow. Really interesting.

Well done Alan, and good luck to everyone at UKC/Rockfax for the future.

Obviously I’m biased, but thanks Niff (aka. Alan).

It’s been an honour working for you over the last 9 years and it’ll be an honour working with you over the next however many.

7 Feb

Brilliant Niff, really good effort to keep UKC / UKH moving with - infront of the times; all guidebooks better because of Rockfax.

7 Feb

Congratulations - this is something which I have just done with my company. EOTs are a great thing.

7 Feb

I remember the black and white Dorset book. Groundbreaking at the time compared to everything else.

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