Inverness language teaching firm sets out on journey to employee ownership

An Inverness business that has become a key provider of teaching English as a foreign language is making the transition to employee ownership and vowing to maintain its Highland home.

Launched from a garden shed in the middle of the 2008 financial crash by founders Joe Hallwood and Jennifer Mackenzie, the TEFL Org provides in-person and online courses. In the last financial year, the company witnessed growth of 81 per cent, increasing revenue to £4.8 million.

Based in the Highlands capital, it now has more than 30 employees, including 17 core staff, 11 of whom are local to the office.

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The founders have now established an employee ownership trust allowing for a buyout over time, giving everyone “time to adjust” before the company becomes fully employee owned.

Launched from a garden shed in the middle of the 2008 financial crash by founders Joe Hallwood and Jennifer Mackenzie, the TEFL Org is established as a market leader, with more qualifications secured than any other provider. Picture: Karen Thorburn

Co-founder Hallwood, said: “Jennifer and I have built the brand from the ground up. We’re very proud of it and want to ensure it continues thriving as we look towards retirement.

“We are the highest calibre TEFL [teaching English as a foreign language] provider in the world, both in terms of operations and the way we treat our staff. If we were to sell to a competitor, we risk losing our hard-won reputation.

“Some of our employees have been with us since the first few months and know the company inside out. We trust them to do right by the firm and have no doubt it will continue to thrive under their care.”

While the pandemic resulted in a cessation of in-person learning, the firm’s virtual classroom courses and on-demand online courses have grown in popularity, jumping by more than 250 per cent over the last year.

Fellow founder Mackenzie said: “As much as possible, we will be pursuing the remote learning route. It has proven to be much more efficient than in-person teaching and provides flexibility for our staff and our learners.

“For example, someone from Thailand can be in the same virtual classroom as someone from Shetland, both being taught by a teacher from Madrid.

“However, as much as we wish to pursue more remote options – we would never want the company to become entirely online.

“Due to the relative remoteness of our head office, if we sold the TEFL Org, we recognised there would be a high chance the buyer would move the company elsewhere. We wanted to provide job security for our core team who are local to our headquarters.”

The founders were introduced to the employee ownership model by accountancy firm Azets UK and Scottish law firm Ledingham Chalmers, which helped advise on the move.

Graham Cunning, partner and head of corporate finance with Azets, said: “Employee ownership trusts are rising in popularity at the expense of the more traditional trade sale as they offer owners more privacy and greater control of the sale process.”

Andrew Stott, senior associate with Ledingham Chalmers, added: “This deal is a great example of why employee ownership models are something of a win-win for sellers and buyers.

“The seller achieves the exit it wants and maintains its legacy. Meanwhile, through this model, employees have a great platform for growth and a bigger stake in ensuring the organisation’s prosperity.”

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