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Richer Sounds

Sounds of excited chatter gave way to hushed gasps, then spontaneous applause, and then a standing ovation.

Such was the scene at a recent conference for store managers of the electronics retailer Richer Sounds. It occurred when its founder-CEO Julian Richer made an announcement that has caused greater reverberations than any of his hi-fi and entertainment systems.

Confronting his mortality on reaching age 60, Richer explained, it was time for him to hand his company to its workers. As the sole owner of Richer Sounds since he was a teenager, he would now transfer most of his shares to his employees and provide them with a 'thank you' bonus.

Photo by Henry Be on UnsplashEmployee-ownership is rare in business. After all, it demands extraordinary courage and generosity for an owner to give away the business they've worked so hard to build. This is what it took for John Spedan Lewis to establish the John Lewis Partnership in the early 20th century. Its continued prevalence in shopping areas obscures how exceptional it is for a major company only to have employees as shareholders.

Nevertheless, interest in the employee-ownership models of business is growing. They are associated with higher levels of workforce engagement, productivity, and innovation.

All this reflects the fact that ownership is not just a business issue but a moral and theological one. In the Hebrew bible, the right to ownership is enshrined in the eighth commandment: 'You shall not steal' (Exodus 20:15). This right is not absolute, for God is portrayed as owning everything; humans are stewards and trustees of possessions that belong solely to God.

Biblical theology pulls no punches, therefore, with those who become wealthy by oppressing the poor (Proverbs 22:16). Julian Richer has become wealthy largely through providing jobs with exemplary employment practices for his employees. His recent announcement demonstrates his awareness that he built his business only with their help.

That announcement, and the response with which his employees greeted it, echo a brief workplace exchange moments before Boaz, a responsible employer, met a poor foreign labourer called Ruth. On arriving at his fields, Boaz greets the harvesters 'The Lord be with you!', to which they reply 'The Lord bless you!' (Ruth 2:4). As with Richer, the owner's goodwill towards his workers is reciprocated.

The amplifiers of some businesses emit shrill 'profit maximization' feedback. But from more ambient soundtracks of business leaders past and present can come far richer sounds.

Peter Heslam

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