Mike Cane of Cambridge Design Partnership

25 July 2018

As Cambridge Design Partnership becomes employee-owned, founding partner Mike Cane discusses the role that he believes ownership can play in encouraging innovation and motivation

Mike Cane, founding partner, Cambridge Design Partnership

A milestone has been reached this year in the history of technology and product design firm Cambridge Design Partnership (CDP). We’ve become a fully employee-owned company as we embark on the next stage of our evolution and growth and an employee ownership trust has been set up to hold the company’s shares on behalf of our staff.

We believe this is a great opportunity for CDP to accelerate its mission to become a world-leading innovator, with the company’s most important asset – our staff – at the centre of its strategy.

It means we can continue to grow without the involvement of external shareholders, so that we can maintain full control over the direction of the business and our creative culture.

Many successful design agencies follow the trajectory of founders building the business, followed by a transition from an owner-managed business to a more scalable, long-term business model that enables growth to continue.

Management structures must evolve to successfully control a business spanning many disciplines and territories. Internal processes must change as clients and projects become larger and have more sophisticated requirements.

Classic succession options are either acquisition by a larger business or some form of management buyout, funded by private equity. Yet both of these routes lead to control moving towards forces that operate purely for profit, which can lead to compromises.

Creativity and innovation are complex and fragile processes. Many companies’ management strategies are systems-led, based on an assumption that management controls a stepwise, repeatable process.

This can lead to unintended consequences when, for a large part of the innovation process, the value created is uncertain and lies in learning and knowledge – both intangible assets.

This is where innovation management becomes challenging and it is vital that the team really understands the value that is being created, not just the numbers in the accounts at the end of the day.

We believe that to create a world-leading innovation company, it should be run by practitioners who understand the value being created and can make long-term decisions that are best for the business, that drive success and motivate staff.

Employee ownership means innovation can remain at the heart of our organisation. This is because both management and staff are aligned, and everyone is passionate about innovation and design. This keeps the soul of the company intact, rather than allowing it to become diluted.

CDP’s leadership team of 10 partners manages the company and our team will have an increasing say in the company’s future through an elected council.

As an employee-owned company, we join the ranks of organisations such as retailer John Lewis, which is probably the UK’s best-known employee-owned business, as well as its largest.

Since CDP was founded 22 years ago by three engineers – Mike Beadman, Matt Schumann and I — it has grown to a team of around 120 scientists, engineers, researchers and designers. This team is based in Toft near Cambridge, UK, and in Palo Alto in California, US.

Over the last three years, we have expanded our capabilities significantly, with a view to creating a ‘one-stop shop’ for businesses in the healthcare and consumer sectors that need to innovate and launch their next-generation products quickly.

While our strength has traditionally been in technology and engineering design, we now also have strong teams working at the front end of innovation, helping clients optimise their innovation plans, as well as at the back end, where our manufacturing engineering group sets up new processes and multinational supply chains.

Partnership has always been in our name – and now it takes on even greater significance.

Now that we are employee-owned, every member of staff, in every interaction they have with our customers, will be fully invested in the success of their project.

Working together as an employee-owned company, with our goals fully aligned, we believe CDP is creating the best environment for innovation to flourish.


Mike Cane is a founding partner of CDP, with 30 years of experience in innovation and new product development www.cambridge-design.co.uk | @cdp_innovation

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