UK: My best deal - The freedom of flexibility - STEVE SHIRLEY AT FI GROUP.

UK: My best deal - The freedom of flexibility - STEVE SHIRLEY AT FI GROUP. - Employee ownership was the obvious step from "participative management" at FI. It was a move which paid off for Steve Shirley. Chris Blackhurst.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Employee ownership was the obvious step from "participative management" at FI. It was a move which paid off for Steve Shirley. Chris Blackhurst.

It is a sad indictment of British society that if Sir John Harvey-Jones or Sir Peter Thompson rings up a company and asks to speak to the chairman they will be put straight through, yet when Steve Shirley does the same, the switchboard operator suggests she tries the customer complaints department. The millionaire founder of FI Group, the IT management company, is, like them, a winner of the BIM Annual Gold medal but because she is a woman, Shirley does not receive the same degree of respect and recognition. Which is a pity, because for over 30 years now she has pioneered working practices that only now are gaining wider acceptance: flexible hours, job-sharing, profit-sharing and employee ownership.

Shirley came to this country in 1939, aged five, fleeing the Nazi holocaust. The experience has marked her every move since. "Although a child, it left me with certain strong values. I learned not to expect tomorrow to be the same as today, which makes me open to new ways of doing things. Further, my survivor guilt, namely the need to justify why I was saved while millions died, has fuelled my sense of the importance of giving people the freedom to pursue fulfilment."

She left school at 18 and joined the Post Office as a scientific assistant. It was the days before the advent of the computer but she worked on two fledgling devices - a machine for selecting premium bond numbers and the first electronic phone network. Realising that they represented the future and anxious to get on, she took a maths degree at evening classes.

In 1959, she married and left the Post Office. Three years later she ran into the all too familiar brick wall of trying to build a career and raise a family. "Practically all the part-time work was menial with little intellectual challenge. The best I achieved was working a four-day week as a junior manager at ICL."

Her solution was to form Flexible Information (FI). In the early '60s, software was not the sophisticated tool it is today. It was regarded more as an accessory to the computer. Shirley took the bull by the horns and with just £6 to her name, decided to charge for software advice. "Everyone said it was impossible to have an organisation selling something that was normally provided free. It was grim, especially as I had no commercial expertise." Today, FI has sales of £25 million and a workforce of 1,000. But FI is more than just a leader in IT; it is also a blue-print for future working practices.

From the outset, Shirley was determined to do something for women in her position. "I founded the company effectively by recruiting professionally qualified women whose employment and career potential were limited by family responsibilities." Running the company along almost co-operative lines or as she calls it, by "participative management", she employed hundreds of women on a freelance or sub-contractual basis. Computer networking meant they could stay at home and work on individual projects when it suited them.

By the late '70s, FI was serving some of the country's biggest organisations and it was then that Shirley began to think seriously about what she describes as her best deal: sharing the company with its workforce.

"I was facing a dilemma. One of the hardest things for a founder entrepreneur is to know when and how to let go ..." Her opportunity came with the recruitment of Hilary Cropper from ICL in 1985. Cropper was hired to become chief executive, which she duly did in 1987. Once Shirley took a back seat she began to think seriously about handing over the reins completely. "We had developed a professional, albeit part-time workforce, a professional management, a corporate structure and identity - which coupled with my beliefs concerning freedom and getting the best out of people, left me little choice. The next step, obvious to me, was to offer employee ownership."

First, she appointed Sir Peter Thompson, the leader of the NFC employee buy-out, as chairman. Then, in November last year, in a share sale to staff, she reduced her holding to 35% and handed over voting control. Staff were given interest-free loans to help them buy shares. The response - over 72% bought - exceeded Shirley's expectations.

Shirley netted £1.3 million from the sale and the freedom to develop her ideas further. Now a non-executive director, she has embarked on a tour of business schools to promote the gospel. Her message is best illustrated by two items of decoration in her office - a piece of the Berlin Wall and a copy of the "mission statement" from the FI company charter - and can be summed up in one word: freedom.

Chris Blackhurst is senior business writer for the Independent on Sunday.

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