A WORLD-LEADING provider of accreditations for teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) has been taken over by its employees to preserve its reputation and protect workers from a relocation from its Highland HQ.

Joe Hallwood and Jennifer MacKenzie launched the TEFL Org from a garden shed in the middle of the 2008 financial crash.

It is now an established market leader with more qualifications secured than any other provider.

The company provides in-person and online courses and in the last financial year saw its revenue grow by 81% – from £2.4 million to £4.8m. It now employs more than 30 staff from more than five countries at its Inverness base, including 17 core staff – 11 of them local.

Hallwood attributed the employee ownership model to providing job security for staff and ensuring the company maintains its pioneering standards for years to come.

“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,” he said. We are the highest calibre TEFL 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.”

The employee ownership trust (EOT) allows for a buyout over a period of time, giving everyone the opportunity to adjust before the company becomes fully employee-owned.

While the pandemic resulted in a cessation of in-person learning, the TEFL Org’s virtual classroom courses and on-demand online courses have grown by more than 250% over the last year.

Co-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.”

Azets UK accountants and Scottish law firm Ledingham Chalmers have helped the move towards an EOT.

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, from 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.”