With her best friend Bernie, Lollo gets up to all sorts of mischief and has a special dance that she only performs when she’s feeling especially giddy. Lollo also has magic musical horns and if you’re very lucky you might get to hear them when you join in with her magical games.
He also likes to hide tricks under his hat that he plays on Lollo and the other members of the team throughout the holiday season. Even with his cheeky nature, Bernie is a big softie inside and loves to dish out hugs and treats whenever he can.
When you create, manage and grow a business, the last thing you think about is your exit strategy, and this for me has been one of the most difficult challenges.
My career in costumes started in 1983 as a wardrobe mistress in a Manchester theatre. With all the experience, skills, contacts, opportunities and work ethic gained over 6 years, I founded a business in an industry I didn’t even know existed when I was studying fashion at uni 10 years before.
Making giant fluffy super heroes had never been career ambition, but after the theatre production of The Snowman, and a huge success with a sample Welephant suit for the Fire Service, I created a company and a career that I have been passionate about for over 35 years; A company and career that allowed me to grow, learn, share and evolve alongside over a hundred employees across two hemispheres.
Our sister company, Auscoz in Queensland, Australia, came to life in 2001 with a growing number of orders arising from this side of the world. I took the plunge of relocating my husband and two young daughters over to Australia, which involved a 5 year period of uncertainty whilst we tried to launch and grow the business within the guidelines of a skilled migration visa. 15 years on, this was the best decision we ever made from both a business and family point of view however it was by far the hardest and most challenging feat to date. Managing a creative business and employing staff across the world wasn’t easy – think dial up internet and fax machines!
Almost 20 years on, both Costumes with Character and Auscoz are considered to be two of the most successful mascot manufacturers in the world, providing mascots and characters for many of the most high-profile companies and character creators on the planet.
Clients include: Nickelodeon, DreamWorks, Aardman Animation, Lego Worldwide, theme parks, holiday companies and iconic sports mascots inclusive of the Commonwealth and Invictus games figureheads. Alongside these we also make extensively for charities, schools, universities, local councils and retail brands.
Despite helping bring all of these companies mascots to life, the thing I am most proud of isn’t having founded and grown these two companies, it is having created jobs; interesting, creative, enjoyable work in a great environment, for so many people, for so many years.
This is why succession planning to ensure jobs were protected and the company continued to grow was so deeply important to me.
It is relatively easy to be a freelancer and build on your skills and talents with every contract.
It’s not so easy to create a business, employ and train people to work together, build a growing customer base and take full financial responsibility for rent overheads and wages, often risking your home as security. Staff can leave whenever they like, but you carry the full responsibility for their livelihoods when you employ them; it results in a lot of sleepless nights.
Niche creative companies are built by employing and training a wide range of talented people.
For Costumes with Character this involved pattern makers, machinists, designers, prop makers and more, all working to specific quality standards and timeframes to ensure the customers’ requirements are understood and met.
Selling a company which relies on these skills and employees is complex, you have to ensure the staff can continue to work in the way they are used to, and their jobs and status is secure. Selling to a competitor (of which there are few) wasn’t a practical option.
The fact that some staff had worked with me for over 30 years, almost an entire working life, made it impossible for me to take the easy road, sell the building and equipment and simply close and enjoy a well-earned retirement!
This would also result in the end of CWC, which had been my life’s work, and although I was very ready to reduce my work load and enjoy more leisure time, it didn’t feel like the correct way to go.
I researched business brokers and succession planning without success.
A chance Google of “exit strategy that benefits staff” and a website explaining the benefits of employee ownership trusts introduced me to this “John Lewis style” of succession planning.
It seemed like the ideal solution in terms of ethics, finances, company growth and job security.
Most EOT companies show better growth than traditional structures – staff embrace ownership without any financial commitments and enjoy tax-free profit share up to a limit each year.
Management training, team-building and communication strategies are in place to assist with building the business skills of the management team too.
The owner is gradually reimbursed for their shares from the profits over a period of years, and the management and director’s ‘transition and exit’ is gradual and flexible.
I am grateful to Postlethwaites Solicitors who introduced me to the concept of EOT’s and created the trust and structure for CWC. Although in its infancy, the EOT is already proving to be a great opportunity for the team. With great opportunity comes great challenge; I have full faith that with staying true to the company’s core beliefs and values and working together, the employees of CWC have every chance of making this EOT the best decision we ever made.
The lifespan of an employee ownership trust is 125 years, it would be amazing if CWC continues to grow until 2144.
Foreword by Liz Milnes, Managing Director
Liz MilnesWhen you create, manage and grow a business, the last thing you think about is your exit strategy, and this for me has been one of the most difficult challenges.
Almost 35 years on, both of my companies, Costumes with Character and Auscoz are considered to be two of the most successful mascot manufacturers in the world, providing mascots and characters for many of the most high-profile companies and character creators on the planet.
But the thing I am most proud about isn’t having founded and grown these two companies, it is having created jobs; interesting, creative and enjoyable work, in a great environment, for so many people, for so many years.
This is why succession planning to ensure the jobs were protected and company continued to grow was so important to me.
I am grateful to Postlethwaites Solicitors who introduced me to the concept of EOTS and created the Trust and structure for CWC.
Costumes With Character EOT Management team: Debbie Aylward, Alison Hilton, Marie Harrison, Amanda Pritchard, Michelle Barton and Clare Kinross
After 34 years of producing high quality, practical and affordable character costumes, founder and MD of Costumes With Character Ltd Liz Milnes has transferred 100% of her company shares in to the Costumes With Character Employee Ownership Trust, which will hold them on behalf of the company’s staff.
Under the guidance of Postlethwaite Solicitors, Costumes With Character became an employee-owned company. This move is a way of preparing the company for the future by ensuring Costumes With Character remains an independent company, and the job security of the loyal staff (who have invested so much time, talent and effort in to making Costumes With Character the world class brand it is today) is safeguarded.
The success of Costumes With Character is dependent upon the skills
and attitude of the team; selling the company would put it at risk but
transferring its ownership to the staff would secure the company
long-term and preserve its current working culture for the future.
Besides ensuring the company will continue to thrive beyond her
retirement, Liz wanted the staff to see real rewards for their hard
work. This company structure means that the staff can see the
benefits of their hard work by receiving a share of the company’s
profits each year, and also have a say in business decisions.
Costumes with Character EOT Trustees L-R: Alison Dermott, Liz Milnes, Emma Stanton
The senior management team will remain in their existing roles, with
Liz acting as the MD in the transitional period, business decisions
will be made by the management team as a whole, with the trustees (who
are a combination of directors, employees and others with no
commercial stake in the business) ensuring the management team are
acting in the company’s best interests.
Employee Owned Trusts are a fast-growing business structure option in
the UK. Recently there has been growth in employee ownership as a
succession option for small and medium sized businesses and family
“…The creation of an employee trust, is the best solution we have
found for keeping Aardman doing what it does best, keeping the teams
in place and providing continuity for our highly creative culture. And
of course, those that create value in the company will continue to
benefit directly from the value they create”.
Peter Lord and David Sproxton – Aardman
“To me, the decision to sell the company to my colleagues was an
obvious one. Nobody knew my business better than the people in it and
we’d created a culture together”
Julian Richer – Richer Sounds
Liz Milnes founded and created “Costumes With Character”, Initially called “Situation Clothing”, in 1986. Her background as a costume designer for screen and stage led her to identify a need for high quality, practical, comfortable character costumes. Liz wanted to produce costumes, which not only looked great but also carefully considered the wearer’s requirements and the practicalities needed for costume maintenance, such as ensuring the costumes were washable and individual parts were easily replaceable.
Liz relocated to Australia a number of years ago, after receiving orders from several Australian companies and seizing the opportunity to grow the business in another hemisphere. She set up Costumes With Character’s sister company “Aus Coz” in Currumbin, Queensland and has experienced great success there too, working with Dream World, The Wiggles, The Commonwealth Games 2018, The Invictus Games and The Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary among many others.
The move provided CWC staff with the opportunity to work in Australia and increased our understanding of the construction materials and methods required to produce costumes that are suitable for warmer climates.
The challenges faced in warmer countries included heat, UV fading and costume elements requiring glues more resilient to temperature than UK costumes. A base in Australia also opened up the possibility of sourcing different materials and technologies that weren’t yet commonplace in the UK.
Liz was actively involved in both businesses on a daily basis and returned to the UK for 3 months every year.
Some of the staff have been with the company from the very beginning and have seen it go from strength to strength.
Costumes With Character now produce over 400 costumes and puppets every year for a range of industries and household names including:
Tui, Thomas Cook, Bourne Leisure, Parkdean Resorts, Away Resorts, Greenbank Holidays, Pontins
Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool FC, Chelsea FC, Leeds United
See full commentary by Liz Milnes
Read more about employee ownership at Postlethwaits Solicitors: https://postlethwaiteco.comwww.employeeownership.co.uk