Blue Skies Business Model Makes Employees a Priority

NSAWAM, Ghana – Twenty miles north of the bustling city center of Accra, Ghana’s capital, a crowd congregates. Young women in colorful skirts circle together, chatting. A group of tall young men peer over at the neighboring sports center. Older women sit along the side of the road fanning themselves. They’ve all gathered along the tree-lined road leading to the Blue Skies factory and they all have the same hope: that they’re hiring.

Since 1998, Blue Skies has been cutting and packaging freshly harvested tropical fruits and in the same day flying them to 13 European supermarket chains in six different countries. It all began with one man’s innovation. “I came to Ghana with a simple idea: cutting pineapple where it grows and sending it directly to you,” said Anthony Pile, chairman and founder of Blue Skies. “People don’t think about freshly squeezed old fruit or freshly cut old fruit. Why don’t we have freshly harvested freshly cut fruit? That’s what we set out to do.”

In 2012, Blue Skies accounted for one percent of the country’s total exports and 25 percent of Ghana’s exported pineapple according to the Ghana Ministry of Food and Agriculture. Employing merely 35 people at the factory in Ghana in 1998, it has grown to employ over 2,000 and works with 150 farmers, making it one of Ghana’s largest companies.

Unlike other large factories, at Blue Skies there are no timecards and no whistles at the beginning of the day. Pile hopes to create a “business which is more than just coming to work. When people come to work, they don’t have to clock in every morning. They’re just trusted to get it right.”

There’s sound logic behind Pile’s business model. “The fact is if you have a group of people who have a common aim, which we feel we have here, then there’s a good chance that those who are not too keen on the main objective can be persuaded simply by the peer group imperative.” Without the whistles work starts promptly every morning at 7. If someone is late, Pile says, “their mate asks, ‘where were you for the last half an hour? I had to do all your work!’ It’s far more powerful than anyone saying ‘you must do.’ That won’t work in industry and certainly not in 2013.”

Blue Skies offers access to a sports facility, free health clinic and preventative medicines, as well as an Internet café, library, and park for use anytime during breaks and to off-duty employees. Blue Skies also offers a free warm healthy meal to its employees each day. These amenities ensure the wellbeing of employees, but also aim to boost the productivity and morale of the Blue Skies workforce. “People want it to work. If you are happy at your work, you start to think a little more about making a better quality product so we can be bigger and bigger” said Pile.

“It’s a self governing community,” said Seth Dei, Blue Skies co-owner and an initial investor. Dei explained from unions and bargaining for wages, to eating together at the company restaurant, the factory feels more like a community than a workplace. Dei, a renowned Ghanaian public figure, is a prominent member in many of Ghana’s most influential civic, business, and cultural institutions.

Eunice Yeboah Afeti, an assistant manager at the factory, explained, “Our organization is a learning organization because we have a lot of young people in the company. There is the need for us to encourage them to study, to learn, and to be able to further themselves.”

Afeti began working at Blue Skies in 2000, right after graduating from university. Eight years into her employment, she left to continue her education. After earning a master’s degree, she immediately returned to Blue Skies. Ninety percent of all employees are hired from local communities, and employment statistics show promotions overwhelmingly come from within. “I’ve been able to grow with the company,” said Afeti. “I started as a Team Leader and moved through the rungs. Now I’m the assistant technical manager.”

The company’s success has allowed Blue Skies to offer some of the highest wages in the area. “We pay three times the minimum wage. We are giving people a living wage. In Ghana there are normally about 10 people depending on one person, so maybe something like 20,000 people indirectly or directly benefit from it,” said Pile.

Blue Skies does not claim to be a social institution, but it does make its employees a priority. Their mission is to run a business that leaves a positive impact on people and communities. Principles in tact, they’re growing more each year. Pile explained, “We are now at about 80 percent capacity. I’m a bit worried about what happens when we get to 99 and hope that I have a plan. I hope that we will be able to find space for another factory and that we will have enough reason to make one.”