Employee-Owned

The Top 25 Cities for Employee Ownership 2022

October 5, 2022

Employee ownership changes the relationship between business and community. When every employee has an ownership stake, companies become rooted in place. The wealth they build flows through the local economy, the jobs they create are more stable, and they become more involved in service. Employee ownership is a win for workers, businesses and communities. That’s why we are proud to announce a new list highlighting the Top 25 Cities for Employee Ownership. The Top 25 Cities for Employee Ownership showcases the cities in America that have done the most to foster a positive environment for employee ownership. Collectively they are home to 569 employee-owned companies. From small towns to large metros, these cities range in size from 17,000 people to over 850,000. From the coasts to the heartland, they represent 15 states with a range of cultures and political orientations. The diversity of cities in the Top 25 highlights the broad appeal of employee ownership. Our list is the result of a comprehensive effort to identify every employee-owned business in America, including Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), Worker Cooperatives, Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs), and broad-based equity compensation plans such as stock options. By combining our unique certification data with government fillings, news articles, website visits, and direct phone conversations we have curated the only up-to-date list of every employee-owned company in America. Our ranking of the Top 25 takes into account both the number and the concentration of employee-owned companies in each city. We restrict ourselves to all cities with at least five employee-owned companies and look at the total number and the per capita density. Our methodology creates a balanced list that puts every city on an even playing field. If you’re curious to see how many employee-owned companies are in your town, search your city name in our Directory of Employee-Owned Companies. #1 - FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA Fargo, North Dakota is the #1 city for employee ownership in 2022! The state’s most populous city, Fargo is home to 26 employee-owned companies, including Dakota Supply Group, Border States Electric Supply, Fargo Glass & Paint Company, and Scheels. Fargo is the only city in America in the top 25 for both the total number and per capita density of employee-owned companies. With a population of roughly 125,000, Fargo has one employee-owned company for every 4,800 residents. Top industries for employee ownership in Fargo include distribution, manufacturing, and engineering. #2 - BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA Berkeley, California is ranked #2 for employee ownership in 2022! Known for all things counter-culture, Berkeley is home to 22 employee-owned companies, including Mal Warwick Donordigital, Arizmendi Bakery, Sun Light & Power, and Alchemy Collective Cafe. Berkeley is the only city other than Fargo to be in the top 30 for both the total and per capita density of employee-owned companies. Berkeley also stands out as the #3 city for Worker Cooperatives with 18. Berkeley is partnering with Project Equity and the Sustainable Economies Law Center to help local businesses stay locally-owned and preserve their legacy by becoming employee-owned. #3 HARRISBURG, PENNSYLVANIA Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is the 3rd best city for employee ownership in 2022! The capital of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg is home to 17 employee-owned companies, including HB Global, D&H Distributing, and Schaedler Yesco Distribution. With a population of 58,000, Harrisburg has one employee-owned company for every 3,400 residents, making it the #9 city for per capita employee ownership. #4 - CINCINNATI, OHIO Cincinnati, Ohio is the #4 city for employee ownership in 2022! Sitting on the Ohio River, Cincinnati is home to 32 employee-owned companies, including Al. Neyer, Intrust IT, Ohio Valley Electrical Services, Parallel Technologies and The Motz Corporation. Top industries for employee ownership in Cincinnati include IT consulting, manufacturing, electrical contractors, and wholesalers. #5 - MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA Minneapolis rounds out the Top 5 as the #5 overall city for employee ownership! With 40 employee-owned companies, Minneapolis is also the #5 city in terms of total number of EO businesses. H2I Group, Kurt Manufacturing Company, Brin Glass Company and RSP Architects all call Minneapolis home. The city has taken an active approach to fostering employee ownership. In 2016, it expanded its Business Technical Assistance Program (B-TAP) to include services aimed at supporting the development of new Minneapolis co-operatives by offering feasibility training and technical assistance for businesses interested in converting into a cooperative. #6 - MADISON, WISCONSIN Madison, Wisconsin is the #6 city for employee ownership. The state capital of Wisconsin, Madison is home to 27 employee-owned companies, including Vita Plus, Bock Water Heaters and Just Coffee Cooperative. This midwestern university town stands out because of the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition (MCDC), a City of Madison-funded initiative to form worker cooperatives through co-op education, technical assistance, outreach to potential or existing business owners, and $10,000 seed grants to cooperative startups. #7 - LYNCHBURG, VIRGINIA Lynchburg, Virginia is ranked #7 for employee ownership in 2022. Lynchburg is home to 15 employee-owned companies, including Electronic Design & Manufacturing, Scott Insurance, and Wiley & Wilson. Lynchburg is one of just nine cities in the Top 50 for both the total number and per capita number of employee-owned companies. Top industries for employee ownership in Lynchburg include insurance, engineering, and HVAC services. #8 - SPRINGFIELD, MISSOURI Springfield, Missouri is the 8th best city for employee ownership in 2022. One of just three cities in the top 40 for both total and per capita employee-owned companies, Springfield is home to 21, including SRC Holdings, Ollis/Akers/Arney, Penmac Staffing, Global Recovery Group, NewStream Enterprises, DeWitt & Associates, and South Barnes Development Company. SRC is one of the most well-known employee-owned companies in America because its unique approach to open book management led to the creation of The Great Game of Business, which thousands of companies now use to increase engagement and business performance. A number of Springfield companies are also behind the recently launched Missouri Center for Employee Ownership. #9 - ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI St. Louis, Missouri is the #9 city for employee ownership in 2022. The gateway to the west, St. Louis is home to 28 employee-owned cities, including Balke Brown Transwestern, Roeslein & Associates, USA Mortgage, and Graybar Electric. Top industries for employee ownership include real estate, construction, and engineering. #10 - OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA Oakland, California rounds out the top ten as the #10 ranked city for employee ownership. Known as “The Town,” Oakland is home to 35 employee owned businesses, the 8th most of any city. Companies in Oakland include MN Builders, Menke & Associates, Paramount Export Company, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Coracao Chocolate, and New Harbinger. Oakland is also home to a number of non-profit organizations that promote employee ownership, including the National Center for Employee Ownership and The Democracy at Work Institute. #11 - HONOLULU, HAWAII Honolulu, Hawaii is the #11 city for employee ownership in 2022. The state capital and largest city in Hawaii, Honolulu is home to 30 employee-owned companies, including Generator & Power Systems LLC, Island Pacific Distributors, Roberts Hawaii, and The Solaray Corporation. Top industries include engineering, wholesale, and HVAC services. #12 - GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN Grand Rapids, Michigan is ranked #12 for employee ownership in 2022. Located just east of Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids is home to 21 employee-owned companies, including Custom Profile, Progressive AE, Axios, and Lumbermen’s. Grand Rapids is one of just nine cities in the Top 50 for both total number and per capita number of employee-owned companies. Top industries for employee ownership in Grand Rapids are engineering, construction materials, and manufacturing. #13 - HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA Huntsville, Alabama is the #13 city for employee ownership in 2022. The most populous city in Alabama, Huntsville is home to 20 employee-owned companies, including Ignite, OASYS, Inc, Pinnacle Solutions, Radiance Technologies, and Torch Technologies. Top industries for employee ownership in Huntsville are engineering, defense contracting, aerospace, and IT consulting. #14 - FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA Fairfax, Virginia is the 14th best city for employee ownership in 2022. Just outside of the nation’s capital, Fairfax is home to 10 employee-owned companies, including Miklos Systems, Fairfax Lumber & Hardware, and Zimmerman Associates. With a population of 23,429, Fairfax has one employee-owned company for every 2,343 residents, making it the #5 city for per capita employee ownership. Fairfax is also the 2nd smallest city on the Top 25. Major industries for employee ownership in Fairfax are consulting and engineering. #15 - SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA San Francisco, California is the #15 city for employee ownership in 2022. “The City by the Bay” is home to 50 employee-owned companies, making it #3 in terms of total number. Inheritance Funding Company, Matarozzi Pelsinger Builders, Gensler, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, Recology, and Swinerton all call San Francisco home. With a population of 866,606, San Francisco is the largest city on the Top 25. The City and County of San Francisco and the San Francisco Small Business Development Center are partnering with Project Equity to educate locally owned businesses on the advantages of converting to employee ownership. San Francisco was also part of the Democracy at Work Institute’s 2019-2020 Shared Equity in Economic Development (SEED) Fellowship, an initiative focused on creating worker cooperatives. #16 - PORTLAND, MAINE Portland, Maine is ranked #16 for employee ownership in 2022. Known for lighthouses and seafood, Portland is home to 11 employee-owned companies, including Systems Engineering, Artist & Craftsman Supply, Stroudwater Associates, and Wright-Ryan Construction. With a population of 66,803, Portland has one employee-owned company for every 6,073 residents, making it the #21 city for employee ownership per capita. Top industries for employee ownership in Portland are professional services and construction. #17 - ATLANTA, GEORGIA Atlanta, Georgia is the #17 city for employee ownership in 2022. The capital of Georgia, Atlanta is home to 30 employee-owned companies, including Benning Construction Company, Ogden Forklifts, Choate, EPI Breads, and Techwood Consulting. Atlanta is the #30 city for the total number of employee-owned companies, and several initiatives are underway to spread the model in Atlanta. The Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative (AWBI) and Project Equity have partnered to create a business retention strategy focused on employee ownership. Atlanta was also part of the Democracy at Work Institute’s 2018-2019 Shared Equity in Economic Development (SEED) Fellowship, an initiative focused on creating worker cooperatives. 3rd largest city #18 - ROANOKE, VIRGINIA Roanoke, Virginia is the 18th best city for employee ownership in 2022. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Roanoke is home to 12 employee-owned companies, including R&K Solutions, Lanford Brothers Company and The Branch Group. Top industries for employee ownership in Roanoke include professional services, engineering, and construction. #19 - LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY Louisville, Kentucky is the #19 city for employee ownership in 2022. Kentcuky’s largest city and the host of one of the most famous horse races in the world, Louisville is home to 34 employee-owned companies, including Advanced Lifeline Services, Hall Contracting of Kentucky, Master’s Supply and S&D Group. With a population of 615,924, Louisville is the second-largest city among the Top 25. Louisville was also part of the Democracy at Work Institute’s 2019-2020 Shared Equity in Economic Development (SEED) Fellowship alongside San Francisco and Atlanta. #20 - SANTA FE SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA Santa Fe Springs, California rounds out the Top 20 as the #20 city for employee ownership in 2022. Located in Los Angeles County, Santa Fe Springs is home to eight employee-owned companies, including Great Western Sales, LeFiell Manufacturing Company, and MATT Construction. With a population of 17,349, Santa Fe Springs is the smallest city in the Top 25. Santa Fe Springs has one employee-owned company for every 2,169 residents, making it the #4 city for employee ownership per capita. #21 - WALNUT CREEK, CALIFORNIA Walnut Creek, California is ranked #21 for employee ownership in 2022. The fifth city from California to make the list, Walnut Creek is home to 10 employee owned companies, including Brown and Caldwell, AEI Consultants, Diablo Magazine, HPGI Holdings, and Heffernan Insurance Brokers. Walnut Creek has a long history of employee ownership. Brown and Caldwell is one of the older ESOPs in the country as they established their program in 1962 — that’s 60 years of being employee-owned! #22 - PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is the #22 city for employee ownership in 2022. Known as the “Steel City,” Pittsburgh is home to 20 employee-owned companies, including Standard Air & Lite Corporation, Aerotech, Garrison Hughes, and Ryan Construction. In 2019, The Pittsburgh City Council voiced strong support for employee ownership. This was followed by the creation of a Citywide Task Force taking a comprehensive approach to contacting business owners about converting to employee ownership. The Task Force represents a broad group that includes the Office of Mayor William Peduto, the Office of the Lt. Governor, the PA State House, the Pittsburgh City Council, the Pennsylvania Center for Employee Ownership, the Democracy at Work Institute, Chatham University, and many Pittsburgh-based businesses. #23 - PORTLAND, OREGON Portland, OR is the 23rd best city for employee ownership in 2022. Known as the “City of Roses,” Portland is home to 32 employee-owned companies, good enough for #13 in terms of total number of EO businesses. Breakside Brewery, DKS Associates, Durham & Bates Insurance, and Hunter-Davisson all call Portland home. Top industries for employee ownership in Portland include architecture, engineering, and construction. #24 - YORK, PENNSYLVANIA York, Pennsylvania is ranked #24 for employee ownership in 2022. York is home to eight employee-owned companies, including C.S. Davidson and Glatfelter Insurance Group. With a population of 43,907, York is the third-smallest city on our list. York has one employee-owned company for every 5,488 residents, making it the #18 city for employee ownership per capita. Top industries for employee ownership in York are engineering, HVAC, and manufacturing. #25 - ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA Asheville, North Carolina rounds out the list as the 25th best city for employee ownership in 2022. Asheville is home to 10 employee-owned companies, including John W. Abbott Construction, MB Haynes, and Moog Music. Top industries for employee ownership in Asheville include manufacturing, construction, and printing. OTHER NOTABLE CITIES Two cities outside of the Top 25 are worth mentioning. The city with the most employee-owned companies is none other than New York. However, as the most populous city in the country with 8,804,190 inhabitants, New York has just one employee-owned company for every 82,282 inhabitants, making it the #181 city per capita (fourth from the bottom of the list). The city with the highest density of employee-owned companies is Zeeland, Michigan. Zeeland has six employee-owned companies and 5,522 residents, giving it one business for every 920 people. But it is just #150 in terms of total businesses. While both are remarkable, New York and Zeeland showcase why we chose an approach that considers both absolute and per capita number of employee-owned companies. We are proud to showcase the cities in America that have done the most to foster a positive environment for employee ownership. These cities are setting the standard for how to encourage employee ownership. At Certified Employee-Owned, we will continue to update our Directory of Employee-Owned Companies and create visibility for successful approaches to building an employee-owned economy. Note: All data on number of employee-owned companies comes from the Certified Employee-Owned Directory as of 6/16/2022. All data on city populations comes from the U.S. Census Bureau for the year 2020.

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What Does “Employee Ownership” Mean?

September 20, 2022

Employee ownership is in the spotlight. State and federal legislation has recently advanced to promote the model. Articles discussing the advantages of employee ownership have appeared in Forbes, Nonprofit Quarterly, and Harvard Business Review. Mainstream investors are even starting to take notice with large private equity firms exploring how employee ownership could enhance their acquisitions.But what exactly does “employee ownership” mean? The big idea behind employee ownership is to distribute the rights and responsibilities of business ownership more broadly. Generally these rights and responsibilities fall into three categories.‍1. Ownership & MoneyAll forms of employee ownership involve expanding financial opportunity. Workers build wealth through participation in capital accounts and/or profit sharing. Common examples include stock granted through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), shares bought through an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP), equity upside accessed through grants of stock options, and cash received through profit sharing distributions from an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) or Worker Cooperative. Regardless of the structure, employee ownership creates alignment by ensuring that employees benefit financially when their company is successful. A key feature across all forms of employee ownership is that participation must be ”broad-based.” Access to ownership must be open to everyone at the company and the concentration of ownership must be limited. In some cases employees are expected to pay for their ownership stake, but more frequently it is a benefit of employment. The broad-based nature of employee ownership is critical to creating the environment of trust and respect that characterizes successful examples of the model.Stories of workers building life-changing wealth present an inspiring case for employee ownership. Two examples covered in a past post illustrate this well. First is WinCo Foods. After 40 years as an ESOP, the 130 workers at a single store in Corvallis, Oregon had a combined $100M in ownership wealth, and across the company, over 400 front-line employees were “millionaire grocery clerks.” Second is Springfield Remanufacturing Company (SRC). From 1983 through 2017, the company paid nearly $100M in distributions to its employee-owners. SRC’s CEO, Jack Stack highlights one person who “started here in 1983 making $7.50 an hour [and] has now got $1.2 million.” While the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” most of the ESOPs I have spoken to that are at least 25 years old have created front-line millionaires. To demonstrate that these stories are not one-off examples, but instead point to the transformative potential of employee ownership, I teamed up with Professor Ethan Rouen of Harvard Business School to answer the question: what would happen to wealth inequality if every American business became employee-owned? We found that this shift would reduce wealth inequality to recorded lows and the wealth of the median household would nearly double from $121,760 to $230,076. The potential to build broad-based wealth is the common thread connecting all corners of the employee ownership community. 2. Ownership & Operational Decision MakingThe second major aspect of ownership is operational decision making. Many employee-owned companies set up practices that expand employees’ voice in setting day-to-day processes, encourage them to generate new ideas, or even increase their role in setting the company’s overall direction. Increased involvement in decision making often goes hand-in-hand with education about financial literacy and open book management. The idea is that providing workers with increased agency, access to information about the business, and the knowledge required to use this information can help them better think and act like owners, which will then improve company performance. These practices are often implemented as part of a comprehensive system such as The Great Game of Business, GRITT, or the Entrepreneurial Operating System. As an added benefit, these systems can create a more engaging and enriching environment for employees, which can also increase retention. Academic research has found substantial benefits associated with high-involvement decision making practices at employee-owned companies. Studies over the past few decades have observed higher sales growth, profitability, and survivability. A key takeaway from this work is that financial ownership alone is not enough to alter company performance. These research findings align with intuition. A company's performance is the result of all the actions taken each day by everyone at the company. Because of this, changes in behavior are necessary to see changes in outcomes. Giving employees shares of stock without creating the conditions for behavioral change seems unlikely to impact company performance. That’s why many see employee involvement in decision making as going hand-in-hand with the financial aspects of employee ownership. 3. Ownership & GovernanceThe third major aspect of ownership is governance. At some companies, workers play a role in nominating, electing, and potentially serving on the board of directors. The most common way to implement employee involvement in formal governance is through a worker cooperative. While details vary by company, the key feature of a worker cooperative is that worker-owners elect the board democratically, on a one-person, one-vote basis. In theory, this creates a situation where workers control the organization, and management is formally accountable to the workforce. Based on our list of employee-owned companies, I estimate that currently around 7% of employee-owned companies have some employee involvement in governance.‍Employee Ownership in PracticeIn practice there are as many different approaches to employee ownership as there are employee-owned companies. For many, employee ownership is purely about wealth-building. But others see the financial aspects of ownership and the day-to-day involvement in decision making as inseparable. The specific meaning of employee ownership can even evolve within the same company over time. For example, a company might begin their employee ownership journey through a succession plan for a departing founder and with an initial focus on long-term wealth building. But as debt is paid down, shares are distributed, and employees start to see what’s at stake, leadership might become interested in increasing financial literacy and opening up the books to help employees become even more engaged as owners. Once we recognize the different facets of employee ownership, a new question arises: what does it mean to say a company is “employee-owned?” This might seem like the same question we asked at the beginning of the article but, as we’ve discussed previously, having some employee ownership doesn’t necessarily make a company employee-owned. Consider a company that distributes a small portion of its stock to executives, or a company that provides increased voice without providing any sort of financial benefit. Are they “employee-owned?”Creating a simple and clear definition of employee-owned was the first major challenge we faced when launching Certified Employee-Owned. After speaking with roughly 250 members of the community, including trade associations, service providers, and of course companies, we arrived at a definition that focused specifically on the financial aspects of employee ownership. We felt this big tent view would maximize our ability to build support for the model while ensuring that employees at companies we certify have the opportunity to build life-changing wealth. You can read the full account of how we set a standard meaning for “employee-owned” here.

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How Exits Impact Employee-Owners: an Interview With Michelle Waterhouse of Hopkins Printing

August 11, 2022

The common thread that connects all corners of the employee ownership community is wealth building for working people. Broad-based ownership gives every employee the opportunity to earn the benefits of business ownership, namely access to profit sharing and shares of company stock. Shares in particular represent a major opportunity because they can grow exponentially through compounding. To utilize the wealth they have built, employee-owners must eventually turn their shares into cash. That typically happens in one of two ways. At companies that are operating as employee-owned in perpetuity, the company will buy shares back from employees when they leave or retire. But if an employee-owned company ever decides to sell, employee shares are purchased as part of the acquisition. While the sale means one less employee-owned business, it also means access to potentially life-changing wealth for the employee-owners. To highlight the dynamics involved in the sale of an employee-owned business, we connected with Michelle Waterhouse, the HR Director of Hopkins Printing, an employee-owned company that was sold January 31, 2022 after nearly 15 years as an ESOP. ‍TD: Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. Why don’t we start with a bit of background on the company.MW: Hopkins Printing started in the garage of Jim and Arnie Hopkins in the mid 1970’s. They opened a copy center in downtown Columbus and then moved into color printing in the 80’s. From there they grew to their current location with a 100,000 square foot facility, operating 3 shifts with 100 employees. ‍TD: How & when did you get involved in the company?MW: My parents are Jim and Arnie Hopkins, so I have worked at the company since I was a teenager. After graduating college in 1990, I took an office role. As our employee count kept growing, I moved more into an HR role. I also brought back a new husband from college, Roy Waterhouse. He and my dad got along well and he has been here 32 years as well. Roy was the president and CEO before the sale, focusing on sales and marketing.‍TD: And when did you first consider employee ownership? MW: In 2007 we had entered into an LOI with a publicly traded printing company. We soon figured out that it would not be a good fit for our employees. My father Jim had already heard of ESOPs and saw it as a way to reward the employees who had helped build the company from the early days. So we reached out to a well-known ESOP attorney here in Columbus to learn more about what it would mean for our company and our employees. ‍TD: How did becoming employee-owned impact your business?MW: Looking back, I would say the most notable impact was employee retention. Employees realized that they had skin in the game here. This was a stock that they owned and they could help impact the share price every year. Low turnover is very good for a business in terms of employee knowledge and the cost of training new employees. ‍TD: When did you first start thinking about a sale?MW: We were approached in May of 2021 by a company that owns another very large printing company in the United States because they wanted to get into the type of commercial work that Hopkins Printing does. Our first concern was: what will this mean for our employees? We asked to see their employee handbook and their benefit package. I’m sure this was different than any other merger in their history because we wanted to talk about employees before we talked about money. We were pleasantly surprised that their handbook was very similar to ours and they provided more PTO than we did. And their benefits were much better than we were able to provide for our employees. After we learned these two things, we started moving forward with the process. ‍TD: What was the consideration process like?MW: It was a good process. We spent 5 months working out the details with the new company before we announced anything to the employees. Both sides spent those 5 months exchanging information to make sure it was going to be a good fit. Our ESOP Trustee and ESOP attorneys helped bridge the gap and helped us navigate all the considerations needed to sell an ESOP company. In November we called an all-employee meeting on a Tuesday afternoon. Our president explained to everyone about the call he received in May and he also explained a little about the company that was buying us and what they were looking for. Our founder, who was 81 at the time, told the employees why he thought it was a good idea. He explained how it’s hard to be a small business right now with everyone trying to recover from the impact of the pandemic, all of the regulations, rising health care costs, and so on. He explained that the next generation of leadership is in their 50’s and will be able to continue and help make it a smooth transition. As HR Director, I shared that the new company’s CEO told us that all employees would keep their jobs and that I had been tasked with hiring 25 additional employees to help with the increased work they planned on sending to our plant. I also explained the main perks of their benefit package. Our COO then explained what it would mean for their ESOP accounts and that they would all have a vote in this transaction. If they all decided that they didn’t want to sell the company, we would continue being an ESOP and being in business together doing great things. If we did sell the company, all shareholders would receive 95% of their share value around 90 days after the transaction closed at a premium over our most recent share price that was calculated as of 12/31/2020. We then handed every employee a 16 page document that detailed the financial aspects of the sale and their ESOP accounts. All shareholders had one week to research the new company and ask us any questions. We then had a follow up meeting with all employees and our Trustee to answer any questions. They all then had one week to send their vote to our Trustee. We have 30,000 shares and the vote was 29,922 yes and 78 no. ‍TD: How has the sale impacted your people and your company? MW: Many employees owned stock worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our concern was that they would get their money and quit their jobs, so we spent the next few months coaching about saving, investing, tax penalties for taking it out early, etc. We brought in our 401k advisor as an option for employees to be able to talk with someone they have known for years. Everyone was finding financial advisors and planning for this large influx of money. Shareholders received 95% of their account value as a distribution in mid-May. They will receive the remaining amount due after the company has closed out all financial issues and collects the 5% holdback from the sale. We were very happy that no one quit their job! Most everyone saw it as an opportunity to set their retirement up and transferred the money to another retirement vehicle to avoid taxes and penalties. Some of our employees had debts that had been hanging over their heads for years, or wanted to pay off credit cards, their car, or their house. Those employees took out some of the money to set themselves up better financially in the present, and then moved the rest aside for a more comfortable retirement. Because we were such a strong company here in our city, the new company kept our name, so we are still Hopkins Printing. They have been sending us work for our plant and their benefits have been amazing. In addition, their support with HR, IT, production, supplies, and safety, to name a few, has been a big help to us as a small company. It’s fun being part of a growing, large company. The key to this sale was that we didn’t need to sell and we took the time to make sure it was win-win-win. It really did work out well for our ESOP, for the new company, and for everyone’s future. ‍The above questions and answers were exchanged via email in July 2022. Some answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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How Many Businesses Are There in America and What Does it Mean for Employee Ownership?

July 14, 2022

Building an employee-owned economy can create a more prosperous future. Employee-owners benefit from higher retirement savings and increased job security, while employee-owned companies anchor jobs in local communities. That future begins by increasing the number of employee-owners. Some companies start out as employee-owned, but the vast majority convert after operating for some time under a different ownership structure. Since launching Certified Employee-Owned in 2017, we have spoken to over 1,000 employee-owned companies. Fewer than 10 began as employee-owned. It’s difficult to generalize, but based on our experience we think that over 95% of employee-owned companies were created through conversion. The importance of conversion means that advocates of employee ownership need a good understanding of the broader business landscape. The best source on the size and number of American businesses is the Census Bureau’s Statistics of U.S. Businesses (SUSB). In this article we will use the SUSB to analyze the business landscape and draw implications for the employee ownership community. Our key takeaways include: The number of companies large enough for employee ownership has been steadily rising since 2011 and now stands at just over 1.3 million. Most Americans work at large companies, but most US businesses are small. To drive a dramatic increase in the number of employee-owners, the employee ownership community needs a strategy for converting businesses with over 500 employees. Three sectors represent major opportunities for growing employee ownership: Health Care & Social Assistance; Accommodation & Food Service; Professional, and Scientific & Technical Services. Total Number of American Businesses According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, there were 32.5 million American businesses in 2021, but there’s a catch. That number is skewed because it counts every single corporation, including those setup by independent contractors and even shell companies created solely to hold an asset. There’s no bright line between a legal corporation and what a normal person would consider a business, but a reasonable breakpoint might be having at least one paid employee. That is the line used by the SUSB, and in 2019 there were 6,102,412 businesses meeting this criterion. The concept of employee ownership only starts to have real meaning when a company includes multiple non-founder employees. While there are exceptions, most companies exploring employee ownership have at least 10 total employees. A company of this size will generally have the resources that enable conversion while also seeing benefits from a formal employee ownership structure. Using the SUSB’s size categories, we found that in 2019 there were 1,311,698 businesses with at least 10 employees. We estimate that there are roughly 6,000 employee-owned companies in America (our Directory provides an up-to-date list of all the ones we know about). That means that employee-owned companies are just 0.5% of the total number of companies with at least 10 employees. The chart above shows how the number of companies with at least 10 employees has changed since 1999. It dipped slightly at the turn of the millenium following the dotcom crash, increased steadily in the early 2000s before dipping again after 2006 and plunging after the 2008 financial crisis. After hitting a bottom of 1,173,373 in 2011, the number of companies with at least 10 employees has seen year-over-year increases every year through 2019. For the employee ownership community, it’s encouraging to see that the number of companies that are large enough to consider employee ownership has been steadily rising for almost a decade. Size Distribution Analyzing the SUSB size categories, we see that US businesses have a skewed distribution of size. While most firms are small, most people work at large employers. Roughly 30% of private-sector workers work at the 1,112 firms with over 10,000 employees, while the 4,790,714 businesses with fewer than 10 employees account for less than 10% of private sector employment. In other words, firms large enough to support an employee ownership program account for over 90% of the private-sector workforce. The skewed distribution of firm size presents a tradeoff for employee ownership advocates: do we focus on the number of companies that are employee-owned or the number of people working at employee-owned companies? If we are interested in maximizing the number of employee-owned firms, we’re going to have the most success focusing on small companies. But if we are interested in maximizing the total number of employee-owners, the emphasis should be on the big companies. This tradeoff is mirrored in the change in firms and employment from 1999 to 2019. The bulk of firm and employment growth was driven by large firms. Over this time period, the total number of firms with at least 10 employees increased 9% and employment at these companies increased 22%. Almost all of the increase in the number of firms was driven by companies with less than 500 employees, while 75% of the change in employment was driven by firms with 500 or more employees. The trend is clear: while there are more companies now than 20 years ago, the bulk of new private sector employment over the past two decades has been due to growth of larger firms. Industry Distribution Finally, we use the SUSB industry categroies to analyze changes in employment and total number of firms by industry. It’s worth noting that all categories here are based on the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) and that the SUSB excludes railroad employees, agricultural production employees, and most government employees. The following chart shows employment by Industry for 2019 for all firms with at least 10 employees. Below is a table with both employment and number of firms by industry. Note that the number of firms doesn’t align exactly with the previous section, likely because some firms operate in multiple industries. The four largest industries by employment - Healthcare & Social Assistance, Retail Trade, Accommodation & Food Services, and Admin, Support & Waste Management - are all part of the service sector. Manufacturing, once the backbone of the American economy, is now the fifth largest sector by employment. Construction and Professional, Scientific & Technical Services, and Other Services (excluding Public Admin) are notable for having a high number of firms of a smaller average size. Finally we look at how the number of firms and employment by industry have changed over the last two decades. This chart above shows the percent change from 1999 to 2019. Dramatic increases of over 50% employment occured in many service sectors including: Accommodation & Food Services; Educational Services; Health Care & Social Assistance; Arts, Entertainment & Recreation, Professional, and Scientific & Technical Services; and Admin, Support & Waste Management. Several industries show signs of consolidation with increasing employment and decreasing number of firms: Information; Finance & Insurance; Retail Trade; and Wholesale Trade. Finally, the dramatic decline in manufacturing can be seen in a 26% decrease in the number of firms and 28% decrease in total employment. Combining current firm size and employment with growth trends can help identify large and growing industries which would be good to target for the expansion of employee ownership. Based on the above charts, Health Care & Social Assistance; Accommodation & Food Service; and Professional, Scientific & Technical Services merit further investigation.

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Employee-Owned Spotlight: Al. Neyer

June 1, 2022

Certified EO is excited to spotlight Al. Neyer, a 100% employee-owned and Cincinnati-based real estate development company. With offices in Pittsburgh, Raleigh, and Nashville, Al. Neyer has over 125 years of experience delivering commercial, medical, industrial, mixed-use, and residential construction projects throughout the Eastern U.S.Founded in 1894 as a carpentry and contracting company, Al. Neyer — named after the founder’s grandson, Alphonse — steadily grew with each new generation of family owners. By the fifth generation of Neyer family leadership, the firm had added licensed designers and architects to its team and began work developing several industrial parks in Greater Cincinnati.Al. Neyer was an early adopter of the “design-build” approach to completing construction projects, an alternative to the more traditional “design-bid-build” method. Design-bid-build requires project owners to separately contract an architect and general contractor, which can complicate communications between the three parties, or even force the owner to mediate disputes between designers and contractors if they arise. Design-build firms, on the other hand, allow owners to sign a single contract, streamline communications, and often complete projects in a more timely fashion. Al. Neyer implements this approach across its portfolio of clients, which includes REI Co-op and Vanderbilt University..In 2014 the company made the transition from family-owned to employee-owned when it established and funded its Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). The following year, the company appointed its first female president, Molly North, to oversee its expansion into Nashville, its third market, followed by Raleigh in 2019. Now with over 140 employees, all of whom are eligible to join the company’s ESOP and share in the success of its growth, Al. Neyer has its sights set on continued expansion into new markets.The onset of the pandemic in 2020 brough unique challenges and opportunities to Al. Neyer. Following construction shutdowns, a sudden ramp-up of activity in the second half of the year led to an 86% increase in total square footage of construction signings from 2019, followed by another 30% increase in new activity from 2020 to 2021. Since 2014, Al. Neyer has recorded impressive share price growth in its Annual Reports, including a 27% average annual increase between 2014 and 2019. And with the surge of new construction activity in 2020, the company’s share price spiked from $56.42 to $119.55, more than doubling the value of the shares held by employee-owners.Beyond Al. Neyer’s financial success, the company has shown steady commitment to its communities, including over $450,000 in donations and sponsorships granted in 2021. Al. Neyer has also received several awards for its workplace culture, including multiple designations from the Cincinnati Business Courier’s Best Places to Work award and a Top Place to Work award four times since 2017.Al. Neyer became a Member of Certified EO in 2022. If you are a Certified EO Member and would like to see your company’s story featured in a future spotlight article, please contact your Membership Manager.

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New Partnership: Certified Employee-Owned & The Healthcare Anchor Network

May 24, 2022

Certified Employee-Owned and The Healthcare Anchor Network (HAN) are excited to announce a new partnership to help over 1,000 hospitals identify procurement opportunities with employee-owned companies! HAN is a nationally recognized collaboration of health systems leveraging their purchasing, hiring, and investing power to improve health and well-being by addressing economic and racial inequities in the communities they serve. HAN works to achieve a critical mass of health systems adopting the anchor mission, a proactive commitment to leverage their economic, political, and human capital to drive equitable, local economic impact. HAN was launched in May 2017 and today represents over 70 health systems with more than 1,000 hospitals, $75 billion of purchasing power, $150 billion of invested assets, and almost 2 million staff. HAN members include Boston Children’s Hospital, Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, and University of California San Francisco. “We’re delighted to have the support of Certified Employee-Owned's knowledge of the field to help our members know the Certified Employee-Owned companies in their service areas and look for opportunities to do business with them,” stated David Zuckerman, President & Founder, Healthcare Anchor Network. Employee ownership is increasingly recognized as a way to reduce wealth inequality and strengthen local economies. By procuring products and services from employee-owned companies, anchor institutions will create good jobs while benefiting from increased service quality. To date, the main challenge preventing anchors from accessing this win-win opportunity has been the difficulty of finding employee-owned companies. As the only national certification focused on employee-owned companies, Certified Employee-Owned is perfectly positioned to help anchor institutions find employee-owned suppliers. Our standards of significant and broad-based employee ownership span all types of employee-owned companies including Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), Worker Cooperatives, Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs), Equity Compensation Plans, and more. Since our launch in September 2017, we have been working to build a list of verified employee-owned companies as well as tools to help people explore employee ownership, for example our Directory of Employee-Owned Companies. This partnership represents the first step to creating widespread purchasing preferences for employee-owned companies. The initial focus with HAN will be on helping their health systems identify current vendors who are employee-owned and educating HAN members on the benefits of doing business with employee-owned companies. Some health systems may be interested in taking the next step of integrating employee ownership into their process for identifying future vendors and filling open contracts. The experience and success stories from this partnership will help us build toward future purchasing engagements and could provide the proof-of-concept required for state or even federal purchasing preferences for employee-owned companies. To learn more about how we are working with HAN to promote purchasing from employee-owned companies, register for our upcoming webinar on July 21st.

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Capital Accounts and Profit Sharing: The Two Ways Employee-Owners Build Wealth

April 27, 2022

Employee-owned companies are great at building wealth for working people. Take WinCo Foods. After roughly 40 years as an ESOP, the 130 workers at a single store in Corvallis, Oregon had a combined $100M in ownership wealth and across the company, over 400 front-line employees were “millionaire grocery clerks”. Or consider Springfield Remanufacturing Company (SRC). From 1983 through 2017, the company paid nearly $100M in distributions to its employee-owners. CEO Jack Stack highlights one person who, “started here in 1983 making $7.50 an hour [and] has now got $1.2 million.” While not every employee-owner will become a millionaire, research shows that these remarkable examples highlight broader trends. The National Center for Employee Ownership found that, on average, employee-owners have nearly double the retirement wealth compared to non-employee-owners ($170,326 versus $80,339). At Certified Employee-Owned, we used data from the Federal Reserve to show that if every American business became employee-owned, wealth inequality would be reduced to historic lows and the wealth of the median household would increase from $121,760 to $230,076. How are employee-owned companies helping people build this much wealth? While there are many ways to create and run an employee-owned company, there are only two ways that these businesses put money in the pockets of their workers: capital accounts and profit sharing. Capital Accounts Capital accounts are distinct accounts that track the ownership value held by individual employees. Capital accounts can hold company stock directly or they can hold derivatives such as stock options. Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPPs), stock options or even direct share ownership are all forms of capital accounts. An individual’s capital account is typically funded through an initial grant or annual contributions, either made by the company as in an ESOP, or funded by the employee-owner, as in an ESPP. Today there are over 5,100 employee-owned companies using capital accounts. The key feature of capital accounts is compound growth.The value of an employee’s capital account is tied to the performance of the company through the share price. Assuming the business is performing well, the company’s share price will increase and the value of the capital account will go up. Importantly, the increase in value from share price growth applies both to contributions as well as prior share price growth, a process known as compounding. Compound growth is how employee-owners build potentially life-changing wealth over time. Specifics vary widely, but many reasonable scenarios that reflect real-world practice lead to six-figure wealth building, and, as we saw with WinCo and SRC, companies that are employee-owned for 25+ years usually have front-line millionaires. While compound growth has tremendous wealth-building potential, the key ingredient is time. Drawing the account down will erase the compounding, and building substantial wealth typically requires the capital account is untouched for 20 years or more. Eventually the employee-owner must be able to turn the capital account back into cash. Because employee-owned companies are private, there are generally two options: the company buys the share back or the accounts are cashed out when the company is sold. Due to the nature of business valuation, companies almost never will have enough cash on hand to buy back all shares at any given point in time. This leads to a situation at mature capital account companies called “share recycling” where shares are bought from selling owners and recycled back to new owners. For example, at ESOPs shares are bought back from employee-owners who have left the company, maybe because they retired. This is a time-tested practice that can continue for a long time so long as both the employee ownership plan and the company are managed well. Profit Sharing Profit sharing is when a company distributes some portion of profits back to employees as cash on a regular cadence. Profit sharing is a flexible concept that is implemented in a variety of ways and not all forms of profit sharing can be considered ownership. For example, a plan that exists solely at the discretion of management can provide a nice benefit, but it is not ownership because it can be taken away by management without any sort of monetary compensation to the employees. In line with our certification standards, to be considered ownership a profit sharing plan must have a legal claim on part or all of the business and it must have codified distribution rules that are inclusive and not overly concentrated. Formal profit-sharing benefit plans that own shares of company stock meet these criteria, but in our experience these plans rarely own enough of the company for it to qualify as “employee-owned”. Currently we see just two types of employee-owned companies where the primary wealth building mechanism is profit sharing and enough of the company is owned by the profit-sharing structure to qualify as employee-owned: Worker Cooperatives and Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs). We know of roughly 350 companies operating through these two vehicles today. The key feature of profit sharing is liquidity. Profit sharing is typically done on a quarterly or annual basis, and once the profits are in and the benefit is calculated a check is cut to qualifying employee-owners within a few weeks. Profit sharing is immediately useful to employee-owners. Tradeoffs Between Capital Accounts and Profit Sharing The basic structure of capital accounts and profit sharing leads to a tradeoff between timing and wealth creation that impacts people and has implications for investing in growth. Wealth Building Due to compound growth, capital accounts help employee-owners build more wealth than profit sharing. Specifics vary, but typically after 30 years compound growth is responsible for at least 80% of the value of a capital account. If the account owner had instead received their annual allocations of stock as cash payments, for example through profit sharing, they would have received just one fifth of the value of the capital account over time. I doubt that any employee-owner has ever built a million dollars in wealth through profit sharing alone. Liquidity (Timing of Payments) While capital accounts have greater wealth-building potential, profit sharing provides money to employee-owners sooner. Most capital account structures at employee-owned companies simply don’t give people the option to withdraw value before retirement because it would not be feasible for the business. On top of that, regularly withdrawing a portion of your capital account will diminish or even completely offset the benefits of compounding. Delayed gratification is inherent in the concept of capital accounts just as liquidity is inherent in the concept of profit sharing. The ultimate point of employee ownership is to create better lives for working people and if people have immediate needs, it simply might not be feasible to wait. While profit sharing has lower total wealth building potential, it provides greater liquidity and that tradeoff might be well-worth it for employee-owners, especially for those making a lower income. Investing in Growth The difference in payment timing between profit sharing and capital accounts has implications for how a company invests in its growth. Theoretically, the immediacy of profit sharing disincentives investing in the business, since investments reduce profit now in exchange for profit later. For example, consider a company thinking about using some excess cash this year to buy a piece of equipment that would increase profitability multiple years in the future. If employee-owners have a strong need for money now, what are they likely to choose? Capital accounts are fundamentally long-term and therefore can be much better for long-term alignment. Of course, the specific fit will likely depend quite a bit on industry. If the company is involved in a people-oriented business that involves little capital, for example consulting, profit sharing might do better in terms of aligning incentives. But if a lumpy investment is required, shares might be better. Why Not Both? Considering the advantages of both capital accounts and profit sharing it’s tempting to ask: why not do both? In theory you could split the ownership of a company in any way between capital accounts and profit sharing. In practice, we find that companies tend to do one or the other. We haven’t counted exactly, but I would estimate that over 95% of employee-owned companies either have capital accounts or they have a formal profit sharing structure, and if they are owned by a profit sharing structure, such as an EOT or Worker Cooperative, it almost always owns 100% of the company. There is a major exception: discretionary profit sharing. While not technically ownership, profit sharing that exists at the discretion of management shares the positive characteristics described above, specifically the immediacy of payment and the attendant culture-building benefits. For this reason, we see many companies that use capital accounts for their ownership while implementing a discretionary profit sharing plan as well. Typically it has a quarterly or annual cadence and the primary focus is to strengthen the connection between the success of the company and the success of the employee-owner. Wealth building for working people is the common thread running through all corners of the employee ownership community. Different companies in different industries employing different people will all find their own balance in the tradeoff between capital accounts and profit sharing. What’s important is to consider what’s right for your company and your people. Special thanks to Jon Shell of Social Capital Partners who read an early version of this post and suggested the point about “Investing in Growth”. That section is adapted from his email.

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Defining “Employee-Owned”: How We Set Our Certification Standards

March 21, 2022

At Certified Employee-Owned, our mission is to build an employee-owned economy by creating national recognition for employee ownership. When starting Certified EO, in 2016, my co-founder Kramer Sharp and I were inspired by the success of programs like Fair Trade and Great Place to Work. We saw certification as a way to amplify the voices of employee-owned companies with a unified brand that would make it easy for job seekers, consumers and businesses to find and support employee-owned companies.As we have grown to over 400 Members, we have started to see our vision come to pass. But, we have also seen how employee ownership is an idea that takes different forms at different companies. Given all the nuance, what exactly do we mean when we certify a company as “employee-owned”? This article walks through how we created our certification standards, including:Why did we need to define “employee-owned”?Common threads from community conversationsFocusing on wealth buildingA specific and simple definition of employee-ownedWhy Did We Need to Define “Employee-Owned”?The idea to create a certification program for employee-owned companies came out of work I was doing as a PhD student at Stanford Business School. I joined the Organizational Behavior department in 2013 with an interest in understanding alternative business structures. In my first year, my advisor pointed me in the direction of the academic work on employee-owned companies. I was excited to see that a group of scholars had spent years studying this model and thrilled that their findings demonstrated increased firm performance and better outcomes for employees. While absorbing this large body of work, I had frequent conversations about what I was learning with a long-time friend, Kramer Sharp. The more we talked about employee ownership the more excited we became about this unique business model. But we kept coming back to the same question: Why have we never heard of this before?As we explored employee ownership, we noticed that, much to our surprise, many companies we already knew and loved were employee-owned. We also started to get to know the amazing community of companies and service providers powering this transformative model and were struck by their passion and commitment. But being new to the space we were confronted with the difficulty of finding employee-owned companies. Getting a rough list of companies required digging through government filings, and even that list was incomplete. It became clear to us that a major obstacle preventing more people from joining and supporting the EO Community was lack of visibility.Thinking about ways to build awareness of employee ownership, we were inspired by the success of certification programs like Fair Trade and Great Place to Work. They demonstrated that certification is a proven model that combines the reach of companies with a common trait to create national recognition. We thought that increasing the visibility of employee-owned companies would make them the employer of choice for millions of job seekers and make being employee-owned a major differentiator with clients and consumers. But creating a certification requires making a yes/no decision about who is eligible to join, so before we could start building towards our vision we had to set down concrete certification standards. In other words, we had to define “employee-owned”.Common Threads From Community ConversationsIn 2016 when we set out to create our certification standards, the ESOP model was already over 40 years old. Shining light on the employee ownership community was the entire point of the certification, so we knew that we had to ground our definition of “employee-owned” in community input.We started by connecting with the major trade associations including the National Center for Employee Ownership, The ESOP Association, Employee-Owned S-Corporations of America, and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. We attended conferences to speak with service providers including lawyers, accountants, bankers, and consultants who create and administer employee ownership plans. And of course we contacted as many employee-owned companies as possible. Over the course of the year we had over 250 conversations about what it means to be employee-owned. It’s no surprise that we heard a variety of perspectives. For some companies employee ownership is about giving everyone a financial stake in the success of the business. Take WinCo Foods as an example. They have had broad-based employee ownership for over 30 years and in the process they have created many millionaire grocery clerks. Some companies see employee ownership as encompassing both share ownership and employee involvement in operational decision making, for example open-book management. A few companies even see employee ownership as including employee-owners having a say in important governance issues. For example, Worker Cooperatives give their worker-owners equal votes in electing the board of directors. These three aspects of ownership - money, operational decision making and governance - were the common threads running through what we heard from the EO Community. Focusing on Wealth BuildingIt only took a few conversations for us to see that it would be impossible to come up with a single definition of “employee-owned” that would include everything that everyone saw as important. While money, operational decision making and governance were the common threads, everyone we spoke to had a different opinion on their relative importance. Instead, we started looking for a baseline. What were the aspects of employee ownership that would be broadly seen as necessary? If a company did everything BUT one particular practice would they still be viewed as employee-owned? With this shift in perspective, one element stood out: wealth building for working people. A focus on wealth building also aligned with the notion advanced by many Founding Fathers, and articulated best by Thomas Jefferson, that a healthy democracy depends on broad-based property ownership. While in Jefferson’s time this meant ownership of agricultural land, employee ownership updates this notion for our modern world where the largest asset held by the wealthiest households is the ownership of business. While operational decision making and employee involvement in governance can be positive, the broad-based ownership of wealth stands apart in importance for individuals as well as our country. A Specific and Simple Definition of Employee-OwnedWith our direction focused on wealth building, we distilled the community input down into a common set of standards we could use to certify a company as “employee-owned”:Ownership: At least 30% of the company must be owned by employees. Shares held by company founders do not count towards this threshold.Access: Reasonable access to ownership must be open to every employee at the company.Concentration: The ownership held in line with #1 and #2 must not be over-concentrated. This is controlled either through a cap on the maximum distribution or a maximum ratio between maximum and median distribution.It’s important to acknowledge that our standards are not perfect. For example, we’ve spoken with a company where employees hold a 10% stake that meets the access and concentration components of our standards. They were quick to point out that it could be much better to own 10% of a successful company than 100% of a failing business. There is merit to that point, but at the same time, 10% is not enough to call a company “employee-owned”. Others have told us that our standards are too low. Why not set the bar at a majority ownership stake? There are actually a few strategic reasons for an employee-owned company to keep ownership below a majority that benefit the company and by extension the employee-owners, for example maintaining government purchasing preferences. The 30% threshold is also aligned with historical legislation, for example Section 1042 of the Internal Revenue Code. But the biggest reason is that 30% employee-owned is actually a high bar. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are roughly 1.3 million firms in America with at least 10 employees. We estimate there are approximately 6,000 companies that meet our certification standards. That means fewer than 1 in 200 businesses met our definition of employee-owned - less than half of one percent! Ultimately we made peace with setting imperfect standards because the mission of Certified Employee-Owned is to build an employee-owned economy. We are not trying to be the arbiters of who is a “good” company and who is a “bad” company. We see certification as a means to an end, and creating a certification program requires a definition of who does and does not qualify. No single definition of employee-owned will ever be perfect, but there is tremendous benefit to the employee ownership community if we can create national recognition. Uniting our voices will help millions of Americans see the value of this model, create a resource that benefits our community, and increase the number of employee-owned companies.

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The Difference Between “ESOP” and “Employee-Owned”

February 16, 2022

If you’ve spent time learning about employee ownership, then you’ve certainly heard of Employee Stock Ownership Plans, or ESOPs. In fact, ESOPs are so common among employee-owned companies that many people use these terms interchangeably. You might be surprised to learn that, while ESOPs are certainly the most common type of plan used by employee-owned companies, there is actually quite a bit of daylight between the two concepts. Not all ESOPs are employee-owned, and not all employee-owned companies have an ESOP. This article walks through the differences between “ESOP” and “employee-owned” including:Quick Background on ESOPsNot all ESOPs are Employee-OwnedMany Employee-Owned Companies Don’t Have an ESOPDefining “Employee-Owned”Quick Background on ESOPsGiven their importance to employee ownership, it makes sense to start with a bit of background information on ESOPs. Since their creation in 1974 as part of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), ESOPs have grown dramatically. According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, there are currently around 6,300 companies with an ESOP. They range in size from dozens of employees to hundreds of thousands and operate in every industry imaginable. The ESOP’s popularity is due to a number of factors, including nearly 50 years of proven success, strong tax benefits, and a fantastic community of advocates and service providers.By law, ESOPs are extremely inclusive. The basic idea behind an ESOP is that it is a trust that owns a portion or all of a company on behalf of a broad-based group of employees. Shares are usually allocated to eligible employees annually, and the eligibility criteria employees must meet to receive a share allocation are very open. Typically employees need to work 1,000 hours in a year to participate, an average of only 20 hours per week. Additionally, ESOP shares are paid out of company profits and are allocated to employees at no cost. These simple and open criteria drive high levels of participation in the plan and ensure that workers at ESOP companies benefit when their business is successful. Not all ESOPs are Employee-OwnedWhile all ESOPs are broad-based, the percentage of total outstanding stock owned by the ESOP varies dramatically from company to company. There is no minimum, and in practice we’ve seen this range anywhere from a fraction of a percent to 100%. Of course, an ESOP that owns even just a tiny piece of a large and successful company can provide a great benefit to employees, especially since employees are not paying for the shares out of their wages or benefits. However, there is a categorical distinction between a company operating a small ESOP as an employee benefit versus a company where the plan owns a substantial portion of the company, perhaps even 100%. In other words, there is a difference between having an ESOP and being employee-owned. Further clarity can be gained by looking at a specific example. When downloading the publicly available Form 5500 data from the Department of Labor and filtering for all companies that indicate they have an ESOP, we see the largest such company by number of active participants is Walmart. Their ESOP is probably a nice benefit for some of the company's employees. However, it is not having the same impact on people as the ESOP at 100% employee-owned WinCo Foods, which has made many front line employees into millionaires. That’s why it’s important to remember that having an ESOPs doesn't always mean a company is employee-owned.Many Employee-Owned Companies Don’t Have an ESOPWhile the ESOP model is the most popular and successful structure used by employee-owned companies, it is not the only option. There are a number of alternatives that companies can use to implement significant and broad-based employee ownership, including worker cooperatives, employee ownership trusts (EOTs), employee stock purchase programs, and equity compensation plans like stock options. We describe each in more detail here. Companies can even implement employee ownership through direct share ownership, though often there are advantages to a more formal structure. Alternative structures play an important role in building an employee-owned economy because not every company is a good fit for an ESOP. The setup and administrative costs of an ESOP can be prohibitive for companies under 40 people. Companies that want to ensure employees have a strong voice in governance might find the worker cooperative to be a better fit. Perhaps the most promising use case for alternative structures is helping smaller companies become employee-owned. For example, in recent years we’ve seen a growing number of EOTs implemented at companies that are too small for an ESOP, an encouraging trend that could greatly expand the employee ownership community. Defining “Employee-Owned”If not all ESOPs are employee-owned and many employee-owned companies don’t have an ESOP, then it begs the question: What does “employee-owned” mean? Answering this question was priority number one when we started Certified Employee-Owned. Our vision from the very beginning has been to create national recognition for employee ownership by making it simple and easy for Americans to find and support employee-owned companies. We quickly realized that, while companies leveraging different ownership structures certainly have distinct administrative and legal concerns, everyone in the employee ownership community would benefit from increased visibility and awareness . With this big-tent vision in mind, we set out to create specific and verifiable criteria to define “employee-owned” that could be applied to any underlying ownership structure. We searched extensively for historical precedent and had over 200 conversations with companies and advocates. Ultimately, we identified financial ownership as a common thread running through legislation and views of advocates from across the space. After accumulating feedback and input, we created a definition of what it means for a company to be employee-owned that focuses on three main concepts:Ownership: At least 30% of the company must be owned by employees (excluding founders)Access: Reasonable access to ownership must be open to every employeeConcentration: Ownership among employees cannot be too concentratedWe have specific practices that we verify under each of these headings, and while we will provide details on both our certification standards and the development process in a future post, it’s important to emphasize that our goal is not to determine who is a “good” or “bad” employee-owned company. There are businesses doing great things with broad-based ownership below our 30% threshold, and there are other companies that would view our standards as too low. It only took about five conversations to realize no definition would ever satisfy everyone, and that’s not the point. The point is to grow the employee-owned economy. Think about what Organic, Fair Trade, and B Corporation have done in terms of awareness and imagine if we could create that for employee-owned companies. A necessary part of having a certification program is a specific and clear delineation between who does and does not meet the standards. Our standards also allow us to create resources that benefit the entire community, for example our Directory of Employee-Owned Companies, which is an up-to-date list of every company that, to the best of our knowledge, meets the above definition of employee-owned. Our approach has the potential to change the game for the employee ownership community, including the ESOP space, and that’s why it’s important to understand the difference between “ESOP” and “employee-owned”.

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