There’s a lot to like about employee ownership. By changing the relationship between the company and employee, broad-based ownership creates alignment up and down a business. Engagement is stronger, people are more motivated, relationships are more durable, and companies are more successful. But of all the positive aspects of employee ownership, the most inspiring is how it can build life-changing wealth for employee-owners.
Wealth building for working people ties the employee ownership community together. Every employee ownership structure, including Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), Worker Cooperatives, Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs), and Direct Share Ownership, builds broad-based wealth through some combination of capital accounts and profit sharing. It was the common thread in over 250 conversations about the meaning of employee ownership we had when we set our certification standards. And while there are decades of research in support of this model, it’s the individual stories of wealth-building that inspire people to join the employee ownership movement.
In this article we will touch on three inspiring examples of employee-owners building life-changing wealth. We also consider the question of scale: are these examples cherries we have picked or would a wide-spread transition to employee ownership change millions of lives?
WinCo Foods was founded in 1967 by Ralph Ward and Bud Williams. The no-frills, warehouse-style grocery store focused on low prices soon grew from its original location into a small chain in the Pacific Northwest. In 1985, after the passing of Mr. Ward, the company transitioned to employee ownership. Several decades of success later, the company now has over 20,000 employee-owners across 135 stores in 10 states.
Broad-based ownership translated WinCo’s growth into impressive wealth-building for employee-owners. In 2014, the 130 workers at a single store in Corvallis, Oregon had a combined $100 million in ownership wealth and across the company over 400 front-line employees were “millionaire grocery clerks”. According to the most recent Department of Labor 5500s, in 2020 WinCo’s employee-owners had a combined $3.6 billion in company stock.
Cathy Burch’s story illustrates the impact of WinCo’s employee ownership. Cathy joined WinCo in 1991 and worked a number of front-line jobs such as stocking shelves, doing checkout, and ordering inventory. Over the years she received small allocations of company stock and benefited from compound interest as WinCo’s share price grew at roughly 20% a year. Ownership helped Cathy build a level of wealth and security that is unimaginable for most in her position. “I have almost $1 million in stock”, she said when interviewed for Forbes in 2014, “If I wanted to, I could retire right now.”
Springfield Remanufacturing Company (SRC) is another iconic example of employee ownership building broad-based wealth. Founded in 1983 as a distressed spin-out from International Harvester, SRC’s unique approach to open-book management was born of necessity. With an 89:1 debt to equity ratio and an interest rate of 18%, the new company had to find a way to get every single employee thinking about how to save every possible dollar. The laser focus created by approaching business as a team sport not only helped SRC pay off it’s initial loan and led to a leading opening-book management system known as The Great Game of Business, but it created a lasting culture that has continued to drive SRC’s growth. Today the company has 10 divisions with over 2,000 employee-owners.
SRC’s approach to employee ownership rests on thinking like an owner but also benefiting like one. The company has been 100% employee-owned from the very beginning, allowing employees like Rick Hedden to own a piece of the action. The shares Rick earned over 36 years as an employee-owner allowed him to retire early at 59 to focus on his hobbies and his family. “I wanted to be able to retire while I was healthy and I could afford it,” Rick said when interviewed for an article on the Great Game of Business Blog, “my wife and I are also enjoying having more time with each other without any pressure or timelines.”
Rick is not alone. Employee ownership has helped transform SRC from a struggling spinout with a share price of 10 cents into a thriving conglomerate with a share price of over 420 dollars. Along the way, SRC has paid out over $100 million to retiring employee-owners and created 30 millionaires.
New Belgium Brewing offers a different perspective on how employee ownership can help build life-changing wealth. Founded in 1991, the Colorado-based brewer helped popularize craft beer with its flagship Fat Tire Ale. New Belgium transitioned part of the business to employee ownership in 2000 and then went to 100% in 2013. Unlike WinCo and SRC, New Belgium is no longer employee-owned. The company was sold to Little Lion World Beverages in 2019.
How can a company that’s no longer employee-owned be an inspiring story? In an interview with Forbes, Katie Wallace, the Director of Social and Environmental Impact, shared, “ultimately, the sale was a great success story for employee ownership in that more than 300 New Belgium coworkers will receive more than $100,000 in retirement money, with some coworkers receiving quite a bit more. Over $190 million will have been paid out to hundreds of families by the time the deal closes. This is money that founders of a more traditional business could have easily pocketed themselves, so it’s an excellent win for wealth equality.”
New Belgium shows that employee ownership not only creates tremendous upside, but it also creates downside protection in the case of a sale. While it’s bittersweet to see a company transition out of employee ownership, sales are a fact of business ownership and there will always be times where the best outcome for the owners is to sell. In the case of New Belgium, the sale was put in front of the employee-owners and a majority voted in favor of the deal.
WinCo, SRC, and New Belgium show how employee ownership helps workers share in the value they create and access that value in the case of a sale. But perhaps these three exceptional companies are not representative of the broader employee ownership experience. To understand the economy-wide impact of a transition to employee ownership, Certified EO teamed up with Professor Ethan Rouen at Harvard Business School to answer a simple question: what would happen if every company in America were employee-owned?
Analyzing data from the Federal Reserve, we demonstrated that an employee-owned economy would be an absolute game-changer. Median household wealth would rise from $121,760 to $230,076 and wealth inequality would drop to historic lows. Our analysis shows that the inspiring stories we highlighted are certainly great outcomes, but if every company in America were employee-owned, they would be common. Today these stories are a light that can guide us as we seek to change more lives through employee ownership.