Why Aren't There More Employee-Owned Companies?

Thomas Dudley


Supporters of employee ownership see it as a win-win that benefits workers and companies alike. They point to the life changing wealth built by employee-owners and the transformational impacts of ownership culture on business performance. The research done by proponents is so positive and the success stories are so prevalent that it can be startling to learn that fewer than 1 in 200 American businesses are employee-owned. If employee ownership is so great, why aren’t there more employee-owned companies?

Taking a clear-eyed look at the constraints holding our community back can be challenging, but to grow it’s necessary to be honest with ourselves. In this blog post I outline four leading theories on how to grow the number of employee-owned companies, each associated with a potential blocker:

  • Raise Awareness
  • Reduce Transaction Cost and Complexity
  • Improve Financing Options
  • Create New Structures

Raise Awareness

Perhaps the most straightforward theory about what’s limiting employee ownership is that there are a large number of people who simply don’t know about the model. Awareness is certainly low among the general public. According to estimates based on data collected from our Members and the companies we’ve listed on our Directory of Employee-Owned Companies, just one percent of the labor force works at an employee-owned company. Our Members report that most new employees come in with zero familiarity. You can easily go through high school and college without hearing the words “employee ownership.” I myself never heard about the concept during three years at a major management consulting firm. 

To grow the number of employee-owned companies, the key audience to reach is business owners. Based on our 630+ Members, over 90% of employee-owned companies are created through conversion, and clearly business owners can’t covert to EO if they aren’t aware that it’s an option. Is awareness low among business owners? This is much more difficult to gauge. But there are a number of efforts that propose the answer is yes and are focused on raising awareness among business owners, either by reaching out to business owners directly or by targeting trusted advisors such as accountants, lawyers, and bankers. 

Two prominent recent awareness campaign are the EO Equals effort spearheaded by Project Equity and the Pittsburgh Citywide Taskforce on Employee Ownership led by the Pennsylvania Center for Employee Ownership.

Reduce Transaction Cost and Complexity

Today, over 95% of employee-owned companies use an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). According to Department of Labor data, roughly 250 - 300 new ESOPs are created annually and we estimate that currently around 5,700 employee-owned companies have an ESOP. While ESOPs are popular, they also have substantial transaction cost and complexity. 

ESOPs are great, but they can also be expensive. The cost to create an ESOP can vary widely, but a conversion generally ranges from $80,000 to over $250,000 and ongoing administration can be $50,000 to $100,000 a year. While certainly comparable, or sometimes less, than investment banking fees involved in an alternative path, the cost of ESOPs makes them out of reach for most companies under 40 employees. 

One major source of cost and complexity is regulatory. The ESOP structure was codified in law along with 401ks and profit sharing plans in 1974 as part of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). As a result ESOPs, are overseen by the Department of Labor (DoL). The DoL ensures that ESOPs are executed in a fair manner that sets employees up for success. However, for many years, the DoL has declined to provide clear and specific guidance around their expectations for important aspects of ESOP creation and oversight, opting instead to use litigation. This has created an unfortunate level of uncertainty for ESOP professionals and for owners who want to do something good by transitioning the business to their employees.

In 2023 major progress was made when The ESOP Association successfully lobbied the DoL to provide clarity on the definition of adequate consideration when it comes to ESOP valuations. This is a huge step forward in reducing regulatory uncertainty that hopefully will result in the creation of more ESOPs.

An ambitious idea to further reduce the cost and complexity of the ESOP is to take it out of ERISA entirely. ESOPs are not part of ERISA for any fundamental reason, but simply because Senator Russell Long was a champion for the idea and was the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee at the time that ERISA was being created. While these favorable circumstances led to the creation of the most successful vehicle for employee-owned companies today, they have also led to much of the burdensome regulation that could be holding our community back. Removing the ESOP from ERISA and greatly streamlining the tax benefits could unleash growth analogous to the recent success of the Employee Ownership Trust in the UK. Driven by a much simpler framework, the number of employee-owned companies in the UK increased 37% in 2022. During that same time period, the number of employee-owned companies in America remained flat at around 6,400. Perhaps we can use the UK as inspiration to simplify our structure and unleash growth.

There have been a number of non-regulatory proposals to streamline the cost and complexity of the ESOP. One idea is to create a “simple ESOP” with standardized plan design that receives streamlined regulatory treatment. Another is to use technology to reduce many of the ongoing administrative costs. 

Improve Financing Options

A second theory sees issues related to financing as the primary barrier to growing the number of employee-owned companies. As mentioned previously, the vast majority of employee-owned companies are created through a conversion where the owner(s) of the business sell it to the employees. A large portion of these transactions require the owner to provide seller financing. The details vary from deal-to-deal, but seller financing has two main challenges:

  1. The seller doesn’t get their money right away and instead is paid out over time, often over the course of 10 years. Sellers, like all people, tend to prefer money upfront.
  2. Due to #1, the seller is still linked to the company for many years. Many business owners prefer a clean break. 

Employee ownership is rarely the only option considered by a selling owner. Alternatives such as private equity or selling to a competitor are often able to provide most, if not all, of the purchase price upfront. It’s easy to see why a seller might take that deal, even if they prefer the legacy preservation that comes from converting to employee ownership.

There are a number of creative new initiatives looking to provide improved financing options for employee ownership. Funds such as Mosaic Capital Partners and Apis & Heritage are turning the private equity model on its head and use private capital to create employee-owned companies. Venture-backed Teamshares offers small-business owners cash upfront and then sells the company back to employees over a 10 to 20-year time period. Finally, there is a push to get the government involved through loan guarantees. Last year, the bipartisan Employee Equity Investment Act (EEIA) was introduced in Congress. The bill is an effort to encourage private institutional capital to lower the burden on seller financing while maintaining safeguards for employees in the transaction.

Create New Structures

Perhaps the most creative and high-potential idea for creating new employee-owned companies is to create new structures. While the two legacy models - ESOPs and worker cooperatives - have been very successful, there might be untapped markets waiting for new approaches. This offers huge potential grow the employee ownership community, for example by increasing adoption among smaller companies, which as we pointed out in the 2022 blog post, could expnd the market for potential employee ownership conversions by hundreds of thousands of companies. 

Currently there are three promising new structures being explored. The first is the Employee Ownership Trust (EOT). Inspired by the success of the UK, groups such as EOT Law, Common Trust, and Purpose Owned have been setting up EOTs in the US since 2016. EOTs generally are more flexibly than legacy structures, and they’re substantially cheaper than ESOPs. The model is still in its early stages in the US and unfortunately doesn’t yet have tax incentives, but despite that headwind today there are roughly two dozen EOTs in the US. 

The second alternative structure is to do employee ownership through broad-based, direct ownership of company stock. This approach is being spearheaded by Teamshares (mentioned above) and the summary of the approach is that Teamshares offers a selling owner favorable terms, and then the employees buy up to 80% of the company from Teamshares over a period of 10 to 20 years. Teamshares is off to a hot start, with over 80 companies converted since their launch in 2019.

The third alternative approach would be to implement broad-based employee ownership through stock options. Stock options are most well-known for their use in Silicon Valley, but they are an extremely flexible structure that can be designed in a broad-based way. Options plans are also low-cost, typically costing a few thousands dollars to implement and administer. Options are generally not a long-term solution, but could be a great fit for new companies who want to give early employees a stake in the outcome and then later convert to another employee ownership structure such as an ESOP.

Which of these four theories is the correct approach? Weighing in on the likelihood is a matter of speculation. Advocates for each approach to growing employee ownership all have passionate and persuasive arguments, but ultimately nobody knows what will work until the number of employee-owned companies in the US starts to grow. At Certified EO, we’re diligently tracking the creation of new employee-owned companies as part of our larger effort to make our Directory an up-to-date list of all employee-owned companies. When we see that number start to grow, we’ll be sure to let you know.

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