If employee ownership is so great, why isn’t there more of it? That was the question my colleagues and I began exploring nearly two years ago, leading into the first Fifty by Fifty convening of national partners in employee ownership. The experts agreed on interventions with the greatest potential to increase employee ownership. Top of my list were:
In recent months, Fifty by Fifty—in collaboration with others —has committed to moving the ball forward in each of these areas.
We and our partners launched the Fifty by Fifty blog and news service, featuring writing by some of the best employee ownership advocates, professional service providers, and innovators. Within a year, the subscriber list has grown to over 1400 readers, helping to spread a practical message to influencers nationwide. In this way, we’re helping to elevate leading voices and promote shared narratives. We’ve also published articles, such as this one on employee ownership in rural areas.
In addition to traditional approaches to influencing succession – where professional service providers support owners in selling to employees – our hypothesis is that mobilized capital could also play a role, knocking on doors and helping to drive expansion of employee ownership. The role of capital has become my particular focus, and I’ve been pleased to see growing interest in this approach.
In April, I sat in on two landmark conversations on this topic. The first, hosted by Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, was a gathering on Private Equity Transactions and Employee Ownership. It featured case studies and new models where modest-income employees benefit from participating in employee ownership or profit sharing plans in portfolio companies. Participants included Mosaic Capital, Merit Capital, Long Point Capital, KKR, Blue Wolf Capital, and American Working Capital.
The second meeting, in London, was hosted by Open Society Foundations and looked at the role that philanthropic capitalboth grants and investments – could play in encouraging shared ownership as a way to reduce income inequality and the lack of democratic participation in economic decision making. Other U.S. attendees were Transform Finance and The Working World, both leading thought leaders and expert practitioners in how capital can be used to increase employee ownership.
Creating Policy Incentives
We’re also pleased to see increased volume and quality in employee ownership policy at the federal, state, and local level. Just this month, the U.S. House passed H.R. 5236, the Main Street Employee Ownership Act (MSEOA). In addition, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the bipartisan Senate companion bill, S.2786, on April 26 with the support of three co-sponsors from both major parties.
The MSEOA is one of the most well-researched and responsive pieces of legislation in recent years, thanks in large part to research by Senator Gillibrand’s office, whose efforts we were honored to support. By working within existing Small Business Administration programs and lending infrastructure, the bill would create a powerful set of tools making it easier for retiring business owners to sell their companies to their employees, and supporting those businesses, post-transaction.
Building Strategic Partnerships and Curating Conversations
My colleague Sarah Stranahan in June is chairing a panel on scaling employee ownership, at CommonBound, the annual conference of the New Economy Coalition. Be sure to check it out, if you are attending.
In addition, last month, I co-hosted a panel at the NCEO conference in Atlanta, called “Why Aren’t There More ESOPs?”, with my colleague Steve Buchanan. We had nearly 50 attendees, including the NCEO State Employee Ownership Task Force and staff from the Beyster Institute at the University of California, San Diego, but there were also fresh faces from ESOP companies across the nation. Although the question we posed was essentially the same as the original question of Fifty by Fifty, this time felt different. There was a level of sophistication in the work of our partner organizations, and a sense of momentum—even inevitability—that I hadn’t seen before.
Visit this space—or sign up for our e-newsletter—for future updates on this growing movement.
Director of Employee Ownership Programs @ The Democracy Collaborative
Winimac, Indiana – population 2,500, more than 60 miles from the nearest airport—is a pretty unlikely place to find hope for the future of our economy. It’s home to the headquarters of Galfab, a manufacturer of waste-hauling equipment, which is the kind of company that used to be, and in some parts of the country still is, the bedrock of the American economy. It’s the kind of company that employs Americans to make things and has no intention of sending those jobs overseas. Today, this commitment is stronger than ever for Galfab, which recently opted to transition to employee ownership. “Taking care of all the employees was foremost in our mind,” said CEO Jerry Samson, in announcing the recent transition. “The desire to create an ownership opportunity in Galfab for our over 150 employees was always the top priority for us. Our employees are the heart and soul of Galfab.”
What if there were a way to run a business that generated lasting wealth for employees and helped anchor companies in the U.S.? What if communities, entrepreneurs, and lawmakers joined efforts to promote these businesses as a way of retaining jobs and creating strong local economies? It sounds impossible but businesses that are owned by employees have all these benefits and efforts to create more of them are gaining serious momentum throughout New York.
As we wrap the second year of the Fifty by Fifty project — aimed at getting to 50 million worker owners by 2050 — we’re more convinced than ever that the time is right for strategic interventions to catalyze the employee ownership field to a much larger scale. The retirement of the baby boom generation — the silver tsunami — paired with rising concern about income inequality, is creating an unprecedented opening for this solution. Yet employee ownership numbers have not grown as they could over the past 25 years. The field has not seen itself as a unified employee ownership field, uniting worker co-ops with ESOPs and other forms of employee ownership. Creating that unity is one of the aims of Fifty by Fifty.
Fifty by Fifty
Millions of Americans already have an ownership stake in their workplace. More than 7,000 U.S. companies are owned wholly or in part by their employees—the people who work there every day.