The ins and outs of a more democratic way to do business is put on full display in the film, We the Owners: Employees Expanding the American Dream, which looks at various type of co-operative and employee stock ownership models through the eyes of employees at every level of three different companies. The film’s opening lines quickly addresses the deficit these companies are attempting to solve:
“We believe in ownership in the United States. We believe in individual responsibility. We want people to own the things that are core to their existence. But somehow or another, we forgot to extend that to the workplace.”
Executive producer Mary Ann Beyster, who is also president of the Foundation for Enterprise Development, says the film’s message is meant for people in every stage of business.
“By hearing the employees’ stories and seeing the participative cultures of employee-owned companies in action, we hope that company owners and employees will learn by example and recognize not to take broad-based ownership and participation for granted,” she said in an interview for the film.
In the Beginning
The film opens to video footage of a 50′s-era interview with Louis Kelso, the inventor of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), which enables employees to buy stock in their company and pay for it with future dividend yields.
The film focuses on three companies that have taken his strategy to the heart: New Belgium Brewing Company, Namasté Solar, and DPR Construction.
The documentary captures the decision-making process within an employee-owned company, from enrolling new employee owners to company layoffs.
Some of the best parts of the film, however, come from interviews with employees at various levels, who describe the experience of having a tangible stake in the future of their company.
Ownership Brings Equality
At the co-operative Namasté Solar, every employee has one vote, no matter how much they invest in the company. The three co-founders did this to make the company as democratically managed as possible.
Residential heat installer Wade Andrews, who has been a co-owner for over two years, said that in most other companies, he would be considered a basic ‘grunt.’
“We’re really labor. But I feel a lot more valued having the input in all company meetings, and there’s just a greater level of respect. If we have to make a decision infield, I don’t have to call a higher-up. I’m really proud of what I do,” he said.
As the third largest craft brewer in the county, employee ownership evolved over time at New Belgium Brewing Company, and currently the employees own 41% of the company. In 2000, the company switched to an ESOP scheme, and every year the value of ownership increases for employees. They combine ownership with what they describe as a ‘high-involvement culture, which encourages feedback from every level of employment.
Molding the Next Owners
One of the most interesting questions posed by the film is how to handle succession within an employee-owned company. For the founders of DPR Construction, that means transitioning their culture and ideals along with their work experience to the next generation.
“Let’s really engineer a truly great leadership transition, so that if we can do it ourselves and demonstrate it, and we can design something that people can replicate, maybe we can start to lay out what the future of this company could look like for a very long time,” said co-founder Peter Salvati.
Making Business Better
More than anything, the film conveys how co-operative and employee-owned companies translate to a greater sense of pride within every employee. Watching the film, you can begin to imagine how much better the world would be if this were our default business model. Employee-owned companies require a high level of commitment from everyone involved, but rewards that with a greater investment in the future.
The founding idea behind employee ownership is an effort to correct the growing gap between risk and reward for American workers. This idea is summed up neatly by Alexander Moss, who is on the board of trustees for the Employee Ownership Foundation.
“Capitalism at its best, links risk and reward. So people take a risk, and they get the benefit of that risk. And when you separate that to an extreme, the people who stand to benefit from risking other people’s money are not the people whose money is at risk.”