Guest Post – Ownership Does Matter, Period

Guest post by Steve Sheppard, the retired Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Foldcraft Co., a Kenyon, Minnesota, and currently the Chief Executive Officer of Winds of Peace Foundation, which supports Indigenous peoples, womens’ organizations and rural poor located primarily within Nicaragua.

(Originally published here, 12/13/11)

The year is down to its last weeks and that brings the inevitable preparations and planning for 2012.  The year has been an interesting one for us at Winds of Peace Foundation, as we have continued to work with the very poor in Nicaragua in helping to establish sustainable economic activity for their livelihoods.  Of course, development comes in a great many forms and initiatives, but the sustainability dimension has been an important one for us, and for the Nicaraguans especially.  Of particular note has been our work with cooperatives, many of which are coffee producers, and the relatively unique research and collaborative efforts which we have been able to forge across the many levels of participation in the coffee chain.  The process has been exciting (because we can see results), scary (because it’s exploring new alliances and innovations) and frustrating (because we can’t involve every entity that should be).   But it has also been an epiphany as I have been able to affirm the reality of ownership as a universal human need.  The Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) community has got it right, and the U.S. and the rest of the world needs to understand why.

I’m biased, of course.  I have been immersed within the ESOP community since 1985, when Foldcraft Co. completed its first ESOP transaction.  I “grew up” in employee ownership, managed under employee ownership, spoke around the country on behalf of employees ownership and eventually retired from our ESOP before the Winds of Peace calling came my way.  I figured then that I had experienced the realities of employee ownership from stem to stern, from inception to retirement, and that I could adequately talk about it in all of its dimensions to whatever audiences would listen.  (I have been privileged to do just that as an ambassador of the Employee Ownership Foundation over the past six years, speaking to business audiences about the realities of employee ownership.)  And then, I started working in Nicaragua.

I have written here previously my amazement at the similarities between high-functioning ESOP companies and the cravings of the poor in Nicaragua.  (In my very first visit Foundation trip to Nicaragua in 2006, I was informed that holistic thinking, participation and ownership were the key elements for rural poor to address in improving their circumstances. )  Those similarities have continued to impress themselves upon me as I have come to better understand the context of life for the poor in Nicaragua, and have listened to what many there have said about what they need to transform themselves.

As the scope and content of our work has changed during the past six years, cooperatives have come to occupy a bigger role.  Often they demonstrate the transparency and involvement which we have always felt to be critical to sustainability.  In working with coops we have the opportunity to reach a larger number of people with a given amount of funding.   Even the Nicaraguan government cites the importance of the cooperative model of organization, affirming our focus on coops.  We have pioneered research of the cooperatives, shared our experiences from working with them, targeted funding toward them and measured the results.  Rural cooperatives can and do work when the policies and practices behind them encourage full participation, transparency, and opportunity.   Hm, does that sound like anything familiar here in the U.S.?

Employee ownership is not simply a progressive way to think about the transition of a company.  Rather, it meets some very fundamental needs of human beings at work and in life.  It speaks to the issues of belonging, of being somebody whose work matters, of believing in a reality of self-betterment, of strengthening community in the process.  For those of us fortunate enough to work in an employee-owned enterprise, it can be a very rewarding experience, not only financially but emotionally, socially, intellectually, spiritually, occupationally and even physically.  For cooperative members in Nicaragua, it can be the very cocoon of transforming life for self and family.  In either case, it’s ownership that matters.  What a life lesson….

_____

Steve Sheppard is the retired Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Foldcraft Co., a Kenyon, Minnesota manufacturer of seating, tables and related millwork found in restaurants, hotels and other hospitality settings. The Company also operates four subsidiary companies in California and elsewhere in Minnesota. Steve became the Company’s Chief Executive Officer in 1990, and served on the Foldcraft Co. Board of Directors as its Chairman for 16 years. During his leadership term, Foldcraft became 100% employee-owned and adopted a corporate culture oriented strongly toward employee involvement, open-book management and stewardship through servant leadership. Steve has been a frequent speaker to companies and professional associations on the subjects of Foldcraft’s innovative programs and management approaches, employee ownership, corporate culture, and leading organizations that are based upon positive values. He is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Winds of Peace Foundation, which supports Indigenous peoples, womens’ organizations and rural poor located primarily within Nicaragua.

Steve Sheppard is a frequent speaker to employee-owned companies and the ESOP community on the financial and transformational potential of employee ownership. Now, in partnership with the Employee Ownership Foundation, Steve is scheduling speaking engagements with business leaders and opinion makers who are not aware of the transformational power of employee ownership through an ESOP for employees and companies sponsoring ESOPs. Steve, former CEO of the employee-owned Foldcraft Company in Kenyon, Minnesota, will travel the U.S. speaking to local groups, such as the Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis and other civic groups about employee ownership.

Steve Sheppard’s outreach is sponsored by the Employee Ownership Foundation, which is the 501(c)(3) affiliated foundation of The ESOP Association. The ESOP Association is the national trade association for companies with employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) and the leading voice in America for employee ownership. The Employee Ownership Foundation is the leading arm for funding research and providing educational opportunities to employee owners in the U.S.

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