Spurring Employee Ownership

You usually know what to expect at the annual meeting of the Beyster Symposium—the annual gathering of top employee ownership researchers, including the five Louis O. Kelso Fellows funded annually by the Employee Ownership Foundation.

But this year’s event, which was held this week, included a surprise guest who drew an enthusiastic audience despite readily admitting he is neither an expert on employee ownership nor a researcher. He is Michael Gonda, VP of Communications for Chobani. The maker of Greek yogurt made headlines recently when it announced it would award 10 percent of the company to employees via Chobani Shares, which become active in the event of an IPO or sale.

Gonda said one reason the company announced the move is to encourage other businesses to consider employee ownership. He credited the company’s founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, for enduring a two-year process during which numerous legal advisers claimed there was no practical way for the business to share ownership among its roughly 2,000 employees. But Ulukaya was dedicated to the idea of sharing the wealth with employees, so a way was found.

Gonda notes that the approach taken by Chobani may not be readily applicable to other businesses, but that it does work for the company, which faces certain limitations because it is an LLC.

While other firms must find their own way, Chobani wants to help by spurring greater interest in and support of employee ownership. He added that the company is happy to partner with others to help promote employee ownership—a statement that seemed to generate enthusiasm among the researchers in attendance.

When asked about communications lessons the company learned, Gonda said the firm conducted a detailed analysis of the questions employees might ask, and prepared extensively to address those queries. At the announcement meeting, Ulukaya shared extensive information about the current and projected state of the business with employees. Chobani also set up e-mail and phone hotlines for employees who wanted to ask questions confidentially.

Although Chobani employees are not yet owners, one attendee asked if the company had seen any difference in attitudes to date. Gonda replied that the announcement had “an immediate impact.” Shortly after it was made, he said, an employee accidentally dropped the mop he was using. “Hey,” a nearby co-worker exclaimed, “don’t do that to my mop.”

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