Rob Zicaro just might be the embodiment of the ESOP movement. A professional drummer who became a machine operator and frontline manager at Web Industries, Zicaro once was invited to share insights on employee ownership with President Bill Clinton.
Zicaro retired from Web Industries last December, and has now returned to his first love—music. But he continues to speak about employee ownership, as he did at The ESOP Association’s Annual Conference in May. For Zicaro, music and employee ownership are an intertwined refrain that runs through his personal and professional lives.
A Drummer Is Born
Zicaro’s started drumming in his early teens, and at 14 joined a rock band run by his older brother’s friend. In the early 70’s, that band morphed into a new group named Mad Angel, landed multiple recording contracts, and frequently opened for fellow Boston-area band Aerosmith.
A striking aspect of Mad Angel is how it was organized: The band was incorporated as MA Associates Inc. All four band members got an equal 20 percent share, and the remaining 20 percent was divvied up among the road crew.
Was it like a rudimentary ESOP? “It really was,” says Zicaro. “Everyone had a stake in the outcome.”
Because MA Associates was formed before ESOPs were formally established as a retirement plan under the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act, Zicaro’s experience with employee ownership predates that of many companies.
Ultimately Mad Angel split up, and after working in and managing a top 40 band, Zicaro decided to get a “real job” at a small converting company. It was there that a friend told him about Web Industries and employee ownership. It was music to his ears.
Meet Charles Edmunson
Zicaro was hired at Web, where he trained as a machine operator and met Charles Edmunson, the VP of manufacturing. Edmunson demonstrated a vital quality any musician—especially one with a bent for employee ownership—could respect: He listened.
“Charles brought donuts and bagels every Friday to the shop floor,” says Zicaro. “He was building relationships, listening to people. He really was in touch with the front lines and never lost that.”
Edmunson became a mentor to Zicaro, teaching him about ESOPs and bringing him to ESOP Association conferences. Zicaro and Edmunson formed quite a team, traveling together to give presentations on employee ownership. Zicaro couldn’t know it at the time, but he was auditioning for the biggest performance of his life.
A Lucky Series of Events
After years of unsuccessful attempts, Web Industries landed a visit from Senator Edward Kennedy. He met Zicaro and was so impressed he asked Zicaro and Edmunson to provide testimony about employee ownership and ESOPs at a Senate hearing.
Treasury Secretary Robert Reich heard their comments, and invited Zicaro to attend the Conference on the Future of the American Workforce along with President Bill Clinton.
In the span of a few weeks, Zicaro went from being an unknown machine operator to the person hand-picked to represent employee ownership to the President of the United States.
Zicaro’s comments at the conference were captured on video and still are available today. (You can see an excerpt here.)
His comments were not scripted. As only a good musician can, he improvised. “Charles would always say: ‘Just speak to what you know and how you feel,’” recalls Zicaro.
The opportunity to provide information to a sitting President may seem like sheer luck, but it wasn’t. Zicaro was ready for the moment, having invested energy ahead of time to better understand employee ownership, management, and business. He practiced when no one was there to see. And when the opportunity arose to be on the biggest stage imaginable, he was ready to riff on the material he already knew so well.
“Because I had read so much about employee ownership, thought so much about it, talked so much about it with my fellow employee owners and with Charles, I already had the content and the beliefs inside me,” says Zicaro.
Today, more than 20 years after his meeting with President Clinton, Zicaro still demonstrates a passion for employee ownership—and music. He has an in-home studio where he writes and produces original songs for the top 40 market. And he continues to speak and advocate for ESOPs and employee ownership.
He wants to give back. He knows the work is not done. “Employee ownership is a journey,” he says. “You’re never done. There’s going to be an employee owner somewhere who has a conversation with a President. It may be in public or it may be in private.
“But,” he says laughing, “it’s probably not going to be me.”
Who will it be? And will that person be ready?