The Ownership Infection

What if the spirit of employee ownership was like a virus, something that could be caught and transmitted to the next person you talk to?

What if it already is?

Amy Kirby is an employee owner at DCS Corporation. Last year she wrote an impressive letter nominating one of the people on her staff, Karla Langhus, to be The ESOP Association’s Employee Owner of the Year. Langhus, the chair of the DCS ESOP Communications Committee, won the award.

Ask Langhus about the remarkable list of accomplishments detailed in Kirby’s letter, and she credits Kirby for supporting her work as committee chair. “If it weren’t for her, it would never have gotten done,” says Langhus.

Langus also points out how well she and Kirby work together in their daily roles. Kirby, says Langhus, often acts like a partner, someone with whom she can bounce around ideas and work with to solve problems.

Langhus’ accomplishments clearly are the result of energy and hard work. Why does she put so much into the job of helping co-workers understand the ESOP? What does she get out of it?

“I get to do what I want to do,” says Langhus.

Taking ownership is important to Langhus. And she recognizes that it is important to others as well, so she makes sure committee members have autonomy and can make the projects they tackle their own. “I leave it to each committee member to figure out what will work best in their area,” she says.

Committee member Alan Johnson agrees.

“We come to her with ideas and she says, “Yes, that sounds good,’ and gives us feedback. And then we run with it.” Says Johnson: “We do feel like we are responsible for making an impact.”

Like a virus, ownership seems to have been passed from one person to another. Each one ends up with the space to claim ownership of his or her own efforts.

The results are more than just a good feeling. They are a focus on the long term benefit of the employee owners and the company.

Johnson says that while some investors in public companies may care only about the short term—and might be willing to tolerate cutting staff or shuttering branches to achieve that goal—he feels ESOP companies are more focused on the long term and are more loyal to their employees. In turn, that helps him focus long term.

“Having the long term in mind means you can plant these little seeds. And if you stay with the company you can see those seeds grow and grow,” says Johnson. “You actually are empowered to make a difference, and you can see that difference unfold.”

He adds: “I know the reward for helping out the company as a whole is eventually going to come back to me.”

Clearly, Johnson has the employee ownership spirit bug—one he caught from Langhus and Kirby.

Newsflash: Employee Owned Firms Are Good for Employees

While ESOPs can provide softer benefits to employee owners—such as greater involvement in decision making—at their core, they are a means for putting money into employees’ pockets. Typically, that money is intended for use in retirement. But ESOPs also tend to provide financial benefits that employee owners may realize much sooner.

For example, an ESOP requires no out-of-pocket contribution by employees—so they still have the same funds available to invest elsewhere, such as a 401(k). And many ESOPs provide that option: The 2015 ESOP Survey of members of The ESOP Association found that 93.6 percent of respondents offer a 401(k) in addition to their ESOP.

In general, research has found, ESOPs are more likely to provide two retirement benefits than most firms are to provide only one.

And it doesn’t stop there: The ESOP Survey found that 2.6 percent of respondents also offer employees a defined benefit pension. That means employee owners in these companies get two retirement plans, and neither plan requires them to invest a single dime from their own pockets.

Some critics assume that all this generosity must come at a price—namely that companies pay for their ESOPs by cutting back in other areas. But that doesn’t match up with the research. In a brief slated for publication in the November IZA World of Labor, Rutgers Professor Douglas Kruse writes that in almost all studies “employee ownership tends to come on top of market levels of pay.”

He adds that in comparisons of conventional and employee-owned firms, “employee owners in general reported higher levels of annual earnings, and were more likely to say they are ‘paid what they deserve’ and that their fringe benefits are good.”

Perhaps most importantly, employees at ESOP companies are less likely to be laid off. And that is true whether the economy is in recession or going great guns.

So employee owners at ESOP companies get a great retirement benefit that costs them nothing, often still have access to other retirement options such as pensions and 401(k)s, typically earn salaries at or above market level, and are more likely to keep their great pay and benefits because they are more likely to stay employed.

This last point is the most important, because the best pay and benefits in the world won’t amount to much if you can’t keep your job.

ESOPs Excel at Making AND Sharing the Wealth

Employee ownership is a fantastic concept, one that immediately brings to mind thoughts of equity, fairness, and sharing the wealth with those who have helped create it. But that concept sometimes gets a sideways glance from pragmatic business executives who know that sharing the wealth isn’t possible unless there is wealth to be shared.

Put another way, you won’t have much to share if you are broke.

Those executives can rest assured: ESOPs are generally very good at making money—and often are even better at it than conventionally-owned companies.

But talk is cheap, so let’s look at some facts:

Sales per employee at ESOP firms are 8.8 percent higher, on average, than at non-ESOP businesses. For the group studied, ESOP companies averaged $44,500 more in sales per employees. This means a 200-person ESOP firm would generate an additional $9 million in sales, compared to a traditional business.

Companies that were 100 percent ESOP-owned, and those with higher ESOP account balances, performed above the average.

(Source: 2008 study by Brent Kramer, a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York. Kramer is now a lecturer and holds his Ph.D. in economics. The study was funded by the Employee Ownership Foundation and included 328 firms that are at least 50 percent ESOP owned, and over 2,000 matching non-ESOP firms.)

On average, companies perform 4 percent better after adopting an ESOP, or compared to non-ESOP companies. (Source: Effects of ESOP Adoption and Employee Ownership, page 11, Steven F. Freeman, University of Pennsylvania.)

ESOPs appear to increase sales, and sales per employee by about 2.4 percent over what would have been anticipated, absent an ESOP. (Source: A study comparing 1,100 ESOP companies to 1,100 comparable non-ESOP companies for more than a decade. The study was conducted by Professors Joseph Blasi and Douglas Kruse of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, and was funded in part by the Employee Ownership Foundation.)

So the record is clear: ESOPs are not only good at sharing the wealth, they are also very good at creating it.

Nearly 10,000 Years of ESOPs

About 40 years ago, a smattering of critics said ESOPs were nothing more than a way for wealthy owners to cash out of their businesses. The typical ESOP, these critics said, wouldn’t last more than a few years. After that, it would be sold to the highest bidder.

Those critics were right about one thing—ESOPs are a great way for owners to cash out of a business. But the critics misunderstood a vital factor that motivates owners to sell to employees, instead of someone else.

It is longevity.

When you start or own a business, you invest a great deal of yourself into it. You bear a responsibility to your customers, and to the people you employ. And the way you meet that responsibility reflects who you are as a person; it reflects your values and ideals.

If you value what you have built, you want to see it live on. And you want the people who helped build it to shepherd it into the future, and to be rewarded for doing so.

In short, you want your company to carry on.

If your business is solely a way to make the greatest amount of money possible, why go to the trouble of setting up an ESOP—which might sell to the highest bidder a few years later? Why not cut out the middle man and sell to the highest bidder today?

For proof that ESOPs are an enduring form of ownership, just look at the list of Silver ESOPs—companies that have maintained an ESOP for at least 25 years. The ESOP Association has been honoring members that reach this milestone since 2008. In that time, 386 member companies have achieved Silver ESOP status.

Take those 386 companies and multiply them by the 25 years they’ve each had an ESOP, and you come up with 9,650 years of ESOP management.

Any many of those firms are still going strong—which probably makes their founders and former owners very happy indeed.

(Additional materials: a video about this year’s Silver ESOP companies and the press release announcing this year’s winners.)

The 2016 Silver ESOP Award companies are:

American Systems Corporation, Chantilly, VA

Black, Gould & Associates, Inc., Phoenix, AZ

BRPH Companies, Melbourne, FL

Bryant Air Conditioning & Heating, Lincoln, NE

Cannon Cochran Management Services, Inc., Danville, IL

CTL Engineering, Inc., Columbus, OH

EBO Group, Inc., Sharon Center, OH

Edmund A. Allen Lumber Company, Momence, IL

First State Bancorp, Inc., Caruthersville, MO

Goettle Construction, Cincinnati, OH

Granco Clark, Inc., Belding, MI

Great Lakes Orthodontics Ltd., Tonawanda, NY

Jackson’s Hardware, Inc., San Rafael, CA

KCI Technologies, Inc., Sparks Glencoe, MD

Kemner-Iott Group Agency, Adrian, MI

Kendall Electric, Inc., Portage, MI

Messer Construction Co., Cincinnati, OH

Morton Buildings, Inc., Morton, IL

New England Controls, Mansfield, MA

Pavement Recycling Systems, Inc., Mira Loma, CA

Prime-Line Products Company, Redlands, CA

Rable Machine, Mansfield, OH

Slakey Brothers, Sacramento, CA

Telephone Electronics Corporation, Jackson, MS

Trans-Overseas Corp, Romulus, MI

Veterinary Service, Inc., Modesto, CA

How to Plan for the Baby Boomer Bubble’s Upcoming Cash Requirements

By Trevor S. Bare

Nearly 10,000 baby boomers—individuals who were born between 1946 and 1964—retire every day, according to the Social Security Administration.

With this large group of retirees, ESOP plan sponsors need to be prepared for repurchase obligations they may face in the near future. A repurchase obligation is an ESOP’s requirement to buy back employer stock from participants who are eligible to receive distributions from the plan.

There are various ways to fund these obligations. Typically the cash used to purchase employer stock comes from an annual employer contribution to the ESOP allocated to employees in proportion to their compensation. Below are factors to consider when funding repurchase obligations with employer contributions.

Every ESOP is Unique
The timing of each company’s retirement bubble varies. A company that is growing quickly now may be decades away from its retirement bubble. For a small employer, the bubble may be one key employee with a large account.

An ESOP plan sponsor needs to plan ahead for its own bubble. If an ESOP isn’t prepared for distributions, the plan sponsor may face fluctuating contribution levels, or even an inability to make contributions. Furthermore, a company may find itself exceeding the IRS’s limit of 25 percent of eligible payroll that is imposed on annual retirement plan contributions.

Find Your Bubble
To determine if you have a bubble approaching for your ESOP, you can conduct a distribution projection or repurchase obligation study, which projects the distributions and associated cash requirements that an ESOP will face in future years.

The timing and scale of a company’s repurchase obligation study depends on a number of factors, including the available budget and number of employees. Simple distribution projection studies with limited assumptions may suffice for smaller ESOPs. Regardless of a study’s complexity, the projected results are based on assumptions. Actual distributions will deviate from projected distributions, so projections will need to be updated periodically.

Planning For Your Bubble
Companies concerned with future repurchase obligations should review the ESOP’s distribution policies. ESOPs may delay starting payments for five years for employees who terminate employment prior to retirement, disability, or death, as defined by the plan. Distributions also may be payable as installments over five years, rather than as a lump sum distribution.

A plan sponsor that identifies a retirement bubble coming up in 5 to 10 years in its ESOP will need to determine if the current employer contribution levels will be sustainable through the bubble. If not, the organization should consider increasing its contributions now to build up a reserve and maintain a consistent benefit.

Consider a company that currently has to contribute three percent of payroll to pay out distributions, but does a projection that reveals it will have to contribute 15 percent of payroll during an upcoming retirement bubble. If the annual contribution is increased now, a cushion will be created that can reduce the potential 15 percent bubble-level contribution to a more affordable level.

Finally, as the non-employer stock assets accumulate, companies should review how these assets should be invested.


Trevor S. Bare, FSA, is a consulting actuary for Conrad Siegel Actuaries. He specializes in retirement plan consulting and administrative services for defined contribution and defined benefit plans, such as 401(k), Profit Sharing, Cash Balance, and Employee Stock Ownership Plans. He also specializes in nondiscrimination testing and tax shelter plan designs.

September Success

Something impressive happens in the month of September: Members of the House of Representatives flock to add their names to the latest pro-ESOP bill.

It happened last year, when 20 House members opted to sponsor HR 2096. And it is happening again this year: In the first 12 days of September this year (an election year, when representatives are most keenly attuned to constituents) already eight House members have decided to sponsor the bill.

What makes September so special?

You do.

Congress typically adjourns in the late summer, and its members head home—where many ESOP companies are waiting to host them on pre-arranged visits. In those visits, members of Congress get to see for themselves what makes ESOP companies unique. They get to see how involved and engaged employee owners are. They get to see the spirit of employee ownership for themselves.

When you host your members of Congress, they remember. For the past four decades, they have been telling us how profoundly those visits affect them.

And then they come back to Congress and sign on to the latest pro-ESOP bill.

They don’t do it because they have been flooded with e-mails, all generated by the same online program. And they don’t do it because a high-powered lobbyist in a finely tailored suit treated them to a fancy steak dinner in a dimly lit power-broker restaurant.

They do it because they have seen that special quality present in you, your employee owners, and your businesses. And—like us—they want to see more of it in America.

The Beat Goes On

Rob Zicaro 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.

What Next?

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?