Newsletter Article
January 2020

Great Ideas from Prior Innovations in Employee Ownership Award Winners

In collaboration with the Beyster Institute at the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego, the NCEO recognizes employee-owned companies for a number of innovative practices that stem from the development of effective ownership cultures and highly engaged workforces of employee-owners.

By sharing these ideas with the employee ownership community, this award strives to encourage employee-owned companies to continue to innovate. Here, we discuss case study examples for past winners of the award and the innovative practices that have helped these companies succeed and earn recognition.

GISinc (2019): Communicating to a Dispersed Workforce

GISinc’s ESOP Communications Committee impressed the NCEO with its innovative approach to communicating the mechanics and important aspects of both the ESOP and ownership culture through creative videos featured on their online portal, “The Owner’s Lounge.” Being a small tech company with employees across almost 40 states, communication is a critical component of success. The ESOP Communications Committee wanted to create a new method for disseminating ESOP knowledge, thus the video blog. As more employee-owners watched the videos and the committee kept coming up with more ideas, an outpouring of GISinc’s employee-owners began reaching out to the committee with ideas of their own and a desire to help create more content.

Cargas Systems (2018): The Employee Ownership Shark Tank

Cargas Systems is a software and consulting company based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with more than 100 employees who specialize in solutions for accounting and operations, sales and marketing, fuel delivery and service, and custom development. Ideas Unlimited is Cargas Systems’ collaborative version of “Shark Tank.” This annual event provides a forum for any team member to deliver a presentation to the executive team about any idea—big, small, or off the wall. A call for ideas goes out before the event, and those wishing to speak submit a topic and brief description. Presentations are scheduled in 20-minute blocks over two or three days, depending on the response. Presenters develop their ideas and create a presentation, which can be given by individuals or groups. There is no limit to the number of presentations an employee or group can submit.

Oliver Winery and Vineyards (2018): The Ownership Field Day

Creating a sense of unity among employees was challenging for Oliver Winery. Wineries have quite a lot of day-to-day operations with a diverse group of employees. With employees working in so many different roles and areas of their business, team-building across departments—so that everyone understands what each area does for the winery—was a big hurdle. In response to the desire to create a bigger sense of unity and community among the various work groups, the Oliver Employee Involvement Committee designed its first annual Oliver Field Day, a one-day event for the whole company to share the “what” and the “why” behind each department. Staff members from nine different departments prepared and delivered 25-minute presentations. All employees traveled on foot around Oliver Winery’s campus—from the vineyard to the administration building. It was the first time ever that some staff members set foot in the service building or marketing office.

Crystal Flash (2017): The Crystal Flash Academy

For many companies with a distributed workforce, communications and engaging employee-owners in the culture, the ESOP, and business literacy can be a serious challenge. Crystal Flash has created a well-rounded, mobile-friendly portal for its employees, many of whom spend their days on the road. The Crystal Flash Academy not only had quizzes and informational material that guided employee-owners through ESOP education, but many of the company’s key personnel included a series of tutorial-like videos covering a range of important company topics.

King Arthur Flour (2017): The Ultimate Employee Survey

King Arthur Flour made a concerted effort in 2016 to empower employees in impressive fashion. The company developed a large employee-driven task force to review employee survey data and conduct a dispersed series of goal-focused interviews with individuals and groups that would lead to a practical improvement effort involving over half of the company’s workforce. This enormous demonstration of company commitment, which has since become formalized, has created a method for employee-owners to track their progress and culture goals, and collectively transform how they operate.

DAI (2017): Bringing in International Employees

For ESOP companies with global employees, creating a structure that enables international participation in ownership can be both a priority and challenge. DAI, a global development company, created a new capital structure to address the obstacle of international employees not being able to participate in the company’s ESOP. This structure has allowed DAI to better align global development strategy and expansion while allowing employees to share more broadly and globally in the long-term success of the company.

Harpoon Brewery (2016): Telling the Story

Harpoon Brewery developed unique training sessions with the popular public radio “The Moth” storytellers to improve the way they communicate the story of their company and its ownership both internally and externally. They also embraced the spirit of ownership by brewing an ESOP-themed beer for Employee Ownership Month named the EHOP and worked in collaboration with another ESOP brewery, Deschutes, to craft a new version in 2015. They have also formalized an ideas system and created an official club to ensure that social events for employees happen regularly.

WATG (2016): The Perpetual Trust

In 2014, WATG became the first U.S. company to create employee ownership through a perpetual trust, an innovative model in the United States that is becoming common in the United Kingdom. Graeme Nuttall, the author of the UK government review of employee ownership, helped WATG set up a UK-based trust. WATG made a gift to the trust, which then bought 60% of the company’s shares. The company’s goal is to have 100% of the shares owned in perpetuity by the trust, the beneficiaries of which are employees, regardless of where in the world they are based.

Omni Resources (2015): The Employee-Led Solutions Group

Recognized in 2015, Omni Resources originally started 35 years ago as an information technology staffing firm and has since changed both its ownership structure and entire way of doing business. In the face of difficulties during the recession and following the transition to 100% employee ownership, the company began to focus on a more sustainable and innovative business model through the development of what the company calls Omnivation.
The Solutions Group behind this process has grown to include more than 50 employees, all working on helping clients innovate their use of technology to better serve their customers. Additionally, Omni Resources strives to provide an example to Wisconsinites by creating a platform for students, teachers, and companies in their communities to engage and learn from one another.

Radian Research, Inc. (2015): Cross-Functional Teams

Radian Research, a 100% employee-owned company based in Lafayette, Indiana, that researches and develops systems for energy testing, was recognized in 2015 for an employee culture that fosters trust and innovation. By emphasizing engagement, employee-owners, irrespective of position, tenure, or department, feel empowered to improve and implement practices that the benefit of the company. The company has an ESOP Ambassador team that consists of both management and non-management employees, as well as five cross-functional groups from multiple departments that discuss and restructure practices, that led to a well of ideas that make Radian Research a leader in its field.

Hypertherm (2014): A Sustainable Transaction

Hypertherm is a 100% associate-owned company based in Hanover, New Hampshire, with more than 1,400 employees. The company designs and manufactures advanced cutting products for use in a variety of industries such as shipbuilding, manufacturing, and automotive repair. In 2014, Hypertherm was recognized for an interesting and uncommon transaction design and ESOP design features in service of reinforcing the sustainability of long-term ownership, the company’s core values, and commitments to its stakeholders.

Steve Silver Company (2014): Training and Education Excellence

The Forney, Texas-based Steve Silver Company, a majority employee-owned wholesale furniture distributor, has two main segments of business: casual dining and occasional furniture. In 2014, the company was recognized for training and education programs that teach employee-owners to think like business owners as well as business planning and management processes that empower them to act like owners. As a result, employee-owners are more focused on the business and its financial performance and have improved it through the implementation of their innovative ideas.

Software Engineering Professionals (2013): The Startup Weekend

Software Engineering Professionals (SEP) is a 100% employee-owned software and technology development company based in Carmel, Indiana. The company provides complete project life-cycle support for industrial strength challenges. In 2013, SEP was recognized for offering an in-company version of the Kauffman Foundation’s Startup Weekend. Occurring twice a year, SEP Startup Weekend allows participants to use SEP’s offices and technology to work on unique and imaginative product ideas. Participants pitch ideas on Friday, spend the weekend in groups developing the ideas, and present them to their colleagues on Sunday evening.

Torch Technologies (2012): Giving Back

Torch Technologies is a 100% employee-owned company based in Huntsville, Alabama, that provides a broad range of aerospace and engineering services including planning, execution, performance analysis, design, and reporting. In 2012, the company was recognized for the creation of an employee-created, employee-managed 501(c)(3) charitable giving foundation called Torch Helps that has 100% financial efficiency by raising funds through payroll deduction. Employees not only organize and run Torch Helps, but they vote each quarter for at least one major grant to be given to a local charity in the cities they operate in. The company has continued to set records each year for charitable giving.