August 31, 2023

Reflections on the 2023 National Employee-Owner Summit

Marketing Manager

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the first day of the 2023 National Employee-Owner Summit in Downers Grove, Illinois. The two-day event, which is a collaboration between the NCEO and the OEOC (Ohio Employee Ownership Center), is moderated by the OEOC and offers non-managerial employee-owners the opportunity to learn from and interact with their peers from other ESOP companies through informational sessions, structured exercises, small group discussions, and even games.

As an NCEO staff member, I have come to view EO community events through the lens of the NCEO mission: to help employee ownership thrive. What are champion ESOP companies currently doing to thrive in this space? What is actively preventing adolescent ESOP companies from thriving? How can I keep members informed of the trends that I identify?

After listening to the Summit’s informational sessions, which were peppered with attendee questions about how to keep young talent at the company when they don’t immediately recognize the benefits of an ESOP, I first realized that recruitment and retention is still (and will continue to be) a hot-button issue in our community. There were representatives from several adolescent ESOP companies in attendance, and they stood united not only in their status as employee-owners and communications committee members, but also in their shared frustration at the occasional complexities of ESOPs, the seemingly apathetic mindset of the current workforce, and the bittersweet truth that employee ownership represents delayed, rather than instant, gratification. How could they even begin to attract and retain talent when they are still grappling with questions themselves? How could they even begin to communicate the long-term financial impact of ESOPs as fifty-somethings when their audience of twenty-somethings does not even have the word “retirement” in their vocabulary?

Though connected at first through their frustrations, the attendees’ discussions soon gave way to enthusiastic idea-sharing about culture-building and Employee Ownership Month celebrations. One company, Intrust IT, hosts yearly shirt design contests—the design with the most company votes wins, and the winning shirt is put into production for the entire company and is presented to the CEO as a surprise gift. Another company, Scot Forge, opens up what they have dubbed the “Scotsman’s Closet” during EO Month, allowing employee-owners to both purchase and win plaid spirit wear. As I watched more hands raise to share company traditions and faces light up with inspiration and excitement, I recognized firsthand the power of community (especially in an ESOP company).

For those ESOP companies that were too young to have EO Month traditions or even company-wide activities yet, I could sense that their communications committee members were disheartened at the blank slate ahead of them and wistful about the enjoyment being had at champion ESOP companies. How could their company become an Intrust IT or a Scot Forge? Rather than offer a silver-bullet solution to this problem (which likely doesn’t exist), I want to instead encourage employee-owners at young ESOP companies to give themselves grace. A building isn’t erected overnight, nor is it constructed by one person alone—it takes ample time and a solid team to build an ESOP that reaches to new heights.

If you’re an NCEO member looking to boost your communications with simple resources that you can plug into your current plans, check out The Download, our monthly resource available in both English and Spanish.
If you’re interested in gathering together with the employee ownership community to connect, engage, and inspire, register for the NCEO Fall Forum, happening at the end of September.