New film draws sketches of employee ownership

In We the Owners, craft beer, solar, and construction companies show the benefits and challenges of ownership culture

October 4, 2013

Wade Anderson installs solar panels. Wade Anderson also owns part of Namasté Solar, the Boulder, Colo.-based company he works for.

“Someone like myself would be considered a grunt, you know?” Anderson says in We the Owners, a new documentary film examining three employee-owned companies. “We’re really labor, but I feel a lot more valued having the input in company meetings. And there’s just a greater level of respect.”

At Namasté, 46 of the company’s 100 employees are co-owners. Another 11 are in a one-year candidate period, a feeling-out of sorts for both employee and company. When employees do buy in, they are entering a one employee, one vote situation. And they must pay for stock. It is not gifted.

We the Owners was produced by the Foundation for Enterprise Development, a nonprofit led by MIT Sloan alumna Mary Ann Beyster, SM ’90, promoting entrepreneurship, employee ownership, and employee empowerment.

The film also examines the “coworkers” culture at 435-employee New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colo. and the 2,729-employee DPR Construction, which has 17 offices nationwide but is based in Redwood City, Calif.

Each of the three companies uses a unique employee ownership structure: at Namasté, employees own shares in the company and vote in a worker cooperative; at New Belgium, coworkers participate in an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP; and at DPR, a phantom stock program augments a culture of financial transparency and employee empowerment.

“These forms of shared ownership can result in high performance, but they are not well known, or sometimes misunderstood,” Beyster said. “They’re not mainstream, yet they’ve been around for a long time. What we’re trying to do with the film is to bring this back up to ‘This is a reasonable way, an exciting way to run organizations.’ But because a lot of these companies are privately-held, you don’t hear a lot about them.”

In the film, each of the three companies confronts its own challenge: expansion, succession, and recruitment. In a sense, they are pioneers, figuring it out as they go along. Beyster said audiences in the entrepreneurial and business education worlds across the U.S. and in dozens of other countries are showing interest in these alternatives.

“The feedback has been great,” she said. “We’ve gotten comments from companies that said they want to have more of a broad-based ownership and more of a participative culture and this gave them the mark to do it.” The film is also playing well at festivals and screenings in England, Scotland, and in Eastern Europe.

“Ultimately, they’re having discussions about what kind of capitalism they want,” Beyster said of the latter.

We the Owners is also shown in classrooms, including at MIT Sloan where professors Thomas Kochan and John Sterman have presented the film to students. At the Foundation for Enterprise Development, it is part of a curriculum library that offers more than 600 materials, such as case studies and management simulators, aimed at encouraging entrepreneurs, business owners, and founders to think broadly about the role of employees.

“One of the goals of the film is to educate students and those thinking of starting their own business or transferring ownership of their existing business, on a different business model—one that is based on empowerment,” Beyster said. “As Miller, an employee-owner at New Belgium Brewery says in the film, ‘I treat my job like it’s my own business.’ There is incredible power in that.”