THE HUB: The co-op concept: employee ownership on the rise

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

PT360, a physical therapy center located on Industrial Avenue in Williston, is a worker cooperative with 12 owners (from left to right): LuAnn Bellis, Erin Miceli, Deborah Harris, Dawn Scribner, Sherry Hance, Mary Steiger, Edie Bernhardt, Maria Thibault, Emelia Brogna, Jessica Hill, Julie Clayton and Joel Desautels. (Courtesy photo)

If you ask an average nine-to-fiver at a privately held company if he cares whether corporate profits increase for the fiscal quarter, he might shrug his shoulders and say something like, “It’s not my money,” or, “Only if they give me a raise.”

While it’s true that some employees need no added incentive to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities, it has also been documented that employees with a vested interest in the success of their companies tend to work harder and stay longer with an organization.

“There is a performance boost that has been pretty well-documented,” said Don Jamison, a program director at the Vermont Employee Ownership Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes and fosters employee-owned businesses.

Jamison said that while the more common form of employee ownership is an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), which allows employees to share in a company’s profits through stock benefits, worker cooperatives have increased in popularity over the past decade.

“The most important thing to people seems to be having a say in the governance, rather than just having a share of the profits,” said Jamison of the latter category.

Although the structure of worker cooperatives can vary greatly, common features include equal ownership shares among members and governance on a one person/one vote basis.

PT360, a physical therapy center located in the White Cap Business Park on Industrial Avenue, formed as a worker co-op in Dec. 2010 with 12 owners.

“Everyone’s an equal owner. Everyone has an equal say, and that’s pretty unique,” said PT360 co-owner Deborah Harris. “That’s why everybody puts in 150 percent, because people want to see the company grow. This is their future.”

Erin Miceli, a 26-year-old physical therapist not too far removed from college, said she jumped at the opportunity to become a business owner at PT360.

“I feel very fortunate at my age to have an opportunity like this come along,” Miceli said. “I’ve loved being a physical therapist from day one, but I love having a say. Being an owner, it’s not your 9 to 5, pack up and leave job.”

Dunbar Oehmig founded the Colchester-based building company Red House Building Inc. as a sole proprietorship. Nine years ago he and four employees restructured the company as a worker co-op. Today there are 14 owners—more than half of the company’s workers.

“The key factor was coming up with a structure that allowed long-term employees to be invested in the company,” Oehmig said.

Oehmig commented that the decision to change the corporate structure of the company was predicated on employee retention.

“Before we restructured, we saw this pattern of people who came in and learned their craft and then moved on,” he said. “(Now) we have almost no turnover.”

The 10th annual Vermont Employee Ownership Conference will be held Friday, June 8 at Champlain College in Burlington. Speakers will include Sen. Bernie Sanders and John Abrams, a pioneer in the employee ownership concept, who converted the Martha’s Vineyard-based architecture firm South Mountain Company to a worker cooperative in 1987.