Employee-Owned Company Profile: Carris Reels

“Employee ownership, philosophically, made a tremendous amount of sense. I felt strongly that the success of the business was a result of the employees, so they ought to get the just rewards of ownership ultimately.” - Bill Carris

Bill Carris

Carris Reels is a company with a long history which has nonetheless retained a forward-looking perspective and is today among the most innovative Vermont firms with regard to employee involvement. This was recently highlighted by its move, in January 2008, to become 100% employee-owned. While this is relatively rare in itself, in Carris' case it is even more unusual given the extra steps they have taken to empower employees, and to share their profitability with both employees and the community.

This Rutland-based company, which makes reels for the wire, rope and cable industries, was founded in 1951 and now has branches in seven other states as well as Mexico. It began moving firmly in this direction with the implementation of its ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) in 1995. Now well over 400 employees are participants in that program.

From the very beginning its approach was different. Bill Carris, son of the founder and owner at that time, went into planning the approach to employee ownership with two key criteria: he wanted to see a structure of one person/one vote on any major shareholder issues, and wanted to build in a perpetual commitment to donate 7.5% of pre-tax profit to a charitable foundation. These principles were set out in Bill's "Long Term Plan" document which laid the framework for the move to employee ownership. Other key points included a recognition of employees as the "soul of the corporate community" and an explicit commitment to participatory management, including information sharing at all levels. Working within these constraints, he established a diversified steering committee of staff and managers with different tenure in the company, and representing each location (it did NOT include him) to work out the details of this major change.

Such moves to empower employees have continued. For example, employee-owners at each location have a large say in how the charitable contributions are dispersed each year. They make extensive use of a steering committee (1/3 senior managers, 1/3 site managers, 1/3 employee representatives to recommend changes to the company's governance structures. Currently the company is exploring further ways to involve employees, including granting them the power to select the majority of Board members as well as ESOP trustees.

Bill Carris' "Long Term Plan" has set in motion a continuing series of innovations at the level of both day-to-day operations and long-term governance.  Carris Reels is, perhaps, a harbinger of the future: an efficient employee-owned manufacturing operation with a highly participatory business culture that is competing successfully in the global economy and is a good citizen in the communities in which it operates.

For more information, visit www.carris.com.