This year’s Vermont Employee Ownership Conference was the most well attended to date, with approximately 180 people gathered to learn, teach, network, and reconnect! Representatives from a wide range of businesses attended, along with experts, organizers and consultants from across the Northeast.
This year’s conference opened with a keynote by Cindy Turcot, Chair of the ESOP Association and COO of Gardener’s Supply Company. Cindy set the stage by discussing how employee ownership continues to grow in Vermont and across the country, and what the next steps are for the movement to build on the progress of the past few years.
In the first session of workshops, participants got an introduction to the focal points of the conference. Among other workshops, there was an introduction to worker co-ops and ESOPs for newcomers, and a talk on open book management. Attendees heard advice from the owners of ESOP companies and cooperatives along with experts and consultants. The speakers shared practical advice, accented by a Vermont sensibility. “Establishing a worker co-op in Vermont is like planting seeds in a manure pile---it’s gonna grow like mad,” said Ian Stewart, an owner of Vermont Computing Cooperative. Stewart also noted the importance of a careful transition that takes time. “When they told us that the transition would take six months, I didn’t believe them,” he said. “But that’s what happened. It was definitely for the best. Don’t forget that these things take time to get right.”
The second session of workshops honed in on more specific issues, such as leadership development, creating a participatory work culture, and in-depth examples of Vermont companies transitioning to ESOP or worker cooperative ownership structures. Heritage Aviation President Dave Stiller described his company’s reasons for making the transition. “We have a stake in this community and wanted to make sure that the company’s jobs stayed in Vermont. It’s also practical.The owner simply knew that the employees would run the business better than an outside company.”
During lunch, attendees had a chance to network and share their experiences with employee ownership, before heading off to the final round of workshops where more topics were tackled, ranging from HR regulations in co-ops to ESOP governance techniques. In the Best H.R. Practices workshop, the speakers presented a wide variety of ways that co-ops across the nation handle personnel, and fielded questions from an audience of co-op owners. “You can’t ignore H.R. just because your employees are owners,” said Heather Wright, an attorney at WrightJones PLC, an employment law firm which specializes in cooperatives, “it’s tricky because the laws aren’t designed for your companies yet you still have to work within them, but I’ve seen many people do it successfully… ultimately, it comes down to making sure your employees have the rights they deserve.”
The conference closed with a plenary on innovation in employee owned companies moderated by Alex Moss of Praxis Consulting Group, which examined the ways in which different employee-owned companies leverage worker buy-in to drive innovation. Attendees then retired to Champlain College’s new terrage for an ice cream social.
For those who missed the conference, several sessions were video-recorded, and will be made available via the VEOC’s Youtube Channel. Additionally, the slide from a number of the presentations are available for download via this link. Planning is now underway for our 15th annual conference in 2017, so stay tuned for the date and other details!