“Growing numbers of US companies are giving workers financial stakes via employee stock ownership plans,” writes Judy Stringer in Cleveland Crain’s Business. Now Great Lakes Brewing Company is poised to join their ranks. Bolstr, a small business crowdfunding site, listed Great Lakes as the number-one craft brewery in Ohio in a 2015 article and described the brewpub as follows:
Great Lakes Brewing Company is the elder statesman of the Ohio brewing community. The brewery opened its doors in 1988 and is the largest of all Ohio breweries. Known for being environmentally friendly and socially responsible, Great Lakes has helped Cleveland draw in new consumers and businesses to the Ohio City neighborhood, which houses the brewery and brewpub. Great Lakes puts a strong emphasis on sustainability, with three main initiatives focused on water stewardship, local foods and farming and waste opportunities.
In short, the fact that the 245-employee company is transitioning to employee ownership attracts notice in Cleveland. According to Great Lakes CEO Bill Boor, by the end of 2019, writes Stringer, “each and every one the 245 employees—regardless of hours worked, wages earned or years of seniority—will get a stake in the Ohio City brewery.”
“This is something the owners Pat and Dan Conway have been contemplating for literally 10 years,” observes Boor. “Now was the right time with the convergence of the anniversary and a lot of thought over time about how they should really share ownership with the employees who they have always cared so much about.”
As Stringer notes, Great Lakes is “part of a gradual, but steady, rise in the number of US companies that provide their workforce with an ownership interest through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan or ESOP, often at no upfront cost to the employees. Between 2010 and 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, an average of 229 new ESOPs were created each year, according to the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO). As of 2015, there were 6,669 ESOPs in the U.S., holding total assets of nearly $1.3 trillion.”
Stringer adds that a full 32 percent of those companies are located in the Midwest. Ohio has 290 of these. Roy Messing, director of the Ohio Employee Ownership Center at Kent State University—a place that has provided technical assistance for conversions to employee ownership since its founding in 1987, notes that other conversions in Ohio to employee ownership over the past two years include grocer Buehler Fresh Foods; outdoor product distributor Outtech Inc. in Aurora; Fin Feather Fur, based in Ashland; and the Woodmere consulting firm MarshBerry.
A more venerable employee-owned firm in Ohio is Davey Tree, which is the largest Ohio-based employee-owned company and the 13th largest company nationwide on the NCEO’s ESOP ranking. The firm, which became employee-owned in 1979, has an estimated 9,000 employee-owners.
Messing says interest in employee ownership is rising. “General inquiries into ESOPs received by the OEOC have increased by at least 25 percent over the past few years,” Messing observes.