The thought of sharing the company you built with your employees might sound absurd to some entrepreneurs. But the owners of New Belgium Brewing, Namasté Solar, and DPR Construction wouldn't have it any other way.
These Colorado entrepreneurs are the stars of We the Owners: Employees Expanding the American Dream, a documentary directed by David Romero and released by Passage Productions that explores the risks and rewards that come with giving employees a piece of your business. The companies' equity-holders are known as "employee owners," meaning they have as much of a say in the business as the entrepreneurs who created it.
The documentary opens with Michael Miller, a beer delivery man who's been with Fort Collins, Colorado-based New Belgium for a handful of years. Upbeat and "in love" with his six-year-old daughter, he's meant to embody the typical employee owner and takes pride in working for the third-largest craft brewer in the country. He and his colleagues together own 41 percent of the company, and the percentage of their stake should increase over time.
Ray Tuomey, the cofounder of Namasté Solar, a Boulder company that designs and installs solar electric systems for homes, nonprofits, and government agencies, also likes the idea of employee ownership. "It's important to us that people pay for their stock," he says, because "we're trying to share the entire entrepreneur experience."
So what is that experience, exactly? The film does it best to convey this with shots of staffwide meetings, after-hours gatherings, and the occasional snippet of conversation among founders. But in many ways, it falls short of its mission to explain why employee owners--who numbered 11 million in the U.S. in 2012, according to the most recent survey by The National Center for Employee Ownership--are so integral to company culture.
For their part, the featured founders and employees provide plenty of sound bites extolling the virtues of employee ownership. Carlos Crabtree, a product engineer who rose through the ranks at DPR Construction, believes "we get more inspired results because [our employees] have a vested interest in the company." Wade Andrews, an installer with Namaste Solar, says "someone like me would be considered a grunt, but I feel a lot more valued having company input in meetings." Meanwhile, Marie Kirkpatrick, an employee with New Belgium, says she was drawn to the brewer because "I felt like I wouldn't be so much of a number" by having a stake in it.
But beyond these companies' open-book management policies, which put their spending decisions on display for all employees to see, it's hard to grasp how this setup would impact most people's day-to-day jobs. One forklift operator at New Belgium says understanding the math behind his company's balance sheet helped him better understand the paperwork needed to buy a house, but there are few other concrete examples.
It is clear, however, that employee ownership is the way of the future for many small businesses. They tend to experience lower rates of turnover and the employees do feel they have a vested interest in doing what's right for the company since, after all, they've had a hand in funding it by buying shares.
The film offers an interesting glimpse of small business life in Colorado (a.k.a. "startup country"), and those who are shaping its future. But halfway into the one-hour film, viewers will probably yearn to delve deeper into the issues these employee-owned companies face, from succession planning (DPR Construction) to replicating a caring culture (New Belgium Brewery).
More emphasis on the risks and downsides of employee ownership would have done this film--and entrepreneurs--justice.