John Abrams  @  ChelseaGreen

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Sharing Ownership of the Future

Posted on Tuesday, November 18th, 2008 at 10:21 am by John Abrams

Blogging is new for me. In fact, this is my first time out.

In the months ahead I plan to write here about the topics and issues tackled in my book, Companies We Keep (recently released by Chelsea Green), particularly the promise of employee ownership and the importance of conducting business with community, people, and planet as our top priorities.  I hope a lively conversation will develop.

As the warm glow of a thrilling election begins to fade into the stark reality of the hard work ahead, my pathological optimism remains. Certainly Obama's election says something encouraging, even exhilarating, about the current state of mind of the American people.  It reminds us who we always thought we were, and perhaps it can return us to the principled terrain of our revolutionary roots.

We are in the midst of a cascade of spectacular events.  Several years ago, Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth.  About the same time, Tom Friedman, NYT columnist and best-selling foreign affairs author, saw the green light and began to write about climate change and energy extensively, culminating with the release of his recent book Hot, Flat, and Crowded:  Why We Need a Green Revolution - and How It can renew America.  He says it will be the greatest innovation project in American history.  Venture capital has shifted its focus from software and internet to green tech.  Oil prices shot up this last year. Climate change and energy suddenly became a high level presidential campaign issue.  Never before. After we allowed a childish financial elite to run the global economy with little adult supervision, and run amuck, Wall Street was finally unmasked, its pyramid schemes revealed, and it crumbled. With that, the impossible global economy became wobbly.  We are at a convergence of staggering proportion.  None of this came without warning.  None of this came without predictions.  A few intrepid economists, and others, have insistently pounded this drum. But nobody, as far as I know, expected it to happen so soon.

We are seeing all the bad things we thought would happen. Our country is experiencing more mood swings than a teenager.  But it's all a prelude, a prelude to the good things we know must come next.

What does happen next, after we switch off the alarm clock that is insistently telling us, loud and clear, that the first industrial age is over and done?

Maybe, just maybe, the next thing - the thing that will begin to dig us out of the rut we're in -  is the beginning of the re-industrialization of America, but of a fundamentally different sort.  The first industrial age caused our carbon footprint to cover the planet; the next will be designed to reduce it to a fraction of what it is today.  Maybe it's time, when the big three U.S. auto companies clamor for bail-out funds and say that they will only sell 12 million vehicles this year instead of 16 million, for us to say, "We don't need what you have been selling.  There are other things that we do need, and you know how to make things.  Yes, we will help, if you start making plug-in hybrids and wind turbines instead of Escalades and Suburbans."

Van Jones, in his important new book, The Green Collar Economy, says, "We cannot drill and burn our way out of our present economic and energy problems. We can, however, invent and invest our way out. . . There is a better future out there."

I am hopeful about this, but there is something I am worried about, and it has to do with me.

Each time I learn more about the exploding economies of China and India and the resources they may consume to emulate the American Way, I wonder why I don't devote the rest of my life-every waking hour-to working on climate change.

I worry, too, that I don't change the way I live more significantly. Change is hard. I loved my old Toyota Land Cruiser and drove it a quarter million miles. But after 9/11 when those bumper stickers with a picture of Osama bin Laden said, thank you for driving your suv, I felt I just had to switch. So I bought a hybrid. Now I only support terrorism when I'm going uphill.

Yes, change is hard, and unsettling. While writing my book I came into contact with remarkable companies making exciting transitions in these pivotal times.

Not long ago I was in Maine, visiting a company called Johnny's Selected Seeds, which is currently in the midst of an employee ownership transition.  The CEO, Mike Comer, was taking me for a tour of the company, showing me all the things that they are changing as they become, more and more, a true twenty first century company.  I asked him how the employees react to all the change.  "Oh," he said, "there's a broad spectrum of reaction to change.  It goes from being against it, to really against it, to really really against it."  That's the way we humans are.

But change is coming, whether we're against it or not.  And now is a time when we must insist on the future we want and need; either that, or we will find that a different future happens to us against our will.

None of us can do it all, but each of us can do something. And maybe it's more than we think. At South Mountain Company, the design/build company I founded in 1975 that is now owned and operated by its employees, one of our goals is to make all operations carbon-neutral in ten years. We have not yet fully defined what that means-for us-but we are moving toward the goal nonetheless. We heat our building with biodiesel that we make ourselves. We generate a large fraction of our electricity with a 10 kilowatt wind turbine and a 6 kilowatt solar electric. In our work, we are moving closer to net-zero-energy houses, and even our subsidized affordable housing is built to a standard that will allow it to be "forever affordable."

So what? How does our little drop in the bucket matter?  It may be just a drop in the bucket, but rivers are nothing more than accumulations of drops. Each drop has an impact.

At its core, climate change is not a technical problem. It's about how we live, what we value, and how we organize our economy to serve our lifestyles and values. To change our relationship to the Earth we must change our relationships to one another. We need to change our definition of success, so that it's less about doing and making as much as we can as fast as we can and more about satisfying human needs as elegantly and effectively as we can. We need to think about enough rather than more. We need to consider new forms of governance and business.

In 1987 I re-structured my company from a sole proprietorship under my ownership to an employee owned co-operative corporation.  It was a dramatic hinge point in the history of the company.  Ownership became available to all employees, enabling people to own and guide their workplace.  The responsibility, the power, and the profits all belong to the group of owners.  There are no outside investors and no non-employee owners. We decide what kind of business ours will be. The decisions are partly economic and partly philosophical.

At the time of the re-structuring the full implications of what I was doing were not apparent to me. I was frightened but energized; I did not know where this path would lead. Tremendous rewards and benefits derived from that decision, for me and for the company. I have the best job I can imagine, due largely to the colleagues who share ownership with me.  I still get to own it (partly), I still get to run it (partly), and yet I am freed from full responsibility (partly).  Two decades later I am fully convinced that the conversion to employee ownership has been a critical factor in the long-term success of our company.

Employee ownership is emerging from beneath the radar. There is an awakening interest in the potential of broadly shared ownership of enterprise. The idea is beginning to surface all over the world in companies small and large.  Today over 11,000 companies nationally, with 8.5 million employees, have some form of employee ownership.  In fact, today more Americans work in firms partly or wholly owned by employees than are members of unions in the private sector. Most of these do not share our co-operative model, and most do not distribute power as much as they do money, but all indicate that we may be learning something.

At South Mountain our cooperative ownership structure assigns the wealth we make to those who make it. Our democratic system of decision making offers everyone a voice. Our collaborative culture promotes a healthy, meaningful workplace.

I am finding that- since the publication of this book -there is a thirst for hopeful stories that bring out the best in all of us, and a concurrent awakening of interest in the potential of broadly shared ownership. This idea-which still mostly flies beneath the radar-is beginning to surface all over the world, in companies small and large. If a lack of believable models is part of what inhibits change, perhaps the story of South Mountain, and democratic, community-based companies like it, can provide inspiration for those looking for a more attractive approach to business success. I would like to think that our story, and those of others who share this journey, can help us as we try to assemble the components of a restorative future.

All of us will need to own the endeavor. A central requirement for the journey may be the ability to own our workplaces and share responsibility for the outcomes, both good and bad.

That is what my book is about. It's about the recognition that when the people who are making the decisions bear the responsibility for the consequences of those decisions, and also share in the rewards that accrue, better decisions will result. It's about building community within the workplace and connections to the communities where we work and live.

The context is important. My fellow baby boomers own several million businesses, and during the next two decades most of these founders will exit. The businesses will either be shut down, or sold to outsiders, or  passed on. Selling to employees is an option that deserves to be more widely understood, for it offers powerful benefits to all parties. There is a need for more information as employee ownership becomes an important entity of choice, not only for aging boomers but for the millions of young people intent on finding real meaning in their work.  Employee ownership is one way to open that door. There is new knowledge and there are new practices that make employee ownership more widely applicable.

At the same time, many of the young people I speak to are dead-set on finding real meaning in their work.  Employee ownership is one way to open that door.

Curbing corporate abuse, reining in the global corporate juggernaut, and mobilizing to grapple with climate change are largely dependent on political change.  As we celebrate Obama's victory, it will become even more important for us to speak out, and to be clear about the change we believe in.  But politics remains a crapshoot, and the dice may not fall the way we wish.  Each of us can have only a minor impact on the political process. Meanwhile, however, our democracy offers other choices. While we work toward political solutions, we have the liberty to invent the corporation of the future right now. We can make whatever kinds of companies we want.

Nothing stands in our way.  There's an old Chinese saying that "Man stands for long time with mouth open before roast duck flies in."  It's the truth, huh?  Now is our time.

This is all about sharing ownership of the future. It's about thinking differently, acting differently, dreaming differently, and encouraging one another along the way.

There it is, my first blog entry.  Longer than I meant it to be, but hey - it's the first one.  Forgive me my rambling ways; I'll try to be more circumspect in the future.   I hope we can begin an exchange that can help us to learn to work together in healthier, more productive ways.  If so, I'll be glad, and I welcome the chance to communicate with others who are thinking about employee ownership, social enterprise, and cooperative, community based business.  I know you're out there, so let me know what you're up to.

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