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Earlier this year I wrote about an organization called Certified Employee-Owned (Or Certified EO) whose goal was to help raise the profile of employee-owned companies with both consumers and prospective employees.

On September 5, 2017, Certified EO officially launched with the help of a couple dozen pioneering member companies that included Modern Times Beer in San Diego; media agency Butler/Till in Rochester, NY; and PFSBrands – who I have written about before on this blog. By joining forces with Certified EO, these firms hope to better leverage the promise of working for and buying from employee-owned companies. Research conducted by Thomas Dudley, one of the founders of Certified EO, found that consumers are willing to buy more – and even pay more – for products and services offered by employee-owned businesses.

Leveraging that kind of brand association would seem to be a big recruiting tool for Certified EO. And yet, at least several of its early members see the Certified EO label as something that can help sell their internal customers even more than their external ones. In other words, it's something they believe can help build employee-owner driven cultures.

"This was definitely an unexpected benefit we weren't thinking about when we started the program," says Dudley, who wrote a piece about how becoming certified can help build an ownership culture. "But it has turned out to be one of the most attractive benefits for many of our members. Stepping back it makes a lot of sense. Our mission is to build an identity for employee ownership and the only way to truly learn what it means to be an employee-owner is to be one! So helping companies build this identity among their employee-owners is highly aligned with our goal as a social enterprise."

A great example of a company drawn to Certified EO for these reasons is Ollis/Akers/Arney, an insurance and business advisory firm with offices in Springfield and Branson, MO.

While the firm was originally founded all the way back in 1885, its owners first put in an ESOP in 1982 before becoming a 100% employee-owned company in 2006 (Richard Ollis, the company's CEO, is a fourth generation descendant of the company's founders).

But even with a long track record of employee-ownership, the firm was looking to find a way to better connect its employees to the fact that they were truly owners of the company, rather than just participants in an ESOP retirement plan. That challenge was magnified in 2015 when the company acquired another firm, which boosted the employee count from 35 to about 50.

"We needed to find a way to change the mindset of our new employee owners to get them more engaged in helping move the company forward and perform better financially," says Richard Russell, the company's president and general counsel who joined the firm in 2014.

Russell has worked closely with Dudley at Certified EO to develop better ways to connect the company's employees with their shared mission, vision, and focus areas as a way to strengthen and celebrate their employee-owned culture. "We love the idea of joining a community of companies across all industries that shares best practices so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel," says Russell. For example, Ollis/Akers/Arney holds quarterly meetings to celebrate their new business wins over the past quarter, recognize the professional achievements of their employee-owners, share the kinds of professional development and training opportunities they capitalized on, and update the team on the company's financials and how it's tracking toward its big picture goals.

Another example of a change Russell has helped implement at his firm is how they have renamed their annual ESOP meeting, where employees would receive their statements letting them know the value of their shares, into what they call their "annual employee owner meeting. " They held their first revamped meeting this past July offsite at a local movie theater. Rather than simply handing out the annual statements like they had in the past, firm leaders recounted the history of employee ownership at the firm and their personal "why" for doing what they do. They also discuss where they are headed in the year to come as well as the key valuation metrics that drive the determination of the company stock price. It was only after all of that that they learned how their shares in the company had grown.

"We had folks who have worked here for 12 years telling us that this was the most engaging employee meeting they had ever been to and that they were truly excited about their opportunities with the company going forward," says Russell. "We think it comes down to challenging your people and letting them know they are owners in the business and we need everyone to come together if we want to be successful."


As seen in Forbes, by Darren Dahl.

Russell thinks the next 12 to18 months will result in many changes to the culture inside his firm; we'll check back in on him and his team in the near future to find out how thing are progressing.