Release Date: 
10/11/17

Lisa Gibson-Nicholson is a single mom who had worked a couple of different jobs before coming to Once Again Nut Butter.

In 12 years at the Nunda company, Gibson-Nicholson has been able to put her kids through college – and consider getting a degree herself – and has been to Nicaragua on company trips where she has met the farmers who provide the peanuts for her company.

The experiences, she said, have been life changing.

"All my dreams and hopes that I had started with and never thought I'd have, have come true here," Gibson-Nicholson said during a recent roundtable with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Gillibrand stopped at Once Again Nut Butter, a maker of nut butters, honey and other natural products, to gather feedback from employees enrolled in the company's Employee Stock Ownership Plan as she drafts legislation to encourage more ESOP programs around the country.

The story of Once Again, which is 100 percent owned by its workers through the ESOP "could help push forward that legislation," she said.

Gillibrand and three other senators introduced two bills this spring. The WORK Act would provide more than $45 million in funding to states to establish and expand employee ownership centers, which provide training and technical support for programs promoting employee ownership. A second bill would create a U.S. Employee Ownership Bank to provide $500 million in low-interest rate loans and other financial assistance to help workers purchase businesses through an employee stock ownership plan or a worker-owned cooperative.

Studies have shown that employee-owned companies have more productive workers, better working conditions and greater shareholder returns.

"I want to impress that a company where it values its employees and invests in its employees can be more successful and accomplished," Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand said she hopes to introduce several pieces of legislation by the end of the year that offer incentives for employee-ownership and profit-sharing, among other models. The legislation would offer enhanced benefits for companies that introduce these models, she said.

The success of Once Again's ESOP could have a significant role in shaping the senator's legislation. In the past 7-1/2 years, Once Again has grown from 20 employees and $14.5 million in revenue to more than 70 employees and more than $50 million in sales, said Gael Orr, sales coordinator for Once Again.

ESOP is by far the most common form of employee ownership in the United States. Almost unknown until 1974, ESOPs are widespread with roughly 7,000 ESOPs covering about 14 million employees, according to the National Center for Employee Ownership.

A 2000 Rutgers study found that ESOP companies grew 2.3 percent to 2.4 percent faster after setting up their ESOP than would have been expected without it. Companies that combine employee ownership with employee workplace participation programs show even more substantial gains in performance.

Once Again Nut Butter, founded in 1976 as a worker cooperative by Jeremy Thaler and Constance Potter, became an ESOP in 1998 and in 2006 was 100 percent employee owned. The biggest difference between a worker co-op and an ESOP is the valuation of company stock.

(The name 'Once Again' was an acknowledgment by Thaler and Potter that they had started another employee-owned company, Orr said.)

The company's founders wanted to bring good paying jobs to rural America, Orr said, and a sense of community was important to them.

"They sought to create that same importance within the employees," said Orr.

Once Again is an ESOP, but it is democratically governed as a worker-owned cooperative, with some employees also serving on the company's board of directors. All of the employees are part owners and everyone on staff is encouraged to attend every company meeting, which allows them to have a voice in how the company is managed. Everything from company policies to operation issues to financial strategies may be discussed at the meetings.

Once Again also uses a compensation ratio, ensuring all staff members are rewarded fairly. The highest-paid manager at Once Again makes no more than four times the lowest-paid employees, said Larry Filipski, the company's chief financial officer.

The managers' salary affords them a nice living, Filipski said, but is not like the multi-millions in compensation of much larger companies.

"When the owner doesn't make significantly more than a counter person, you can make a livable wage even if in a low-skilled job," Filipski said.

Gillibrand used her visit to learn what works for Once Again, what employees liked about the company and gather stories to take back to Washington.

About a half-dozen employees shared their stories.

Roy Graham, who also serves on the company's board of directors, had left the area for school only to return. He has served two terms on the board.

"I can't see me not working anywhere else," Graham said. "I wouldn't have these opportunities at a Fortune 500 company."

Linda Zangerle had worked for Champion for 21 years and went back to school after the plant closed in Perry. She has been at Once Again since 2000.

"The opportunities here are great because employees get to be involved," said Zangerle, a corporate secretary and trustee.

Zangerle is retiring later this year. "I probably wouldn't be able to retire if not for an ESOP," she said.

Kim Moriarity, an accounts payable specialist and trustee, has been with Once Again since 2011.

"Before coming here, I would never have thought my future career would be here in a small town," she said.

Colin Wilcox, a quality assurance technician, said Once Again is one of the most generous company's that he has worked for.

"I find the structure very beneficial for everyone," said Wilcox, who began with a production job in 2015. "You feel valued right away."

Gillibrand said she will use the employees' stories "to convince my colleagues why these are good pieces of legislation."

"There really are good stories here," she said. "All of these employees feel satisfied, that they have value and want to invest in their company."

 

As seen in the Livingston County News.