PLYMOUTH, MA — Tricia Mackey and Mark Strangie are locked in lighthearted conversation at Tech-Etch Inc. in Plymouth. When they finally part, the flexible circuit technician says, half-jokingly, to the vice president of sales and marketing, "OK. Get back to work!"
While said in jest, there is a ring of reality to her retort: Mackey is one of the owners of Tech-Etch, a high-technology manufacturing company that supplies precision-engineered parts to the medical device, aerospace and instrumentation industries. But she's not the only one with a stake in the businesses — each one of its 500 employees has his or her own piece.
"Our shareholders are our employees," President and CEO Richard Cammarano said. "It definitely raises the stakes. As a manager, you have to be aware that not only are you dealing with an employee, but an owner too."
Tech-Etch is one of the largest chemical-etching companies in the world, and Plymouth's second largest private employer, behind Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth. It is one of a growing number of employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) businesses in the country that are owned – lock, stock and barrel – by the people who do the work.
"When we got a new CEO, a group of us got to interview the candidates," etch supervisor Derek Fox said. "We had a say in who was going to run the company. That was big deal."
According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, 14 million Americans work at 6,500 employee-owned companies around the country. Among the more well-known businesses are supermarket chain Publix, publisher W.W. Norton & Co., natural-grain producer Bob's Red Mill, King Arthur Flour and Raycom Media.
Tech-Etch opted to become an ESOP in 1999. Founder George Keeler wanted to reward his employees for their efforts by giving them a share of the business. Initially, he made a percentage of the company available through the program, but after Keeler retired as CEO in 2016, a stock transfer made Tech-Etch 100-percent employee owned in 2018.
Through an ESOP, workers get stock in the company, which accrues over time in relation to profits. It's essentially a retirement plan, similar in focus to a 401k or other investment account that provides income down the road. When an employee retires or leaves the firm, they get a payout.
And it's good for the company, too. ESOP companies tend to be more productive and employees are highly motivated, CEOs say., because workers are more invested in the firm's success when they have a stake in the game.
"We believe in ownership throughout the company," Strangie says. "Employees are empowered to reduce costs, improve processes and make other changes that benefit the company. We are proud of our frontline people, who have the responsibility to help us become more profitable and efficient."
Headquartered in a sprawling 150,000-square-foot facility in Plymouth Industrial Park, Tech-Etch has doubled its space over the last 20 years. The company, which serves a worldwide customer base, also has manufacturing facilities in Fall River and Litchfield, Minnesota. What started as a small plate-engraving company now provides services that include metal stamping, tool-and-die making, production heat treating, flexible-circuit design and production, welding and soldering, metal finishing, plating and laser cutting.
Employees produce thousands of different items through sophisticated processes, including tiny, yet integral, parts that fit into important medical equipment designed to improve and extend the human condition.
"We don't really make products," Cammarano says. "We make parts that are integrated into systems that save lives and continue lives."