Serving Franklin County, WA

Employee ownership succeeds

Who would have thought that a small Oregon natural grain mill owner’s death would make national news or be the subject of a lengthy feature article in the New York Times? However, 94-year-old Bob Moore’s passing in February did.

The Times is published just off Broadway in the heart of Big Apple’s network television and theater district. Moore, with his white beard, wire-rim eyeglasses, newsie cap and bolo tie became a “food poster person” approaching the notoriety of KFC’s Colonel Sanders and actor spaghetti sauce and frozen pizza king, Paul Newman.

New York Times reports: “Mr. Moore was an unlikely style icon whose folksiness seemed to personify the wholesome artisanal grains produced at the company’s old mill in Milwaukie, Ore.”

Moore hopped on the natural food wagon, and with his wife, Charlee, founded Bob’s Red Mill in 1978. It grew into an international brand featuring 200 organic products marketed in 70 nations. Forbes pegged Moore’s worth to be more than $100 million in 2019.

“The first whole grain loaf of bread that came out of my wife Charlee’s oven on our 5-acre farm back in the ‘60s was the most delicious loaf of bread I can ever remember smelling and eating,” Moore wrote on the company’s website. She learned to bake whole wheat bread and put the family on a diet of natural whole grain foods.

Along with high quality products, there is another reason for Bob’s Red Mill’s success. Moore’s passing called attention to his actions that preserved the company and its values.

Moore believed the company would be best served by creating an Employee Stock Ownership Plan thus, making its 700 employee’s owners He believed ESOPs not only attract better workers but also secured their financial well-being, fostered employment stability, and created loyalty among employees.

It keeps our focus on the customers and product quality, he said.

National Center for Employee Ownership reports that America’s largest 100 employee-owned companies employ more than 685,000 people who share company ownership. Its 2020 study revealed that ESOPs were 3-4 times more likely to retain staff at all levels during the shift to remote work because they have a direct stake in the company’s success.

U.S. Department of Labor data in 2021 included 6,533 employee stock ownership plan filing, covering 14.7 million participants, They over $2.1 trillion in total assets. In Washington state, there are 93 employing 24,000 people.

One of the most successful ESOP is Schweitzer Engineering Labs, Inc., headquartered in Pullman and founded by Edmund Schweitzer in 1984. Schweitzer earned his electrical engineering doctorate from Washington State University.

SEL specializes in creating digital products and systems that protect, control, and automate power systems around the world. A 100% employee-owned company, SEL has manufactured products in the United States since 1984 and became fully employee owned in 1994. It has grown from Schweitzer’s garage to factories employing 6,500 people.

Top-ranked Schweitzer believes SEL’s shared ownership is a key strategy for sustained growth, stability, and customer focus. Ranked second nationally among employee stock ownership plans is Boise-based WinCo foods, which has grocery stores throughout Washington and other western states.

ESOPs are a way to keep companies privately held rather than selling to a larger corporation. The employees become the owners and their participation tends to be more profitable and grows faster. ESOPs are also better equipped to weather economic reversals and lay off fewer employees.

Bob’s Red Mill’s chances to survive with its unique products, company culture and home-grown workforce were enhanced in 2011 when the company became fully employee owned. That alone is worthy of the spotlights of Broadway.

— Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He can be contacted at [email protected].


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