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111: Networking with Other EO Companies

October is Employee Ownership Month and it will be here before we know it. A great way to celebrate is by joining with other EO companies for educational or social programs. Vince Kruse of employee-owned USA Mortgage joins Bret Keisling to describes a great ESOP Lunch and Learn series in St. Louis.


Episode 111 Transcript

Bitsy McCann: Welcome to The EO Podcast where we amplify and celebrate all forms of employee ownership.

Bret Keisling: Hello, my friends. Thank you for listening. My name is Bret Keisling and as it says on my business card, I'm a passionate advocate for employee ownership. As we release this episode on May 12th, 2020 the United States and countries around the world continue to grapple with the unprecedented health and economic crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. No one knows what the economy or business communities are going to look like six months or a year or two from now. With the death toll in the United States that exceeds 80,000 as I'm recording this unemployment is now at a level higher than that of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, the phrase of the day is "the new normal" and we're all interested in seeing how this plays out. I think when the pandemic is finally truly in the rearview mirror, we'll have gone through a series of phases of varying "new normals."

Bret Keisling: Rather than focus on a lot of the challenges we all face, today, I want to look ahead at what's become over the last few years my favorite month of the year. Next October will once again be Employee Ownership Month and I hope we'll all have many stories of employee ownership, resilience and positivity to share with the world. Last December, in Episode 63 of The ESOP Mini-cast, Vince Kruse, an amazing and talented employee owner at USA Mortgage talked about a great program where USA mortgage does ESOP Lunch and Learns with other ESOPs in the St. Louis, Missouri area. This is a wonderful way for employee owned companies, in this case ESOPs to help build enthusiasm and cross industry relationships within the EO sandbox. Many companies look for ways to celebrate employee ownership during October. Imagine the enthusiasm you can create not just at your company, but in your EO community if you arrange joint programming with other ESOPs, co-ops, and collectives. A joint lunch and learn as Vince discusses here is one great idea, but use your imagination and you can come up with any number of programs to share with other EO companies.

Bret Keisling: You can find Episode 63 and our entire archives of podcast and mini-cast episodes at

Bret Keisling: Before I bring in the conversation with Vince, I want to share that I reached out to him this week and I'm happy to report that USA Mortgage is one of those employee owned companies who happens to be doing quite well right now. Although I had expected the mortgage industry to be facing challenges due to economic uncertainty, Vince told me that there are significant number of homeowners who are refinancing their mortgages and closing new mortgages. It turns out that interest rates are extremely low and coupled with the fact that USA Mortgage is a direct lender means that they're able to operate relatively uninterrupted during this time. Now, I don't do endorsements and I don't have any sort of relationship with USA Mortgage, but I've met and chatted with Vince a number of times and I consider him a friend. It seems to me that if someone who supports employee ownership is in need of a mortgage or looking to refinance an existing mortgage, what better way to support employee ownership than considering a mortgage from an ESOP like USA Mortgage. With that, let's go to Vince Kruse and hear a great way to network with other employee owned companies.

Vince Kruse, USA Mortgage

Bret Keisling: Vince Kruse, thanks for coming back to the Mini-cast.

Vince Kruse: Thanks for having me.

Bret Keisling: You are with USA Mortgage, you're based in St. Louis, Missouri and you were kind enough to give us an update about The ESOP Association conference in Las Vegas just a couple of weeks ago on the Mini-cast.

Vince Kruse: Yes sir.

Bret Keisling: So as often happens, Vince, I talk to people on the podcast and we have great conversations and then we stop recording and somebody says something and I'm like: oh no, let's go back and record! And in your case -- and USA Mortgage is doing a lot of very exciting things. You were kind enough to invite me here today and I sat down with your communications committee, which was a lot of fun. You guys are doing a lot of exciting things here, Vince, and after we recorded the last time, as soon as the mikes went off, you said, hey, by the way, I'm doing this lunch and learn -- or USA Mortgage is doing a lunch and learn with other ESOP companies. And I hadn't heard of that before. So Vince, I think it's a great idea. You're interacting with local ESOP companies?

Vince Kruse: Yeah. So the premise just came from kind of coincidentally running into people at some of the national conferences that happened to live and work in our, in my area. And I'm kind of getting to be closer friends with some of their key people within their ESOP committees and kind of creating relationships and kind of friendships with a handful of them. And then we eventually got to the point where I knew enough other people that were, we had a center of mass, if you will, a big enough group to where it made sense that maybe we can all just get together in a kind of a formalized slash informal setting and just talk about whatever ESOP stuff.

Bret Keisling: So you started with a plan to do some ESOP education and you talked about ESOP related topics, but then did it also lead to some unscripted conversations among employee owned companies?

Vince Kruse: Yeah. So we pretty much began with just, I had I think six or ten bullet points of things that I was personally curious about that I wanted to hear some of these other people that I had sat down at conferences with and listened to other people speak about it. And then, after the conference or after the session we kind of exchanged notes. And that always ended up being the more interesting part to me because that was specifically real. Those were people that lived within a zip code or two of me, and I didn't know what an ESOP was much less that there were dozens of ESOP's in my home market. And it is, you know, it's people that I still end up talking to fairly regularly. I actually ended up finding out that I'm related to one of these people just through marriage when my mother-in-law is one of these people.

Bret Keisling: So you're doing DNA genetic testing at your... [Laughter.]

Vince Kruse: Ended up, yeah, we did that... no. [Laughter.] But it just ended up being really cool to find other people that I never would have known these people let alone that we had such a big piece of our careers and lives and piece of our finances connecting us that we would have that big of a link to each other. And the meetings ended up just being, or the meeting; we've done one here that we've hosted and some of our friends up the street at Larson hosted...

Bret Keisling: Larson Engineering, I believe.

Vince Kruse: ...hosted the first one. And it just was kind of an open forum. Here's some stuff that we want to talk about, but it can go anywhere and it's just like any happy hour style conversation. You know, we start with this topic and we ended up talking about 15 other things that through conversation we found out, oh yeah, that's something that we also were curious about or, oh yeah, that's, you know, I didn't think to put that into words. But yes, that's a situation, you know, things like how do you handle remote employees? We have a lot of remote employees. We didn't and we still are working on how to work with them and how to make them feel inclusive or included. How do you get the message out? How do you let people know that this is real, that it's not just, you know, it's a too good to be true benefit. This isn't, you know, it's not your grandfather's pension. It's not your dad's 401k, it's your ESOP. And until people really know what that is on a true reality level, it's hard to understand. It's really hard to comprehend. And a group of ESOP employees from different companies, we're all on the same page with that. We all are there because we are passionate advocates for employee ownership.

Bret Keisling: You should get that on your cards as well.

Vince Kruse: Might be nice.

Bret Keisling: Vince, actually it would be very cool if everybody does have that and your card does indicate the your an employee owner and I know that's been very important to you. What I think is so beautiful about this, Vince, is that you get together with these companies and Milton Engineering, Melton Engineering was another one that is decently well known in the ESOP world. And there are other companies here, but you were saying mortgage for our listeners who haven't yet caught the last time you were on has been an ESOP. It was formed December, 2017 it kicked off February or March of 2018 but you folks are doing a great job but finding your ways as well. How important is it to you personally as somebody who really is making the Kool-Aid here at USA Mortgage to know that there are other employee owners like yourself within a zip code or two who are going through the exact same thing?

Vince Kruse: It's huge, you know, hugely important to know that because it's kind of isolating with anything that you're passionate about to not have, not necessarily have, a lot of other people that you can have that conversation with. There's not a ton of people that I can sit down and be like, hey man, you want to talk about ESOP's? Most people would be like, I don't what an ESOP is.

Bret Keisling: That's right.

Vince Kruse: Or I don't know enough about the ESOP to have a conversation about it. And I've been listening to your podcast, reading articles, digging online, finding other things, but there's just, you couldn't, you'd be lucky to run into somebody in a social setting at an unrelated to ESOP networking event where, oh yeah, we just bumped into these guys and they're ESOP people. It's not that common. As you were talking about earlier, the percentage of the number of employees in the nation that worked for ESOPs compared to the number of workers in the nation is a fraction of a percent.

Bret Keisling: You're exactly right. It is a fraction. The one thing that's very challenging in my mind is there are 17 million employees who are employed by ESOP. And to me that's a problem with nobody knowing what we're talking about. There are so many ESOP employees that it really doesn't hit the radar, let alone the lack of resonance from non-ESOP employees. But there really is a great, a lot of work that can be done. So really briefly, and just by way of wrapping this up, for Mini-cast reasons, and we appreciate your help. If your communications committee, and I'll say you, but at USA Mortgage, you have a communications committee, they're meeting regularly. That committee could reach out to other ESOP company's communication committee. How would you start the conversation about hosting an event together?

Vince Kruse: Yeah, starting your own. The biggest thing is just, it's all just goodwill outreach. Like we don't do it with any intention of selling anyone anything. It's literally just we want to buy you lunch and talk to you. That's all it ended up with knowing a handful of people at a couple companies led to meeting a handful of more people at those same companies. Like I knew one of the staff engineers at one of the companies we were talking about before, through him, I've met their CFO their head of HR, a couple of other people that he's brought along with them. And through there I was able to introduce my CFO to their CFO and have those conversations, you know, let those people at that level also make those connections. And it's just the same way any network works is trying to link up the people within our organization to similar positions at other organizations that may be able to bounce ideas off the CFO. You know, how did you guys handle this? Or you know, what we talked about not knowing what we don't know, you know, you don't know what you don't know. Depending on your length of -- how long the company has been an ESOP, everybody there is going to have a different experience. Whether the company has been an ESOP for 30 years, but the people have been there for two, three, four years, there's going to be different levels of experience within that company. And for us, everybody's new because our ESOP is too new to have anyone with more experience than that. So it's just been a good sharing and learning experience with people from kind of our peer companies that have nothing to do with the industry we're in. They just also happen to be employee-owned.

Bret Keisling: I want to just drive that point home a little bit. I mean, of course as you're meeting with all these companies in theory, somebody there might need a mortgage or that sort of thing. And in theory your CFO might need know a business owner that needs engineering services and all that kind of stuff. So as business people, there's a little bit of that kind of networking with everything we do. But it really is the HR issues that USA Mortgage might face as an ESOP are the same as these other companies. So it really is just making yourself better ESOPs, better employee owners and that will make it more robust for all of us.

Vince Kruse: Yeah. One of the biggest things with that is not everybody can go to the conference, the national conferences. And even within our own committee, we've got, you know, we've had between eight and twelve people since our inception. And I want to say four or five of us total have been to one or the other conference and so just kind of giving people that haven't been to one of them, the opportunity to talk to other people and see that there really is a bigger world of ESOPs than just I work at this company that's an ESOP, I found out it's an ESOP, but I really don't know anything else other than that. I've never seen ESOPs in the news. I've never seen ESOPs on CSPAN. I've never, you know, whatever else it might be and kind of bringing it home to where, hey go drive down the street. You're probably going to drive past two companies that are ESOPs before you get home. You just don't know it.

Bret Keisling: That's actually a great point. And there are many employee owned companies and I think I said on the podcast when you were in until I met you and you had reached out to me prior to a conference in Vegas, I had no idea that there was a mortgage lender that was in the employee owned space. And you know, you're not on here to push mortgages. But I'll say that if someone needs a mortgage, to me it's common sense that if you're an employee owner you'd want to at least talk to an ESOP mortgage lender. So there is that business side of it. But meanwhile as a retirement plan, which is what the ESOP is, you're just sharing lots of good information. So by way of wrapping up, Vince, not only was I surprised that there was an ESOP mortgage lender in the space, as I said, but you're doing a number of things and your committees doing a number of things and we'll be talking about them on future podcasts, because you and the management team have agreed, but you don't realize that you're breaking ground in certain areas because you're new. So like the lunch and learn with other ESOP companies. I'm not saying it's not been done in other places, but I thought it was just really brilliant. So I'm looking forward to watching what you guys are doing. Because it may be because you don't know what you don't know, you're not holding yourselves up to limitations. You're just going out and doing really creative cool things.

Vince Kruse: Yeah, that's, that's our plan. It's really awesome to hear you say that. Because we didn't know that that wasn't something already being done everywhere, It was kind of my assumption that we were just kind of missing out on it. Like, of course, everybody else's meeting. But having talked to a few people about it, kind of hearing the same thing, nobody else is doing that yet. So we're hoping to keep them going, making it a more regular thing. Finding some of the other ESOP companies out there in Vegas. I sat down next to the CEO of ESOP company that's located in Southern part of St. Louis. I had no idea. I happened to sit down next to him. He lives two doors down from my boss.

Bret Keisling: Wow.

Vince Kruse: Had no idea, just kind of a happenstance ran into him. So at our next one, he'll be invited along with, you know, he's got some people on his committee that he wants to bring, we'd happy to have them. So just kind of -- I think it was your phrase -- expanding the sandbox and getting more people into the sandbox.

Bret Keisling: And then that will help us all with, you know, more interest from elected officials and tax benefits and all that kind of stuff. Vince, thank you for everything that you're doing. I hope that you will thank your assorted colleagues who spent time with me today, both on the communications committee and your executive and finance committees. And keep coming back on the podcast. Let us know what you're doing. And for anybody who's listening, if you have any questions about what USA Mortgage is doing or what you might want to enhance your own abilities, feel free to drop me an email and I can either reach out to the folks at USA Mortgage or have them back on. But Vince, you've already in the month I've known you, you've been very supportive of what I'm trying to do and I want to return the favor and be very supportive of whatever USA Mortgage and you and your colleagues are going to do.

Vince Kruse: Appreciate it.

Bret Keisling: My thanks to Vince Kruse. I'm looking forward to having him on the podcast again before too long. If your company is doing something interesting, you'd like to have us share it. Please drop us a line. You'll have the contact information in just a moment. There's a lot of cool things despite all the time of in certainty. There's a lot of really cool things that we can be doing that's going to help grow our business, help grow employee ownership, and make us better and stronger when we get the crisis behind us. Thank you so much for joining us today. I hope you'll be back Friday for the ESOP mini cast. This is Bret Keisling. Have a good day.

Bitsy McCann: We'd love to hear from you! To contact us, find us on Facebook at KEISOP, LLC and on Twitter @ESOPPodcast. To reach Bret, with one "T", email, on LinkedIn at Bret Keisling, and most actively on Twitter at @EO_Bret. Again, that's one "T". This podcast has been produced by The KEISOP Group, technical assistance provided by Third Circle, Inc. and BitsyPlus Design. Original music composed by Max Keisling, archival podcast material edited and produced by Brian Keisling.

Standard Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are my own and don't represent those of my own firms or the organizations to which I belong. Nothing in the podcast should be construed as guidance or advice of any kind in any field and the fact that I mentioned an organizational website or an advocate or a company on a podcast does not reflect an endorsement, but if you've heard your name or your group's name mentioned on this podcast, I'd love to have you come on and talk about it yourself.


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