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121: Where is EO? Pt 4. Consumers and B2B

Bret Keisling looks at EO's absence as consumers and as EO B2B in our continuing series "Where is EO?"


Episode 121 Transcript

Bitsy McCann: 00:03 Welcome to the EO Podcast, where we amplify and celebrate all forms of employee ownership.

Bret Keisling: 00:13 Hello, my friends. Thank you for listening. My name is Bret Keisling and as it says on my business cards, I'm a passionate advocate for employee ownership. As we record this episode for release on Tuesday, October 13th, we're in the middle of Employee Ownership Month. To all of my friends and colleagues, as well as all of the great employee owners, advocates, practitioners, and organizations that make the EO sandbox so very vibrant, I wish you a very happy Employee Ownership Month. On our Friday Mini-casts this month, we're celebrating employee owned businesses, so I hope you'll check them out.

Bret Keisling: 00:49 This is part four of a multi-part podcast series that we've been hearing since September called "Where is EO?" As vibrant as the EO sandbox is, and there really are great and exciting things to celebrate, it's been almost impossible to overlook the fact that employee ownership is essentially missing from our public conversation. In a political sense so many of the core principles of employee ownership are being discussed, including diversity, economic justice, and most importantly, the fact that we're all in this together. But EO is not really in the discussion even when politicians from all parties are talking about things that EO advocates can prove will be positively addressed by employee ownership.

Bret Keisling: 01:33 But it's very important to note another crucial area where EO is missing. That's the economy. There are approximately 17 million current or retired employee owners and we have zero consumer clout whatsoever. Similarly, there are approximately 6,300 ESOPs and about 1,500 co-ops and collectives, but I'm not aware of any serious efforts to coordinate business to business sales, or B2B, between employee owned companies.

Bret Keisling: 02:01 We'll get back to B2B in a moment, but let's start with consumers. NCEO [the National Center for Employee Ownership], which is a wonderful EO organization has a lot of data available on their website. Much of it's available to the public; some of the deeper looks or data analysis is available for purchase. They published an article in July, 2020 on their website that listed the top 100 EO companies by size. You can find a link to the article in our show notes.

Bret Keisling: 02:30 What's the largest employee owned company in the United States? Perhaps, you know, this: Publix supermarket chain. Of the remaining nine of the top ten, I've only heard of three or four of them. And several of those, I only know through social media. Two of the companies that stand out to me are number eight, W.L. Gore & Associates, and number nine, Davey Tree Expert.

Bret Keisling: 02:55 Davey Tree Experts is very active in employee ownership community and they do a great job, not just as arborists, but as employee owners.

Bret Keisling: 03:04 When I saw W.L. Gore at number eight, I knew I was familiar with them, but I couldn't place them. Turns out this is the company that invented GORE-TEX. You probably have some in your clothing or outerwear, et cetera. I know exactly what GORE-TEX is, but had no clue at all that the company behind it is employee owned. I want to make clear, as I have before, I'm by no means the end all be all of employee ownership knowledge, but my work is devoted to promoting and talking about employee ownership. In other words, I look for employee owned companies and had no idea that W.L. Gore & Associates was in the EO sandbox.

Bret Keisling: 03:42 There are two sides to our lack of impact as consumers. It's easy to say, wow, why don't, you know, companies do a louder job of promoting the fact that they're employee owned? I think the answer is because we as employee owners, practitioners, and advocates, haven't shown that being employee owned is important to us as consumers. I suspect if you're asked in a survey whether buying employee owned is important to you, you may well answer yes. But we don't act that way.

Bret Keisling: 04:13 I'll give you one more quick example. Last December, a friend of mine posted on social media that she was hoping to do holiday gift packages made up entirely of employee owned products. A number of people kicked around different suggestions of individual companies, which allowed my friend to put together EO gift boxes on her own. This again is not the most important example. It's just an example. With 15 million consumers linked to employee ownership, I think there'd be a lot of opportunities for EO gift boxes or even more pushes to buy employee owned whenever possible. When we achieve things like this, EO will truly be heading towards becoming a movement.

Bret Keisling: 04:53 Let's turn briefly to EO B2B. Last Friday on the Mini-cast, I celebrated four employee owned companies as part of Employee Ownership Month. Two of the companies are engineering firms, another makes industrial fasteners, and the fourth provides critical support for business infrastructures, for example, managing server rooms and the like. I've also taken note of the number of employee owned companies in the last year who've announced new headquarters or expansions of existing space. Every single expansion requires architect and engineering services, HVAC, and all of the many services that are provided by employee owned companies.

Bret Keisling: 05:34 I can't recall, however, seeing that these construction and expansion projects were completed using employee owned vendors. I'll give you a timely example and it's not at all critical of anybody. The ESOP Association recently announced their gorgeous new headquarters in Washington, DC. Apparently, it was conceived and approved all in the last year and a half or so. It's a gorgeous facility that has a lot of potential to support and create employee ownership. I don't recall seeing anywhere that employee owned companies were involved in the design or construction as vendors.

Bret Keisling: 06:10 Now, as quick as the project came about, it may not have been feasible and the fact that it's in Washington, DC may impact what vendors are available for use. But if the largest organization devoted to ESOPs didn't set aside a certain amount of work for employee owned companies then I'd suggest that the average ESOP company won't either.

Bret Keisling: 06:30 We're going to continue a few more episodes in our, "Where is EO?" series and it will culminate in my take about what a true EO movement would look like and how we get there. But imagine if we, as consumers could walk into an employee owned business, show our EO ID and receive a discount simply because we're employee owners, that would be one way to bring us together as consumers in our own community.

Bret Keisling: 06:56 Along those lines, imagine if as part of corporate policy employee owned companies determined that a certain percentage of their vendors were going to be employee owned. There are thousands of EO companies and millions of employee owners and if we purposefully start doing more business together, the EO community will be much stronger and we'll be that much closer to becoming an actual movement. And by the way, if an employee owned company is going to set aside a certain percentage of vendors to be employee owned, I hope those vendors would give a discount to the EO company hiring them.

Bret Keisling: 07:32 With that, I'll wrap up today's episode. You can find the first three parts of "Where is EO?" wherever you get your podcasts or at And if you'd like to support our work, we really do appreciate it if you'd like and follow the podcast and retweet the episodes that you like.

Bret Keisling: 07:52 Join us Friday on the ESOP Mini-cast as we continue our celebration of Employee Ownership Month. We are all going through a lot together and that's how we'll get through it, together -- which as I said earlier, is one of the core principles of employee ownership. Thanks for listening. This is Bret Keisling. Be well.

Bitsy McCann: 08:15 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, and I'm Bitsy McCann.

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.

A note on the transcript: This transcript was produced by Temi, an automated transcription service. While it has been reviewed by The ESOP Podcast, we can not guarantee the accuracy of the transcription. Please refer to the original audio when citing sources.


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