We are revisiting our episode with prominent EO advocate and expert Jennifer Briggs, who joined us for a broad discussion on community health, servant leadership, participative capitalism, and public policy. Also, EOM shout outs to Modern Times Beer and PFS Brands.
This episode originally aired on October 27, 2020 as Episode 123: Jennifer Briggs - The Importance & Value of EO.
Episode 165 Transcript
Bret Keisling: We are just weeks away from the launch of The EO Podcast Network, the EsOp Podcast and the ESOP Mini-cast hosted by me will be joined by the Why Worker Co-ops podcast hosted by Rodney North and the Owner to Owner podcast hosted by Jesse Tyler.
Bret Keisling: While we work to bring you new podcasts and new podcast episodes, I wanted to share one of my favorite episodes of the last year. I hope you enjoy.
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. Thanks for listening. My name is Bret Keisling and as it says on my business cards, I'm a passionate advocate for employee ownership. Happy Employee Ownership Month.
Bret Keisling: 00:24 I'm really pleased to be joined today by nationally recognized EO advocate and expert Jennifer Briggs for a long form discussion on a number of topics important to employee ownership. We pack a lot into this episode and all of the topics are related, but it's also a perfect episode to pause and return to if you don't have time to listen in one sitting. We spend a couple of minutes on EO in Colorado and Jen shares her EO "A-ha Moment," and gives EOM shout outs to two great employee owned companies, Modern Times Brewery and PFS brands. Then we cover a wide range of topics central to employee ownership and Jen's work, including participatory capitalism, servant leadership, employee owners, as consumers, the importance of public policy to our growth, and the intersection between ESOPs and other forms of employee ownership. All of which is connected to what Jen describes as her driving passion: improving community health.
Bret Keisling: 01:27 Many people talk about what they're doing to grow employee ownership. Here's Jennifer Briggs talking about why she does what she does.
Bret Keisling: 01:39 I am so pleased to be joined on the podcast today by Jennifer Briggs. Jennifer came to prominence, if you will, in the employee ownership community, as the head of HR for New Belgium Brewing, which many of us would know as the purveyors of Fat Tire, et cetera, since then she has moved into so many different areas. She is a consultant. She is the Chairman of the Board of an employee owned company. She is on the board of several others. She is a consultant. She is an amazing writer, thought leader, and that sort of thing. And I am so grateful that you've come on the podcast. Jen, how are you today?
Jennifer Briggs: 02:13 I am good. You're so generous. I'm excited to do this because I feel like you and I have done like private podcasts because we've had so many discussions before. So this is exciting to be on the record, if you will.
Bret Keisling: 02:24 I love it. And it's funny that you say that, Jen, because we have had both in-person and some phone calls and I've always sheepishly at the end, say, it'd be nice if you'd come on the podcast and you would be like, well, what would we talk about? And I'm like, everything we just did! [Laughter.]
Bret Keisling: 02:37 So with this, Jen, and you were involved in so many things and quite frankly, there are, and we'll get more to this in a moment, but there are so many different threads and ripples in your work and it all speaks to all of it. And I'm going to give you a chance to expound on what's important to you and how you implement that in everything that you're doing. But first happy Employee Ownership Month. I love October! Happy EOM.
Jennifer Briggs: 03:03 Oh, yes to you too, to you too. Let's make it happen!
Bret Keisling: 03:07 Jen you are based in Colorado, you are on the board of the Colorado Commission of Employee Ownership, you're on the board, I believe, of RMEOC. Could we start with just a couple of minutes of the state of employee ownership in Colorado as you see it?
Jennifer Briggs: 03:22 Yeah, I think it's, I think it's exciting here. So we were fortunate to have Governor Polis start a Commission on Employee Ownership. It's through the [Colorado] Office of Economic Development and International Trade. So it's really cool. And one of the reasons, I think, Governor Polis, he himself started multiple businesses and he didn't have like, we kind of talk a lot about ESOPs, he didn't have an ESOP company, but he had broadly shared cap tables. So when those companies were sold, it wasn't just a single founder or a single, you know, instigator, whatever title you want to put on them that got wealthy in the sale. He created those ripples through these broadly shared - this idea of broadly shared participative capitalism. And so he saw the value in that firsthand and he wanted to bring that more into it. So that's the genesis of it, essentially.
Bret Keisling: 04:13 Excellent. Can you share some things I understand, and you were kind enough to introduce me to Dick Peterson and Bill Kirton, who are the co-founders of the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center and they've mentioned Governor Polis has he set a a goal of 20 transactions, do I understand?
Jennifer Briggs: 04:34 Yes, so by the end of the state year, which is actually mid year 2021, we want to have 20 transactions done. So, and that could be any employee ownership, whether it's a broadly shared cap table, ESOP, employee owned cooperative, employee owned trust -- 20 of them done by midyear next year.
Bret Keisling: 04:52 I've never heard of setting a goal like that.
Jennifer Briggs: 04:55 Yeah, no. And I think, you know, the point is economic development here. You know, that we believe that this idea will create better economic conditions for the state as a whole. And so, you'll see leaders going out and trying to attract like tech industries or clean industries, or, you know, these kind of economic development incentives. This is really the first one. I know that's specific to this particular idea.
Bret Keisling: 05:21 Colorado is really moving with the state government driving it in some respects with a lot of very positive activities and that sort of thing.
Jennifer Briggs: 05:31 Yeah, absolutely. You know, we have a great commission. There's a lot of work, especially because it's Employee Ownership Month. One of the things they're talking about doing now is starting this Office of Employee Ownership, which I think would be the first one in the United States too. And the state's really taking the lead on promoting Employee Ownership Month, gathering stories, getting some marketing behind it. But you know, the big deal is I think the connection with the Small Business Administration and making sure that if any company is in the midst of a transition or something like that, want to sell the company, contact the SBA, this is going to be on the menu here in Colorado. And you know, in a lot of ways we just want this idea to be on the menu. We don't want some, you know, sometimes technical advisors kind of advise people away from employee ownership or ESOP, they'll say, oh, you know, the DOL they're too difficult to deal with -- and before we even get a chance to talk about it. So it's, it's pretty cool. I'm excited to see what happens in the next year.
Bret Keisling: 06:35 Now let's talk about RMEOC if we can, for a moment. And as you well know, because we saw each other a couple of times while I was out in Colorado, I spent much of the last year until frankly, the pandemic made me want to stay in Pennsylvania, but I spent much of the last year in Colorado joined the RMEOC, met with your executive director last October, as a matter of fact, but in September, back in Pennsylvania, I renewed my membership because you guys are doing great stuff and I just want to, even though I'm not physically there, support you guys. So can you talk a little bit about what RMEOC is doing right now?
Jennifer Briggs: 07:09 Well, first, thank you for your support. So the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center is a nonprofit. It's been around for a while and you know, several, a couple of years ago -- I don't know, I'm losing track of time Bret! [laughter] -- but it helped get some grants on the docket with the state of Colorado. So, if a company was looking to go to an employee owned cooperative it could help offset some of the costs of going to a cooperative. Amy does a lot of technical assistance. So somebody comes in, the way it kind of works now, is something can come through the state through the SBA, then go to the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center and they'll do triage and feasibility and help figure out if this company is really a candidate for employee ownership. So basic technical assistance, education, awareness and just trying to do it all as a small nonprofit. So, you know, having support is incredible because we really do it all on our own.
Bret Keisling: 08:08 It is important to support. And for example, Jen, last week on the Mini-cast, Jennifer Krieger - it seems to be "Jen month" for me and the Mini-cast - Jenn Krieger is active, they've just set up the Texas EOC through the EOX. And I'm a strong believer. I happen to be connected to Colorado and Pennsylvania and happy to support both, but whatever state you're in support any of the organizations or what have you, in each of the individual states. It's important to all of us.
Jennifer Briggs: 08:37 Yeah, it is. And you know, the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership is independent, standalone. And so we are completely agnostic on the type of employee ownership. And so whether it's an ESOP or co-op or trust, or, you know, just this idea of broadly held ownership or profit sharing, we just want to make sure that capitalism can be more participative and get people routed in the right direction. So that's what matters to us. We don't necessarily advocate for one or the other, but what's right for the company.
Bret Keisling: 09:05 And perhaps a little bit later on in the conversation we're going to talk a little bit about a number of us are advocating for any form of employee ownership, but there's not necessarily great coordination among the different formats.
Jennifer Briggs: 09:19 Yes, yes.
Bret Keisling: 09:19 So that's, that's a focus of the RMEOC, but let's revisit that in a minute. Jen, as you know, I've been doing EOM shout outs on the podcast and it's just my way to celebrate and cheer on some really cool employee owned companies. And I was wondering if you'd be kind enough to help me with a couple that you might want to give shout outs to?
Jennifer Briggs: 09:40 Well, one, I'm thinking about this -- so, okay, you know, I came from the craft brewing industry and so there's a handful of craft brewers who are employee owned. The one specifically I want to give a shout out to is Modern Times in San Diego. And the thing about it is, what reminded me is, I buy their coffee. So you can buy mail order coffee from Modern Times brewery and get just the most fantastic coffee. And so, you know, we, wherever we are in the nation, can support this employee owned company through coffee. So I have them on my table here.
Bret Keisling: 10:17 That is very cool. And I just want to make sure I hear this -- and Jen, people who listen to the podcast and know me in real life. I've been sober 30 years and happily so -- but you started talking about a brewery and then went to coffee, do they also sell beer and all that kind of stuff?
Jennifer Briggs: 10:31 They sell beer! But you know, at a time where, you know, there is Modern Times distributed here in Colorado and there's a pub not too far from me, but I just haven't been going to restaurants very much or at all. So being able to buy their coffee online has been a way for me to support them. And then also I don't drink a whole lot either. So it's really cool to have another alternate way to support an employee owned product company. If you don't drink alcohol or you don't want to go to a pub or it's not available in your state either.
Bret Keisling: 11:09 You know, the funny thing, Jen, and you hit the nail on the head. Aaron Moberger, who's a great employee owner at Harpoon Brewery actually did a podcast a couple of years ago now, and I love craft breweries and their effect on employee ownership and we'll chat a little bit about New Belgium. It's just really cool that you can get coffee there. So let's give a real big congratulations and a thank you to Modern Times out in San Diego, we'll include a link to them on our show notes. And if you want to support employee ownership, and this is one of the things you and I have talked about, spend your money with employee owned companies. So that's absolutely great. Any other company you'd like to give a shout out to?
Jennifer Briggs: 11:47 Yes. So my friends at PFS Brands, so they, they have they basically do a franchise and so they're franchises, their main ones are Champs Chicken or BluTaco. You might find them in a convenience store and some of the best chicken out there. And what I think is really cool about them too, is there's a ripple effect. So, you know, when we look at franchisers, we usually think of these giant companies doing this and so, you know, when we trace the revenue and profit chain, it still goes back to a really big company. So in this model, a local owner you know, of a local convenience store could franchise with an employee owned franchise company. And so we look at, we can tick a few boxes of local ownership, small business, employee owned through that whole process. So if you do happen to be at a store or convenience store, I drove to Missouri just a couple of weeks ago and, you know, there's these big travel centers there. It really is delicious food. And so I'm really excited for them, but I just, you know, we think about this more participative economy where we can do local and employee owned at the same time. That's them.
Bret Keisling: 13:07 And what's really cool is they're also the real deal and you're on the board of PFS Brands and some folks, and I'm not quite sure of the direct connection, but some folks at PFS brands put together Grit, which is a company that I think you're also on the board with, they're the real deal with employee ownership. And I'm not surprised that you're involved. And it's also an example, as you know, I think I've made 12 round trip trips by car to Denver in the last 15 months and loved being on the road until the pandemic. But it's another sign of, of, I was able to be more mindful and ask for Champs once I was aware of it. So a lot of folks are eating their chicken and it is really good. Well, hopefully we'll bring the mindfulness aspect of it too. So I, I join you with a happy Employee Ownership Month and congrats to all the great employee owners of PFS brands. And this is going to pass through my mind a lot today, Jen, there could be an episode or two on PFS brands. There could be, you know, the fact of franchisers franchising with an employee owned, we're going to get to other topics, but they're doing great. So happy EOM to all the great employee owners there.
Jennifer Briggs: 14:16 Yeah. I just think now, like the companies that sell products, there's a lot of employee owned companies, which I work with as well that are professional service providers in one way or another. And we pull down the list like from the NCEO and we can see a lot of these companies are maybe engineers or technology providers. And so they seem kind of distant from us in our daily lives, but we can bring it into our daily lives. We can buy King Arthur's Flour. We can buy Eileen Fisher clothes, although she's a little expensive, but you can also get sales by the way. [Laughter.] You know, so we can have like employee owned as part of our daily life. We can make choices as everyday consumers that help help the companies and help the economy.
Bret Keisling: 14:56 I'm in the middle of a series, and we're taking a break with this and a couple of other episodes, called "Where is EO?" and I spoke about EOs absence politically, and essentially as consumers that we don't really tip the scale at all as consumers. And part of that is whether it's Eileen Fisher -- and by the way, we all want a bargain but if an employee owned company is on the higher end, you know, it's still worthy of support and that sort of thing...
Jennifer Briggs: 15:27 Well the clothes last longer, too! I mean...
Bret Keisling: 15:28 Excellent point and, you know, same kind of thing, value for quality and that sort of thing. But there are so many different employee owned companies out there, I think and I shared this on a podcast, although I didn't mention you by name, you last fall went on Twitter and you and I interact a lot with other people on Twitter, but saying, Hey, how can I put together a gift basket for employee, you know, of employee owned products? And I think as I recall, you ended up being able to craft something together. But what I said on the podcast last week is isn't it incredible that we're not at the point where people can just shop employee owned and we're just not there yet.
Jennifer Briggs: 16:07 Well, there's a couple cool things going on. The NCEO recently added a company that's doing some employee owned, like gift basket type stuff. I haven't researched it. So I need to do that. But then the Certified EO, they're also working on a platform where you can search to purchase employee owned products.
So I wish it was as easy, I wish Amazon had like a filter that we could do, but there's people working in this direction. I'm really excited, just excited for it because we can search there first and that can be our go-to. And then if we can't, then, you know, we'll have to go to our, our Amazons and other searches, but, you know, there's ways I like how you put it to be mindful of where do we purchase from, where does that revenue go, and how will the profit being reinvested or just going to have better luck if we shop employee owned companies.
Bret Keisling: 16:58 Well, and I think, and this is a nice way, Jen to segue mindful, informs just about everything that you're doing. You do a wonderful job and folks, I want to say your website is alifeinmosaic.com you are. And forgive me, I don't mean to embarrass you. You are a true thought leader. You have a width and breadth of knowledge that to me, is so inspiring and you take concepts and you drill down, you express them very well. You're a heck of a writer and you have that mindful approach to everything that you're doing. Like I haven't seen and again, we've gotten to know each other in the last year and a half. It's not that you're a Robotron. It's just, everything kind of impacts your totality and that's mindful, right?
Jennifer Briggs: 17:57 Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I'm here doing this work, I think for a reason. And so it's not a program and I really don't believe that you know, we can plug programs into companies or we can build better companies. I prefer the build better companies option. It's not that the programmatic things are bad necessarily. They're just not as sustainable. I don't think they're as contributing to our community and, you know, ultimately community health is my most important thing in my life is to build great economies to build healthy communities where we can all be productive and have dignity and things like that. And employee ownership just connects so many dots on that.
Bret Keisling: 18:45 Some weeks ago on the Mini-cast, I shared my EO "A-ha Moment" where I just got it. And it just, I won't share it again. But I was CEO of an employee owned company and a team member said something, and I was like, this is different and that was my EO "A-ha moment." You and a bunch of others on Twitter were kind enough to share theirs as well. And I was wondering, can we take a couple of minutes and you, I understand, had two of them, one domestically, one internationally. So if you don't mind, would you share a little bit about your, your "A-ha moments" and what really crystallized it for you?
Jennifer Briggs: 19:20 Well you'll have to remind me which domestic one I told you about. But my international one, I was already working at New Belgium. So, you know, I had learned so much from them and was, you know, going through the motions and like the good motions. I don't mean that in a bad way, but you know, all the things that we were doing it was really cool. And this company from near Cape Town, South Africa came to visit us because they wanted to do employee ownership where they were at too. And so I took them through the whole day, showed them all the traditions, the artifacts, the practices, the people, you know, the whole, the whole gamut at the brewery spent a fantastic day with them. And then at the end, of course, we were sitting around having a beer and I asked them, I said, what, what one thing, what do you think you guys are going to take away? What'd you learn? And they actually said your dress code. I was like the dress code, you know? And in some ways like immediately my immediate thing was I was a little disappointed, like I've shown you all the work that we do. [Laughter.]
Jennifer Briggs: 20:21 But what they said was the dress code was showing that everybody had self ownership and that they realized you can't really be an owner of a company until you can be a self leader and a self owner. And so what they saw was this you know, this environment of dignity, this environment of self-leadership this environment of owning people's own performance and being able to yourself and how you showed up in the world. And to me, that was just a really profound observation. And so that led me as a practitioner at that point to just flip everything on its head is, you know, a lot of times we have these we cascade things from the C-suite through a company.
Jennifer Briggs: 21:06 Really leadership needs to bubble up. And so everything that I was doing to help create this effervescent leadership that came through the people, not at the people, it just, everything I was trying to do was, was opposite of what convention told you to you at that point.
Jennifer Briggs: 21:21 So simple things like performance reviews, people should do their own. Like, it makes no sense to me that it's like this horrible experience that we go through every whatever amount of time. And so people can review themselves and have conversations with people and really take responsibility for their performance. And it can be a good growing experience. And so that's just one small example, but man, I mean, when they said that you can't really be an owner until you can own yourself. And I, and I believe that and it just, it was a big deal for me.
Bret Keisling: 21:57 And connecting all the dots. What they honed in on with specificity opened your eyes to just such a broader view. Am I correct Jen, if -- and you are prolific on social media in the best way you share some of your own writings, you share things that you think are relevant, you often share your take -- but something you said, if I've ever noticed a little bit of impatience on your part, it's been when somebody references, giving employee owners a sense of ownership.
Jennifer Briggs: 22:33 Yes.
Bret Keisling: 22:33 And just share about that, because I think your aha moment kind of led to that. Everybody says, "give them a sense of ownership." Why does that tend to make you a little bit crazy?
Jennifer Briggs: 22:42 Well, it's not ownership. I mean, it's just like you know, Kim at the brewery used to say this, and I think I've heard it from a few other people too. You know, it's like inviting everybody to a steak dinner and then telling them they just have to sit around and smell it. Like it's, you know, hopefully I guess vegetarians would feel differently about that, but you get the idea. I mean, it's just it's just faux it's just a faux thing. You know, where it feels like a marketing and true leadership comes from our soulfulness and comes from, you know, our experiences. And if we're trying to spin ownership, it's not ownership. You either get to own yourself or you don't, you either get to own capital in a company or you don't, you either get part of the growth of a company or you don't. These things are pretty binary. Like there's no sense of it. So yeah, that's a marketing scheme, I think. And we're just trying to help people feel like there's a little something there more, but it's not.
Bret Keisling: 23:52 It's also always strikes me as patronizing. We're going to let you feel like an owner, but, and the other point that I've seen your make is if it's employee owned there, ain't no feeling like an owner. You're one of the owners! Stop that there.
Bret Keisling: 24:12 Jen here's another topic and you alluded to it. That could be a podcast. Could you talk a little bit about servant leadership and you said leadership you know, bubbles up rather than, you know, I used to be of the mind back in the day of strong leader, CEO type, even if it was the best reasons you set the culture at the top and it drills down and that's just wrong. So I think I've put in two contexts there, but servant leadership is one of those things that could be kind of buzzwordy, but you actually, again, mindfully implement it. So could you share a little bit about that?
Jennifer Briggs: 24:50 Yeah, I, I really do. I think servant leadership, it's a pretty simple idea that leaders exist to help the people in the company be more successful. And you do that by helping individuals be more successful. And sometimes that can mean putting a program in place. You know, like employee assistance plans, making sure people are psychologically and physically healthy because when we're our healthiest self, we bring our best selves to work, to, you know, helping people learn and grow you know, and make sure you have, you know, that classic fifth discipline a learning organization. So people are constantly growing you know, those kinds of things to really help it grow, which is to grow an effective organization. And I feel like when you take the non servant leadership approach, the more kind of linear CEO I'm going to, you know, get these policies in place.
Jennifer Briggs: 25:40 Well, one just from my own experiences, I feel like whenever somebody gives us a rule as humans, we do whatever we can to rebel against it, you know? And I've, I've done this admittedly myself too, but leaders in this sense are creating conditions and making space for the best work to happen. And so it's, I think, a harder way to lead because you're orchestrating things to make sure all the pieces and parts are there. You're enabling people, you're doing a really good job hiring. You're making sure that you have lots of diversity and mindsets contributing to the company. So you're really orchestrating a lot as a leader. So leadership is still important, but servant leaders make space and give people the tools that they need to do the best jobs. You know, I think one of the books I loved is Trevor Noah's "Born a Crime" book.
Bret Keisling: 26:37 Yep.
Jennifer Briggs: 26:39 And he has that line in there that I'm sure -- it's the first time I heard it, I'm sure other people said it, but you know, they say teach a man to fish but if you don't give him the pole, like he can't really fish. And to me, this is like that manifestation of servant leadership is we need to give people the poles. We need to give them the tools and we need them to be able to participate in the growth that they help create.
Bret Keisling: 27:01 The cool thing is servant leadership and even what you had talked about of, you know, it doesn't do any good teaching someone to fish. If you don't give them the pole, this now brings us right back to employee ownership. I mean, that's you and I, I think have had similar experiences where we've been in the C-suite we have done well, we have enjoyed the benefits of the positions that we've achieved, but you and I are both like, why isn't everybody getting that? You know, the why just at the top, why an elite few, instead of bringing it to the masses. So servant leadership does tie in very well with employee ownership?
Jennifer Briggs: 27:38 Yeah. I think they have to go together, you know because as servant leaders, you're creating growth, you're creating individual growth, you're creating organizational growth, you're creating, you know, this opportunity. And if people aren't getting to participate in that growth in terms of economic growth and financial growth, it's kind of like, what's the point? You know, so it's really that, that idea of making sure people get to reap in the rewards that they create.
Jennifer Briggs: 28:07 So whatever form that is ESOPs aren't for every company. You know, sometimes they're just not that, but so we can create like a participative capital structure where there's multiple people in the cap table, or even, you know, really good gain sharing plans. I think they all matter and the participation happens. It's kind of one of those things for me, you're either participating or you're not, you're participating in creating the growth. You should be participating in earning some of that growth.
Bret Keisling: 28:38 Talk for just a moment because some of the concepts 20 years ago would have sounded very warm and fuzzy-ish. You know, we want people to feel good about their jobs. We want them to be happy and that just isn't the way it used to be. But you regularly drive home the point and you did it here as well. We're not, it's good business. I mean, we're glad that that's a better way to be, and it's healthier and better for everybody, but you're very clear that you'll be more successful. Am I right?
Jennifer Briggs: 29:08 Yeah. I mean, there's so many metrics, you know, every, there's a lot of kind of business consultants out there preaching engagement, which of course is important, but you know, if you don't have the compensation or reward structures that partner with that. So we spend a lot of time with compensation consultants on making these individual incentives, but we don't spend as much time looking at how do we really incent the business to grow. And then look at like, for example, retention you know, our friends at the Aspen Institute, there's a turnover calculator and we spend so much time on lost talent because we just keep recycling this talent to other businesses. And no matter what, in this day and age, you're in the talent business, I don't care. It's not an elitist idea. The minute you walk into a store and especially now, when people are kind of on the edge of stress, when you see somebody who can treat you kindly as a customer and welcome you into that store, your loyalty is going to go more to that store.
Jennifer Briggs: 30:13 When these stores are trying to compete with the Amazons, they're competing on their talent and the ability of people to welcome them into that and make consumers feel safe. So, you know, a lot of the COVID stuff has only amplified the ideas that were already there, but everybody is in the talent business right now. And so this idea of employees being the owners or getting some kind of piece of the pie it's really important because they're growing the pie and it just has to happen, but there's tons of metrics and research out there that show this. And that begs the question then why don't we have more? Why isn't there more, which...
Bret Keisling: 31:00 I was then going to beg the question and say... And let's also first of all, again, several episodes and it's part of the "Where is EO?" series that I'm doing of why don't we have more, why isn't, you know, why haven't we broken through kind of the noise. But let's keep specifically to employee ownership for a moment. One of the challenges that we've talked about in the past is ESOP community, strong in a transactional sense that there are ESOPs being created and for the professional advisors, of which I was one for seven years, there is money to be made, but at the same time, we've lost about 800 ESOPs since 1996. So we're not growing. We are doing well in our little place of the pond. Significant, smaller numbers of co-ops and collectives, although they've been at it much longer, but one of the things that we can't escape is there really isn't much interaction between the forms of employee ownership. Do you think -- would ESOPs benefit if co-ops were in a stronger place, should co-ops and ESOPs be advisors and whatnot, work together? Just talk a little bit about that.
Jennifer Briggs: 32:23 Yeah, I think, you know, that was one of the things that became really apparent to me when I worked, when I left New Belgium. Because, you know, I was doing my job there. So I was very much in that, in that community. And then I came out and intentionally wanted to explore the ideas of employee ownership more. So I got to do a little work with the Democracy at Work Institute and man, they're amazing, of course, the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, we do lots of stuff. You know, the Rutgers work that Dr. Blasi and Freeman and Kruse have done in their writings and then the fellowships, I'm an executive fellow for them. We look at that broadly also as well. And so, you know, if we have this broad label employee ownership and we have the spectrum of tools to help companies become employee owned. I don't think we need to be competing with each other.
Jennifer Briggs: 33:13 And I don't know that there's an overt competition, but there is kind of these silos that happen that we're not talking to each other. And I really think we need to be allied. I think, you know, there almost needs to be like Jason Wiener in Colorado brought up this idea of a Congress. Imagine like there was this, this group of all these different people and I think there's a lot that we can do there. And I know some people in the employee ownership, cooperative side really like they're passionate about, about governance, and I love that passion. And so that might not necessarily apply to ESOPs, but we don't, we can gain in just the sharing and debating of ideas together. And so there's some organizations, like Fifty by Fifty, for example, that's writing up regardless of what the capital structure is, the work that Mary Ann Beyster did in the, "We the Owners" video back in the day that I got to participate in had three different forms of employee ownership.
Jennifer Briggs: 34:11 So if we can see these things as tools that are getting us to this broad idea of participative capitalism or employee ownership, I think we'll be better there. But you know, sometimes an ESOP's just not a right fit for a company, but rather than giving up on the idea of employee ownership entirely, like why don't we go through all these other different tools that might be available to them and might be better answers?
Bret Keisling: 34:38 I think you're exactly right and certainly I understand it, you know, when I was an ESOP trustee, if I had somebody talking to me about the potential of ESOPs and I don't mean this badly, but there was no livelihood for me to say, go be a co-op. So there's a -- I understand that completely. The one thing that I think we've kind of missed in the 35 years where we've lost 800 ESOPs is, I am convinced that if there was more interaction, if there was more, and again, it's not like co-ops and ESOPs are going to get together each and every day, but if there was just a more general support for example, you've mentioned the SBA a couple of times. In a few weeks, I'm going to have someone from the SBA on the podcast. ESOP companies complain about access to capital and co-ops would kill to have the ESOP problems with access to capital.
Jennifer Briggs: 35:32 Yeah. Well, and that's a great, because if we had more of this alliance, we could get access to capital. Maybe we could even -- I was talking to Dick May, gosh, feels like this was like a year or so ago, but why aren't we building employee owned banks; you know, building our own financing and capital system? But to do something like that, we're all going to have to work on it and work on it together. We can't continue to work in these silos. So I think there are different answers if we can collectively come together. There's a few ESOPs out there that are acting now as like parent companies and actually purchasing subsidiary companies and building more employee ownership, mimicking some of the things that we've seen with private equity. That's a cool solution too, but again, the more we can share these ideas and create you know, these big federation ideas, we're never really going to get there. We're just going to keep chipping away in our own little area.
Bret Keisling: 36:36 I think you're right. And I feel strongly compelled to share something with you. First of all, Jason Weiner is a really talented and passionate EO advocate and a great lawyer and one of those guys I know on social media, in the, "Where is EO?" Series and I'm two or three episodes away from my culmination, I'm actually calling for a Congress or Federation of all of the EO orgs. So the only reason is I've been working on this for two months and I didn't want on this podcast to have you say, well, Jason proposes a Congress and then three weeks later people were like, Oh my God, Bret stole Jason's idea. It's a, so all I'm saying is I've been talking about it before it came up, but it's also an example -- on a serious note -- a lot of us are talking about the same kind of things. And kudos to Jason and myself, or it's a sign that, you know, it's kind of obvious, but there isn't a communication. There isn't an infrastructure for us to work together. For example, and I I'll call it this just because it makes it obvious, we should have a League of EO voters. We should have an organization or somebody and unfortunately, our established organizations, you mentioned RMEOC being agnostic as to cap structure. There's also a certain agnostic to the major organizations, or, you know, are you one on one side? So I don't know if anybody existing could do it now, but could you imagine reaching out to local, statewide, and federal candidates saying, here's your EO questionnaire? And that goes back to our missing the consumer stuff. So there are so many different ideas that actually other movements have done them. We just need to become a movement.
Jennifer Briggs: 38:22 Well, yeah, I think, you know, I wonder if obviously I'm connected to the UCSD and the Beyster Institute you know, just love Mary Ann [Beyster] the SAIC legacy that she has and what they've done. And she's a big participant and contributor to Rutgers as well, too. And, you know, maybe because the academic institutes don't have, like you said, the technical service providers kind of have a dog in the fight. They don't. They're here to perpetuate knowledge. We need to look at innovations around employee ownership. ESOP's great, but is there a third way, a middle way that somewhere between ESOP and cooperative, we have to start innovating this idea instead of just staying with our current tools. And so I think there's some things that, whether it's the fellows or academia, or, you know, someone in that area, but you're right. You know, I remember talking to a group of people and bringing up the idea of an alliance and I think that was a couple of years ago.
Jennifer Briggs: 39:21 So this isn't, I think enough people, whether it's you, me, or Jason, or there's probably, you know, once this podcast goes out, a hundred other people are going to be saying, yes, I've been thinking of the same thing, but how do we, how do we create something with the organizational strength to really make it happen? Because there's just so much work going on now, we just need to get that energy, bottle it up and then make some really strong momentum.
Jennifer Briggs: 39:51 And especially politically -- I think that's, you know, all this great work that we're doing around corporate performance is all wonderful, but until we really have policies that are going not only help employee ownership, but also address some of the issues we have on that are encouraging companies to consolidate. Private equity - imagine if employee ownership could sit side-by-side with PE? That that would be like the thing. When an employee owner, or when an owner/founder wants to sell their company, they call up a business broker, they find a match and they sell the company and there might be good reasons why that happens. And you know, there does need to be this churn, but if, at least they're sitting side by side with each other business owners and sellers can make decisions. Right now, we don't even have that happening. So we lack the ability to critically think through the issues that these companies are facing.
Bret Keisling: 40:46 That makes a lot of sense. And again, with a number of years, as a practitioner myself, but one thing that I'm convinced that many of the practitioners miss or the point that they miss and I say this respectfully, I love them all -- I love most of them! No, I'm kidding. [Laughter.] But is, is everybody's concentrated on their own market share and their own piece of the pie where I believe if we could find 2021, a way to become an alliance and a way to get things together. And maybe it's a small group of us, Jen, who just start finding a way to do it. Maybe I let you smart people work it out and I'll just talk about it. But if we could find a way to do that, the pie is going to grow so much bigger. So I'll just say, if you're an valuation advisor and you're worried about other valuation advisors getting in the field, let's add 40% to the volume of transactions and there's plenty of work and everybody will do much better.
Jennifer Briggs: 41:48 Yeah. It's that saying? Right. A rising tide raises all ships. We need the tide to rise.
Bret Keisling: 41:53 Yep. So we're going to have to do that. If you don't mind. And you mentioned Fifty by Fifty. Karen Kahn does some great curation, regularly, of thought leaders and brings together opinion pieces, and she'll pick a topic and have a number of views. I know that she's published your thoughts a number of times I've been lucky once or twice to be asked. She did - and it goes back to you being with New Belgium for all those years - there was a piece last December about the sale of New Belgium.
And I just want to talk in this context, the conversation that Fifty by Fifty had and that Karen curated was kind of, was it did it signal the end of employee ownership because New Belgium sold? And for, for those of you listening, who aren't aware, they sold to a international conglomerate approved by the employee owners. So did it, did it mark the end of employee ownership? Does it raise sustainability questions? Just sharing a little bit, your thoughts as a former top level executive there.
Jennifer Briggs: 42:56 Yeah. You know, I didn't think of it as an end of employee ownership. I thought of it as a really cool thing, because like you said, the participants and the employee ownership trust got to vote. So it was a participative thing. It wasn't a single owner deciding to sell his or her company, which is, you know, what is more typical to do. So we had that process going on. And so really, I think companies, employee ownership, owned companies that can sell isn't necessarily a bad thing because it generates that wealth, that sale of that company generated that wealth. And so that's the really cool part of it. But the sustainability aspect of employee ownership, I think has more to do with policy and our capital markets, than employee ownership.
Jennifer Briggs: 43:43 You know, if you look at the beer industry, distribution is owned primarily by two gigantic companies. Supply chains are owned primarily by gigantic companies. And so if we're going to be kind of these middle market companies like New Belgium was, you have to be able to survive in this economy that's different than local economies. We definitely have two economies now. And so we have to address that issue at the policy level. New Belgium is an amazing company. There's amazing people there, you know, some really cool stuff going on. Really, I hate to just keep saying the economy, but that's it the competitive rules that go on that are essentially no more because you can't compete because other people can outprice and out by you. It's a tough market. And again, the consumers, if as consumers, if we want to keep employee owned companies going, we've got to buy from them. So this has a lot more to do about us than it actually has to do with New Belgium and a legacy of sustainability, we've got to buy, and we've got to get policymakers into office that are going to really look at critically at how capitalism works in the United States.
Bret Keisling: 45:05 That makes so much sense. And, you know, just looking at the numbers, there are 10 million active ESOP employee owners, thousands more in the co-op collective, 17 million ESOPs. If we throw in the retirees, because as a former trustee, there's still participants.
Jennifer Briggs: 45:21 Yes. [Laughter.]
Bret Keisling: 45:21 And again, we've zero consumer impact. So to your point of, you know, maybe New Belgium -- and I happen to be one that thinks their journey has been very, very cool, and it's not done yet -- but maybe New Belgium, you know, if every employee owner was buying New Belgium or buying Harpoon or buying Modern Times or buying whatever and we spend more of our dollars that would keep more in the employee ownership sandbox as well.
Jennifer Briggs: 45:52 Yeah. And I think it's important because, you know, there's different things that can companies can compete on. You know, we can compete on low price. We can compete on convenience. You know, Amazon's the king of convenience, low price would probably be like the Walmarts of the world. So most of us are not going to be Amazon, Google, or Walmart. So we have to find another place to compete on. And, you know, I think this idea of, you know, go local had a big movement behind it. And that's easy because it's like, well, I'm going to go to my local store. But even if you go to your local store, you don't know if that revenue and profit are going to be reinvested back into your community.
Jennifer Briggs: 46:31 You know, ESOPs are probably, or not just ESOPs, but employee owned companies in general are one of the ways that we can reinvest it back into our economy, whether it's good jobs, good benefits, good wages, or some of the stuff that we did in New Belgium in terms of community support. And, you know, there's just, there's just so much good that can come out of having companies that are well led. And again, well, led doesn't necessarily mean you're the hottest price on the stock market, or you're the highest revenue earner, or you're a profit maximizer. Well, led, I think, is running effective companies that satisfy market demands. And I think, I think consumers are more sophisticated and one of these days they're going to catch on to this.
Bret Keisling: 47:20 Well, and I think it's kind of incumbent on us, you and I, and so many others to find the right way and make things happen. And the other thing besides the jobs and the individuals being in better shape it is the communities themselves, and this might be a nice way to work towards wrapping up. You said that the thread that informed all of your work was community health. Well, there are statistics that you and I have thrown all out, and everybody does, less layoffs during an economic downturn. We know that's factual in the past. We expected to turn out to be true now. But also a New Belgium is an example of this -- jobs tend to stay in the community and you're less likely to, to sell out. But even New Belgium. And again, I'm a non-drinking visitor to Colorado but New Belgium sale happened at about the same time that Coors did. New Belgium had the transaction, but Coors switched many, many jobs to Chicago. I mean, actually shut down if I have that correct. So the roots go deeper if you're an employee owned company, would you agree? Am I saying that right?
Jennifer Briggs: 48:42 Yeah. And I think, you know, it's back to how does a company make decisions, right? And to me, I think that's the core of all of this. You know, when we would have executive meetings on hiring to be honest, sometimes they felt like the most miserable meetings because we really put requesters through the, through a lot of rigor in terms of validating, was this new hire necessary. Because you're not just, you're not just hiring another job filler, you're hiring somebody who's going to contribute to your organization. And then this job also itself has to be an investment back into the business. And so we went through a lot. And now, we weren't perfect because, you know, we also use temps, which I happened to be very much against perma-temps, and I think that's something that we could have done better on, but how do you make decisions in corporations?
Jennifer Briggs: 49:39 And I think these companies just make decisions differently. Which you know, I used to do layoffs a lot for a living, not at New Belgium, before my time there. And when you do a layoff in a closely held company, it is painful. It's so painful. My job in my previous life was fairly routine. You know, but why was it routine? Well, that's part of the way you run a workforce in some companies.
Bret Keisling: 50:10 That was the culture.
Jennifer Briggs: 50:10 Employee owned companies don't run workforces this way, the decision making is different around what do jobs mean, what employees, what value do employees create. So, yeah, I think it just comes down to decision-making.
Bret Keisling: 50:27 Jen, is there anything -- I am very grateful for your time, and this has been a lot of fun for me -- is there anything you wish I had asked or, or any kind of EO ripples you want to throw out?
Jennifer Briggs: 50:37 You know, I think I think we've already talked about the EO ripple that I think we both want to see is this more tightly knitted alliance, because if we can get the power of all of these organizations, you know, we're so fortunate, the Aspen Institute has employee ownership as a subset of the work they do, Fifty by Fifty, Rutgers UCSD, the Rady School and the Beyster Institute. My friend here in Colorado he's doing work on employee ownership. So how can we, how can we kind of pull all this together to make it even more powerful than it is? And so I think we can, I think we can make bigger ripples than what we're doing. So but if anyone hasn't, doesn't follow them, you and I are friends on Twitter, but all those organizations there's a great hashtag on there. And so if you don't know, it's time to learn. And then we need to take that time to learn to a time to action. And you know, who knows maybe 20,21 will be our best year in employee ownership ever.
Bret Keisling: 51:46 Well, let us hope. And you're right. There are a group of us who are active on Twitter and kind of run in the same circles. And it is very cool to see, but we would ask that people join in and have the conversation. So many of us have been saying the same things for so long that it almost gets, and I had a conversation with somebody a couple of weeks ago, and he said with all the sincerity and I love it, but he said, Bret, did you know the percentage of baby boomers who have to sell their business? And I'm like, yes, it's come up once or twice in the last ten years. So it's getting beyond the, we all understand this is the greatest thing since sliced bread, if you will, but it's fleshing it out.
Bret Keisling: 52:30 Jen, you are doing so much work to inspire. You mentioned social media and you really are inspiring in a lot of ways to a lot of people. I'm going to give you two quick examples of me personally. And it's it is just the truth. About a year and a half ago, I was struggling with, I have always been a capitalist and I don't apologize for that. And it was actually seeing some of your work that made me focus on inclusive capitalism and participatory capitalism and that's something that you just kind of had my brain going in a different direction. And the other thing is, and I hope I had shared this with you before. I've probably mentioned it on a podcast or two, but you really have such a way with words and can distill stuff down to its simplest. So you and I got together in person in August of 2019 and had lunch and I had only been doing the KEISOP Group, I had sold the trustee like six weeks before, and I was trying to articulate what it is I wanted to do. I really haven't, and I'm still proud of your later. I haven't tried to sell anything. I don't have commercials. You know, I'm just spreading the word. And I said, I just want to take what everybody's doing and I want to talk about it. And I want to et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And you said, so you want to amplify it. And within a week, every podcast has opened with, we celebrate amplify, all things of employee ownership. So you have such a way of turning concepts and you inspire me personally. So it's been such a hoot for me to have you come on and talk.
Jennifer Briggs: 54:11 Thank you. And likewise, right back at you, I mean, we're on this team together and it's a great team!
Bret Keisling: 54:19 Jen. thank you so much for everything that you're doing. I hope that Colorado continues to thrive and all the work that you're doing nationwide, there are so many other things that you're going on. I would suggest to everybody quite sincerely, it's not just follow Jen on Twitter. You should do that. Not just follow her on LinkedIn or wherever you see social media, but alfeinmosaic.com, your website has your blog posts has your writings, and there are really important concepts that you distill very nicely. So I hope people will check out your website as well.
Jennifer Briggs: 54:53 Thank you, Bret.
Bret Keisling: 54:54 All right. We will talk again.
Bret Keisling: 54:57 Thank you so much to Jennifer Briggs for coming on the podcast and for all the work she does on behalf of all of us in employee ownership, our country continues to go through very challenging times together, and that's how we'll get through it together, which if you think about it is also what employee ownership is all about. Happy Employee Ownership Month, everybody. Thank you so much for listening. This is Bret Keisling, have a great day.
Bitsy McCann: 55:27 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 Bret@KEISOP.com, 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.
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