Worker-Owned Companies Class of 2013

A review of some of last year's newly employee-owned companies
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Benzamin Yi

2013 was a good year to become a worker-owned company. Although just a selection of some of the newest worker-owners on the block, we highlight 17 new and existing businesses that were founded as or transitioned into worker-ownership in 2013. If these businesses are local to you, we encourage you to support and welcome your newly worker-owned neighbors.

One that is easy to support when faced with the myriad of beer selections available at the market is New Belgium Brewery (known for their amber ale, Fat Tire). New Belgium has been 41 percent employee-owned since 2000, but as of two days before 2013, the brewery became 100 percent employee-owned and remains to be 100 percent wind-powered. Working towards joining the list of fully employee-owned breweries is the fifth-largest craft brewery in the country, Deschutes Brewery (recommending their Black Butte Porter), who made their first contribution to their ESOP trust in April 2013, currently at 8 percent of the company’s total stock. Also following suit in 2013 was the Alaskan Brewing Company, who makes beer-powered beer by repurposing brewing by-products as fuel.

A couple other mentionable businesses in the beverage industry are 4th Tap Brewing Co-op in Austin, TX and the Artisan Beverage Cooperative in Greenfield, MA. The newly founded, Cooperation Texas graduate, 4th Tap is aimed to be the first worker-owned production brewery in America when it opens in 2014. In the meantime, it is testing and tapping new brews (like their Zephyr Pale Ale) with the help of its brewing neighbors at the Black Star Co-op. The Artisan Beverage Cooperative, founded in March 2013, is the merged businesses of Katalyst Kombucha and Green River Ambrosia Meads, who are actually co-located in the same brewing facility and have overlapping staff. Both cooperatives are new members of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC).

Also in Greenfield, MA, Real Pickles announced its successful conversion to a worker cooperative in May 2013. Most amazing is how 77 individuals and organizations throughout Massachusetts and Vermont raised $500,000 in investments to help their neighbors with the transition.

Probably the largest company on this list is The Saxton Group with 2,000 employees, known for its McAlister’s Deli and Pinkberry franchises in Texas. The Saxton Group became 100% worker-owned just five days before 2013, but joined the ranks of America’s 100 largest majority employee-owned companies in 2013 curated by The National Center for Employee Ownership.

On a much smaller scale in Richmond, CA, five women run a cooperative business called Fusion Latina, celebrating their grand opening in February 2013. The catering cooperative serves Latin “fusion” food, while specializing in empanadas. This business was spurred by the support of the city through a $5,000 loan from the Richmond Cooperative Revolving Loan Fund, which was inspired by Richmond’s Mayor after a trip to Mondragon. Also in Richmond, Pamoja Energy Solutions was started by Solar Richmond as a cooperative solar company. In August 2013, Pamoja completed its first solar installation and started its second shortly after.

For those in the Pacific Northwest looking for a bite to eat, the new worker-owners of The New Moon Cooperative Café in Olympia, WA had their grand re-opening in August 2013. The 14 members of the Black Moon Cooperative (who are also the worker-owners of the café) purchased the café founded in 1996 from former owner Dylan Elkhart. Along with the not-yet-open worker-owned and -operated vegan dessert bar Au Paon which has been setting up in the People’s Food Co-op Farmers’ Market in Portland, OR all year, The New Moon Café is also a new member of the USFWC.

Also on the USFWC’s list of new members are small, unconventional businesses such as the three-member Chinese herbal pharmacy in Portland, OR called The Vital Compass, and across the country in Portland, ME is a four-member video store (yes, video) called Jet Video that became worker-owned in January 2013.

In the manufacturing sector, the resilient New Era Windows in Chicago, IL had its grand opening on May Day 2013 after a few tough years under the ownership of Republic Windows and Serious Energy. Their efforts consisted of a six-day sit-in and occupying the factory, respectively, before it became a worker-owned, unionized cooperative of 17 members.

Wellspring Upholstery opened its doors in the fall of 2013 in Springfield, MA with plans to hire six low-income residents in its first year. The Wellspring Collective’s first company works closely with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, which provides a pool of trained candidates who would otherwise face limited employment opportunities after incarceration.

In Chicago, IL, four teenage female students at the Austin Polytech Academy are worker-owners of MECH Creations, a trumpet mouthpiece manufacturing company with a product line of three, including a patented product. Finding its origins in an after-school program on entrepreneurial skills, a business plan was created, materials were acquired, and production began in May 2013.

Lastly, in the information technology field, the Boston TechCollective in Boston, MA joined the USFWC in 2013. The five worker-owners of the worker-owned tech support business offer home and business computer repairs and a free weekly workshop every Thursday covering topics from Smartphones 101 to online privacy.

Though these 17 companies are just a sliver of a selection of businesses that have become worker-owned cooperatives or ESOPs, it shows that the structure of a democratized workplace is not limited to industry or scale. It is encouraging to see new and existing businesses transition to a more democratic workplace, and it was always exciting to highlight these new developments throughout 2013 on our social media platforms. We hope to see these businesses grow stronger and for many more to come in 2014.