“Mine!”

“No one washes a rental car”
-Corey Rosen, National Center for Employee Ownership

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Ownership is a part of my DNA, as it is, I believe, for most. My great-grandfather was born in England in 1850. Small landholders of the English countryside had been evicted from land that had been held in common for centuries. Artisans and craftsmen saw their livelihoods disappear as machines and unskilled labor replaced them. The possibility of owning a means of livelihood in the “new world” provided thousands with the motivation to endure any hardship in order to stake a claim. For these English immigrants, of which I am a product, the literal meaning of ownership was “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

“Mine” is a claim that children make early in their lives, although parents try to convey the moral principle of toy-sharing. “Profit sharing,” likewise, might be good for the moral character of business owners and corporate executives, as well as for the business itself. For children and maybe for adults as well, “mine” is a way of saying “I exist and I matter!” What we own, even if limited in value, seems to be an extension of who we are as human beings.

“Our economic life is structured by property relations, our identity is linked with objects, and our social and political lives are designed to preserve and enhance ownership.”                                         –Neala Schleuning, To Have and to Hold: The Meaning of Ownership in the United States

The “ownership” about which I am most interested, however, is not that of children’s toys, the latest iPhone, or a BMW. My interest is in employees owning their jobs. Employee-ownership is about “livelihood,” “living economies” and “living wages.” In other words, it is about making a living, but beyond that, valuing life, mine and the larger community in which I live.  Jack Stack, in his book, A Stake in the Outcome, wrote:

“To be an owner, a true owner, you have to care. Owners….don’t just put in their time. They have something bigger they’re working toward, and they feel a sense of responsibility about accomplishing it. They go beyond mere problem-solving and look for creative, innovative ways to reach their goals. They are independent-minded, freethinking people, leaders not followers, and they know how to take the bad with the good. Indeed, they’re often at their best when the going gets tough. They have what it takes to reach down and find the inner sources of strength that allow them to keep moving forward, no matter what gets in their way.”

 Life and liberty!

Stack’s perspective could be understood as a motivating factor in the nation’s founding. In the 1770s, most of the English population had little property ownership. The American Revolution was partly a reaction and partly a decision to do whatever was necessary to “own.” (Joseph Blasi, The Citizens Share). The founder’s perspective was summarized by James Madison: “In civilized communities, property, as well as personal rights, is an essential object of the laws, which encourage industry by securing the enjoyment of its fruits…The United States has a precious advantage….in the universal hope of acquiring property.” –James Madison, Constitutional Convention of 1787

And happiness? The John Lewis Partnership is the largest department store chain in the United Kingdom, with 35 department stores, 272 Waitrose grocery stores and 76,500 employee-owners. Revenues of this company are US$13.4 billion.

“The business is owned solely for the benefit of those who work in it….through worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.” The company’s written constitution states that the company’s purpose is to support “the happiness of all its members….At the John Lewis Partnership, employee happiness isn’t a path to some other goal. It is the goal.”  –Marjorie Kelly, Owning Our Future

Stated simply: Employee-ownership is a better way to do business!

Bill Kirton
Founding Partner, Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center