How Learning Trips Expand Employee Ownership
How My Company Became Employee Owned
Some 35 years ago I owned several Re/max Offices I wanted to sell to the agents, but I had trouble finding a model. I discovered a worker cooperative in Spain— the Mondragón Corporation—and read all I could find about it. I also found an employee-owned real estate company in Fort Collins called The Group, Inc. Real Estate, which was formed by Larry Kendell. As I visited with Larry and “The Group” real estate company in Fort Collins and worked with an attorney, I put together a legal structure whereby we (meaning the agents, the attorney and myself) formed an agent-owned real estate company. That company still exists today: RE/MAX of Cherry Creek, LLC.
I needed a model to help me and my attorney figure out this “new” (at least to me) model of business ownership. My visits with The Group were extremely helpful, except that the RE/MAX model and The Group’s model were very different. The structures I read about in Mondragón were helpful but limited. At that time, Mondragón had ~45,000 employee owners (now they have 85,000!), primarily in manufacturing. But both models, however, proved to me that employee ownership as a business worked and worked exquisitely.
The Power of a Learning Trip
In 2004 I retired from real estate, after forming another employee-owned real estate company with a Keller Williams office. In 2008, my wife and I finally visited the Mondragón cooperatives in Spain. We received a wonderful tour of their modern manufacturing plant and headquarters, and we spent much time just talking about the worker cooperatives. Mondragón runs an employee-owned bank, an employee-owned university and an employee-owned chain of grocery/dry good stores, which we visited and shopped in.
Visiting this cooperative made me realize that I needed to dream much bigger than just one business. Our entire state economy could benefit from greater worker ownership. I returned to Denver ready to do more to promote worker cooperatives in Colorado.
Where to start? On the web, I saw that the Ohio Employee Ownership Center was having their annual conference. It was affordable to attend, so I went. Ohio is ahead of the rest of the country in employee ownership. At the conference, I learned about ESOPs (employee stock ownership plans) as another form of employee ownership. I also learned about the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. Returning from Ohio, I partnered with my two friends, Larry Dunn and Bill Kirton, to start the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center.
Another Learning Visit
A few years later, we convinced staff members from The Denver Foundation to visit the Cleveland Evergreen Cooperatives. Several of us from RMEOC also went on the visit. A number people have told me that the Cleveland visit was the tipping point, the experience that inspired so much going on now with employee ownership and community wealth building in Denver and Colorado.
But we have much more to learn—now from northern Italy in the Emilia Romagna region. Here, cooperatives of all kinds (worker co-ops, grocery co-ops, credit unions, social co-ops) work together, to support each other. Italy’s constitution mandates that each co-op contribute 3% of their total surplus—tax free—to develop new co-ops and help existing co-ops grow. Paul Bindel, an RMEOC staff member, toured the Italian cooperatives this past summer and will be sharing his experience throughout the year.
Based on my previous experience with learning trips, I believe we need to get a group of Coloradan business owners, political leaders, and economic developers to take a tour next summer to Italy. If we see what’s happening there, we can have more of a vision for what we can bring back to Denver and Colorado. The approximate cost for a trip is nearly $4000. If we can get representatives from the City and County of Denver, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, and from Colorado-based economic development organizations and foundations, just imagine what we could do!