July 9, 2021
More and more people are recognizing that our current economic system benefits a small few at the expense of many, especially working-class communities and communities of color.
What many people don’t know is that there’s a better way already taking place that represents a path forward to create a more just and sustainable economy — an economy that works for everyone.
In this story, we’ll discuss how Bill Kirton and Dick Peterson saw a need to go beyond business as usual, identified a solution, and founded RMEOC to promote employee ownership across Colorado and beyond.
Note: This blog post is adapted from a recent episode of the EO Podcast featuring RMEOC founders Bill Kirton + Dick Peterson. A link to the original is included below.
Early experiments in economic justice + employee ownership
Bill and Dick had known each other for many years without ever discussing the idea of employee ownership. But if you knew each of their backgrounds, you wouldn’t think it’s unnatural that this is where they’ve ended up.
Bill is a retired Methodist minister who’s well-versed in the study of various world religions.
“There’s a connection between theology… these religious traditions and economics if you read the ancient texts carefully,” he said.
Those beliefs led him to the conviction that our society needed to find a way to “move the economy from Wall Street back to Main Street.” He became committed to finding ways for people to create the conditions for their own economic livelihood rather than being subjected to the hierarchy of wealth and power prevalent in society today.
Dick also has a long history of resisting that hierarchy. In the 70s he operated five RE/MAX offices when the company was just beginning — but he hated being the owner.
“That was an awkward position to be in,” he remarked.
That’s also when he started learning about employee ownership. Fort Collins was then home to The Group, a 100% employee-owned real estate company that helped inspire his own vision. He also discovered the Mondragón Corporation, an internationally renowned network of cooperatives in the Basque region of northern Spain.
In 1980, Dick decided to sell his offices to the employees. It was largely a success, with RE/MAX of Cherry Creek continuing to thrive to this day.
After moving to Keller Williams and converting one of those offices into an employee-owned company, Dick traveled abroad and made a stop at Mondragón.
When he returned, he thought to himself, “I ought to just go on the web and see if there’s anything else [in employee ownership] going on in America… I found out there was a lot going on!”
He discovered other organizations promoting employee ownership, including the Ohio Employee Ownership Center, which became the inspiration for RMEOC today.
One night Bill and Dick were sitting together at a political dinner event after an election. Bill recounts a lot of complaining about how bad the next few years were going to be, with nothing being done and no plans being made to change the situation.
It was then that Bill told Dick, “You’ve been talking about employee ownership, let’s start a movement!”
“Where there’s no vision, the people perish,” Bill said, “and it seemed to me that it was time to have a vision about a different kind of economy.”
That vision included working people, not just stockholders, being able to share wealth by reaping the benefits of their labor and building wealth for themselves and their families.
“I had no idea what we were going to do because I wasn’t that educated on what employee ownership was,” Bill said, “but it was like a light bulb went on in my head that this needs to be done… it was time to move this forward.”
Bill and Dick, along with co-founder Larry Dunn, began to spread their vision for a new economy, starting with the Keller Williams offices that Dick worked with.
“I got a lot of agents to work with me,” Dick said, “They were kind of excited about it and the offices worked very well.”
In fact, everyone worked together so well that they became the top offices in Colorado for nine out of ten straight years, all while benefiting equally from the results of their labor.
The EO landscape today
Bill credits the success of their mission to good timing — and he thinks the conditions of the 1980s parallels the opportunities we face in a post-pandemic world.
It’s possible that racial tensions, increasing wealth inequality, a recession, and changes in the way we work may help employee ownership emerge more front-and-center than it has before.
Bill looks to cooperative development flourishing across the globe. In places like South Korea, for example, he says cooperatives are exploding in popularity — yet still remain a bit under the radar.
While the U.S. is a little late to the movement happening worldwide, Dick is quick to point out that it’s not a partisan issue one way or another.
“[Employee ownership] is a free enterprise system,” he says. “It’s not socialism, and it’s not communism. It’s just another form of ownership.”
That’s something that both parties can stand behind.
Look to the future: 20 transitions by mid-2021
The next step is to get worker co-ops, ESOPs, and all other kinds of employee-owned businesses to start working together. When these companies come together, the movement can grow.
“We need to begin to get… these bigger companies to work together and see that they’re a part of a group, that they can band together and be really supportive of each other,” Dick said.
Both Bill and Dick are hopeful that government support will help bolster their efforts. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has called for an initiative to convert 20 new employee-owned businesses in the state this fiscal year.
“The point is economic development here,” RMEOC board secretary Jennifer Briggs commented, “We believe that this idea will create better economic conditions for the state as a whole.”
The initiative includes the first state-level office on employee ownership in the U.S., along with a strong connection to the Small Business Administration. The idea is for employee ownership to be “on the menu” for business owners starting or transitioning their business.
How does RMEOC fit in? When a business signals an interest in employee ownership, we’ll do triage and feasibility to figure out if they are truly a good fit. Then, we offer education and technical assistance, among other things as a small nonprofit.
“The governor’s goal and our goal are one and the same,” Dick said.
And to that end, he’s confident that proliferating employee ownership is a lasting project that will continue to move forward in Colorado.
“I’m optimistic about our future.”
This blog post is adapted from a recent episode of the EO Podcast featuring RMEOC founders Bill Kirton + Dick Peterson. Click here to listen.
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