On July 1 we became a worker-owned cooperative [WOC], with the leadership and ownership shifting from the prior company owners [Rick Dubrow and Cindi Landreth] to the new company’s co-owners, or ‘Kowners‘, as we nicknamed them [Patrick Martin, Maggie Bates, Justus Peterson, Bobbi Plata and Shawn Serdahl]. This transition ended years and years of study and collaboration between the buyers and sellers.
So what is a worker-owned cooperative?
Let’s first talk about cooperatives in general, because there are numerous specific types; five to be exact. More on this later.Generally speaking a co-op is a private business organization that is owned and controlled by the people who use its products, supplies or services. Although cooperatives vary in type and membership size, all were formed to meet the specific objectives of it ‘members’, and are structured to adapt to ‘member’s’ changing needs. A ‘Member‘, in co-op jargon, is a co-owner of the business. Not all employees. Just those who become eligible and buy a share or shares of the business.
No, this is not some radical idea. Our WOC is an accepted form of business by the IRS; we’re a Subchapter-T corporation. Same game; different rules.
Oh really? Is it the same game?
We don’t think so. The cooperative model is values driven, one tied predominantly to cooperation, as opposed to competition. We think it is important and urgent to address the values towards which we’re orienteering. So allow us to share what are often considered the values set of a cooperative:
Co-ops are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, cooperative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.
1. Open and Voluntary Membership
Membership in a cooperative is open to all persons who can reasonably use its services and stand willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, regardless of race, religion, gender, or economic circumstances.
2. Democratic Member Control
Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions. Elected representatives (directors/trustees) are elected from among the membership and are accountable to the membership. In primary cooperatives, members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote); cooperatives at other levels are organized in a democratic manner.
3. Members’ Economic Participation
Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. At least part of that capital remains the common property of the cooperative. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing the cooperative; setting up reserves; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.
4. Autonomy and Independence
Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control as well as their unique identity.
5. Education, Training, and Information
Education and training for members, elected representatives (directors/trustees), CEOs, and employees help them effectively contribute to the development of their cooperatives. Communications about the nature and benefits of cooperatives, particularly with the general public and opinion leaders, helps boost cooperative understanding.
6. Cooperation Among Cooperatives
By working together through local, national, regional, and international structures, cooperatives improve services, bolster local economies, and deal more effectively with social and community needs.
7. Concern for Community
Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies supported by the membership.
We believe that the cooperative business model is a subset of our vision of a cooperative economy.
A cooperative economy is an economic system whereby those who employ its specific operating principles and embrace its explicit values can meet their basic needs in personally, socially, and environmentally responsible ways. Another way often used to describe such an economy is one driven by triple-bottom-line thinking… Profit, People and Planet… the three P’s . Basic needs met in personally, socially, and environmentally responsible ways.
Let’s briefly discuss the 5 co-op types. Think about REI for a moment, since so many of us know about their business model, which is a consumer cooperative. You buy a lifetime membership for $20 [in September of 2017] and take advantage of numerous consumer benefits, including the ability to vote on their board of directors. REI is owned by consumers who buy goods or services from their cooperative.
Three other types of cooperatives include:
- Producer cooperatives: owned by producers of commodities or crafts who have joined forces to process and market their products
- Purchasing cooperatives: owned by independent businesses or municipalities to improve their purchasing power
- Hybrid cooperatives: a combination of co-op types, where people with common interests band together
Then there’s our type… the worker-owned model: owned and democratically governed by employees who become co-op ‘members‘. Five employees became the founding members, or Kowners. Each of them worked here at least 5 years, one of our eligibility requirements. [In reality, the 5 Kowners worked here for over fifty combined years.] Each of them purchased a share in the co-op. Each Kowner has one vote.
WORK IT! OWN IT!
Money cannot buy influence under this roof. An individual who has worked here long enough [and continue to work at least 3/4 time], purchases a share, achieves other eligibility requirements [like knowing how to understand financial statements and the like] and resonates with the principles of cooperation and cooperatives… can become a Kowner, or member. We’ve got 5 Kowners to start, and our ultimate goal is to morph all of our employees into Kowners. [Yes, a lofty goal, but, hey, we design and build lofts.]
We believe in a business, and in an economy, wherein workers with more skin in the game, embracing caring principles that bond a business to its clients, is a model worthy of our efforts. And we promise to bring these values to your doorstep; to help you with your homework.