Employee Involvement Helps These Companies Be More Innovative

Companies That Stand Out for as Best for Workers

Namaste Solar Panels

Solar panels installed by Namasté Solar soak up rays on the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s roof.
Photo courtesy Namasté Solar

The six companies highlighted here have become designated as Best for Workers because of their commitment to employee involvement and by striving for high employee engagement. Turns out, these strategies are key to their businesses’ growth and innovation.

To earn the Best for Workers designation, the companies are evaluated for how they treat their workers through compensation, benefits, training and ownership opportunities, internal communication, job flexibility, corporate culture, and worker healthy and safety practices.

Here’s how various enterprises, from a baking-supply company to an accounting firm, thrive by focusing on their employee involvement and ownership.

Power From Sun and People

Namasté Solar | Solar design and installation | Boulder, Colorado

Founded in 2005 and an employee-owned cooperative since 2011, Namasté Solar has more than 150 employees across three states, and about 70 of them are co-owners. All employees are eligible to petition for co-ownership after their first 30 days.

Upon approval, the employee enters a 12-month candidacy period. Namasté Solar’s official meetings, books and salary information are open to all co-owners. And by company policy, no one can earn more than six times what the lowest-paid employee makes.

Namasté Solar is proving a worker co-op’s ability to evolve and expand. The company hired a new CEO, Dave Vorlage, in May 2016, from outside the Colorado-based company, and opened offices in New York and California in 2015. It has all-company “big-picture meetings” every other month and two retreats a year to reinforce the culture. Namasté Solar plans to keep expanding its commercial business sector and business in its regional offices.

“We’ve grown from three to 157 people over the last decade while being profitable every single year,” says Blake Jones, Namasté Solar co-founder. “And with every superstar employee thinking and acting like an owner, our company has 157 times the entrepreneurial spirit that we’d otherwise have — and ultimately this is the cornerstone to our success.”


Involvement Is the Recipe

King Arthur Flour | Food and baking supplies | Norwich, Vermont

The King Arthur Flour Co. has spent 226 years showing that being a good place to work is good for business.
King Arthur, which was founded as a family-owned business in 1790, switched to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan in 1996 and has been 100 percent employee-owned since 2004. Since that transition, the company has grown significantly, incorporating a bakery and a Baking School (and later expanding them) as well as extending distribution of its flours and mixes to retailers across the United States. King Arthur’s revenue has surpassed $100 million and growth is steady, says Suzanne McDowell, co-CEO and chief human resources officer.

King Arthur Flour

“As a 100 percent employee-owned company, we recognize that every person who works for King Arthur Flour has a real stake in the company’s success. By supporting our employees, we only become a stronger and more successful company,” she says.

The company culture emphasizes open communication and participation, including monthly companywide meetings and an annual employee survey used to make the work environment ever better.


Caring for Patients and Workers

Home Care Associates | In-home care services | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Providing quality home care to clients on Medicaid might seem to be a likely assignment for a nonprofit agency. But it’s half the mission of Home Care Associates (HCA), a for-profit worker cooperative with more than 200 employees that was founded 23 years ago by the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute. The other half of the company’s stated mission is to provide good jobs with growth prospects to low-income workers. It’s a challenging two-part mission in a challenging industry, but folks at HCA say the co-op arrangement benefits everyone.

“It creates an added incentive for people to take their work seriously and really want to do their work well,” says Karen Kulp, HCA’s president and CEO. “They are doing really, really important work.”

Starting wages at HCA may be lower than at some other agencies, but unlike most agencies, HCA provides twice the required training, full-time employment, health insurance and passes for the public transportation system — and, of course, cash dividends to co-owners as profits allow.

After three months of employment at HCA, employees are eligible to purchase a share of stock in the company. About half the eligible employees are currently co-owners, and co-owners hold seven of the 12 spots on HCA’s Board of Directors.

One result is employees stay longer in an industry known for its high turnover rates, and that makes HCA more profitable.


Workers in Control

South Mountain Company | Design/build and renewable energy | West Tisbury, Massachusetts

Employee ownership isn’t just a privilege at South Mountain Company; it’s a responsibility. That’s because when John Abrams’ 12-year-old business became a worker cooperative in 1987, employee-owners gained control of the company as well as a financial stake. The 17 employee-owners (of 33 total employees) are the company’s board and make policy decisions by consensus, meaning everyone must agree.

South Mountain Stat

The structure, especially consensus-based decision-making, sounds unwieldy, but Abrams says, “We started small and grew, and our experience with group decision-making processes grew as well.” One key factor is making a clear distinction between policy and management, he says, with the board focusing on policy.

The approach works, as the company’s board has used its 75 percent supermajority in lieu of consensus to make decisions only three times in 29 years of shared ownership, he says.

The employees work together to design and build residences and other structures, with a focus on incorporating renewable energy. The company has grown gradually and prospered, with its most recent annual revenue at $12.4 million.


Accounting in Harmony

Alfa Accountants en Adviseurs | Accounting and business advising | Wageningen, Netherlands

The most important thing about Alfa, according to CEO Fou-Khan Tsang, is that “people are happy in the company. That’s my main concern.” The company emphasizes in-house harmony, which makes for eager and productive employees, Tsang says.

This top-10 accounting firm in the Netherlands, with annual billings of about 68 million euros (almost $75 million), was founded in 1942 during World War II to offer affordable services to farmers. Now the company has about 900 employees across 29 offices providing accounting, bookkeeping and related auditing services to small and medium businesses, including farmers.

Employees own 100 percent of Alfa, and 90 percent of eligible employees (those who have worked there more than two years) have shares. Acquisitions have been an important part of Alfa’s growth, and workers in newly acquired firms are immediately eligible to buy in.

Tsang acknowledges that keeping everyone in sync is a challenge with the company’s widely dispersed workforce, so he and the other board members travel and write a lot, and Alfa has an annual company day to talk business, plus a family day (kids and dogs invited) every two years.


Happy Workers = Happy Clients

Butler/Till Media | Communications and marketing | Rochester, New York

Butler/Till Media calls itself “one happy place” and cites its 7 percent annual turnover rate (the advertising-industry average is 30 percent) as evidence. And why not? Working at Butler/Till is not only fulfilling, it’s also enriching. The 100 percent employee-owned company reports a five-year compounded annual revenue growth rate of 20 percent.

Butler/Till Stat

Kimberly Jones, president, says the company’s fast growth has made scaling the culture its biggest challenge. “We are committed to finding people who not only can do the job, but also fit into the amazing culture that we have built organically over the last 18 years,” she says.

An employee group assesses candidates’ cultural fit, and an onboarding process brings new hires up to speed.

Butler/Till recognizes employees’ good ideas and encourages them to think big. Monthly meetings cover business details plus employee milestones; employees lead committees on topics from health to technology; and employees teach each other classes in business, career and media topics at the in-house “university.”

Happy employees make happy clients: Clients stay 8.9 years on average, about triple the estimated ad-agency average. The company develops communications for health care brands (such as Bausch and Lomb), technology (Kodak) and higher education (Ithaca College), among other industries.


Best for Workers 2016 logoFind More Best for the World

Check out the full list of Best for Workers honorees and read about employee-owned Gardener’s Supply, a featured Best for Workers honoree. Dig deeper and explore the full list of 515 honorees on our interactive Best for the World hub. You can also review the full Best for the World criteria and methodology.

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