Wine, beer, cookie dough and home health care — seemingly unrelated, but leaders of innovative businesses in each of these sectors are tackling how to keep their companies’ mission alive long after current leadership has handed over the reins. For founders of mission-driven companies in particular, this can be a huge challenge.
We sought out the opinions of respected leaders who are grappling with this challenge: Amy Prosenjak of A to Z Wineworks, Oregon’s largest winery with a focus on sustainable viticulture; Kim Jorden of employee-owned New Belgium Brewing Co., one of the nation’s largest craft brewers that recently expanded to its second brewery; Ted Castle of Rhino Foods, a cookie-dough supplier to Ben & Jerry’s that has create several innovative programs to help employees be their best selves at work; and Michael Elsas of Cooperative Home Care Associates, North America’s largest worker-owned cooperative. Here, they share their insights, struggles, successes and, most importantly, their guiding lights along the path to creating a durable, prosperous enterprise.
A few spoiler alerts: Two company CEOs were bus drivers at one point in their career; at least two run profitable enterprises changing the way business is done without having received an MBA; one of them invented chocolate chip cookie dough for ice cream; all four see the mission of their company as bigger than the product or service it provides. Plus, what’s role of Tony Danza?
New Belgium’s Kim Jordan provides some insight:
It’s good to remember that there is a fine art, I think, in “CEOness” to stopping and saying, “Absolutely not,” and also recognizing when other people have ways to give this thing flair and flavor. You need to stand behind them and say, “You go.”
Below is the conversation held during the “Leading Toward Legacy” panel moderated by B the Change Media CEO Bryan Welch at the 2016 Best for the World Gathering. At our online Best for the World hub, you can listen to the panel along with all the other panels and presentations from the event, plus learn more about all the Best for the World honorees.
Leading Toward Legacy
Bryan Welch: I want to talk about legacy with some friends of mine now. With me today is Amy Prosenjak, who after really quite a corporate career, I think you were director of finance, right, at American Signature, a furniture company, a big furniture company — 4,000 employees, something like that.
Amy Prosenjak: Something like that: a billion dollars.
Welch: Then you end up running a winery in Oregon which becomes Oregon’s largest winery, A to Z Wineworks, and Rex Hill is the other brand. At some point in this conversation, let’s talk about what the pivot was, because I don’t recall that I’ve ever understood exactly what took you from the furniture.
Michael Elsas is the CEO of Cooperative Home Care Associates in The Bronx in New York City. I will tell you, the first time I visited his office I thought it was the best run business I have ever seen. I felt that way because the place just bubbles with lovely. They’re providers of home health care in The Bronx. They picked the hardest business and they picked one of the toughest communities to do it in, and yet the place is full of light and laughter, and I think been profitable 30 out of 33 years they’ve been in existence …
The largest worker-owned cooperative in North America. …
Elsas: By the way, profitable — we don’t say how profitable. We’re profitable.
Welch: Kim Jordan, co-founder of New Belgium Brewing, which makes her, I think in a way, sort of the leading party girl in North America, something like that. … Kim was a social worker before she founded one of the country’s leading breweries, which now has 700 employees. … They also own Colorado’s largest private solar array. They’ve been the most, probably the most, impactful company in improving environmental health on the Front Range in Colorado for a decade. They’ve been involved in numerous issues, too numerous to name, but they’ve been incredibly important to preserving and improving environmental health along the Front Range. …
Then of course my buddy Ted Castle, who is here because he once really needed a summer job, right? … Ted was an assistant hockey coach at the University of Vermont. … Hockey coaches have no income in summer, am I correct?
Ted Castle: We had nothing to do. We were unemployable, basically.
Welch: Unemployable. Started an ice cream shop and, in a fit of innovation and creativity, figured out how to put … chocolate chip cookie dough, into his ice cream. Somebody from Ben & Jerry’s must have had a taste, and today your company is the sole supplier of the cookie dough that goes into Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and a bunch of other things, right?
Castle: Yeah. I like the way you told that story. I’ll make sure Jostein [Solheim, Ben & Jerry’s CEO] was listening how that worked out for them.
Welch: … The other thing about Ted is that he always talks about his businesses, though he never had any real intention of doing good things in the world. … There’s actually a social worker’s office in his factory. He employs dozens of immigrants and provides just enormous personal support to them. One of the things that I definitely want to talk about in this conversation, and maybe we will start with it, is your income advance program.
As I understand it, your employees, you realized some of them when they needed $1,000 to fix a car let’s say, they had to go to payday loans. … At that level of the company, in the warehouse, in the freezer, at the dock, people found it very hard to save up 1,000 bucks for a rainy day, and if the car needs a fix they end up at payday loans. You all invented this, as I understand, this program in partnership with a credit union where you provide, through an income deduction, money for issues that come up.
Castle: … I think the point is that we try very hard to look at business and not create an imaginary line at work and at home. I say I don’t really want to spend the weekends playing volleyball with my employees, but at the same time, we believe that what happens to our employees and their families outside of work is very important. When they come to work, and what we do with our employees during the day, really impacts their lives outside of work. We’ve always been on that concept of the inside out, and that there’s sort of this imaginary line that way too many people try to draw. Income advance is probably our best new innovation in the last 10 years. We’re here to try to start spreading it throughout the world.
Welch: Why did you configure your business in this way? There was no such thing as a big corporation when you started — it was barely an idea in anybody’s mind. … The way you talk about it is that you just took for granted that your whole values, that your whole self should be part of the business, and that your own sense of conscience and responsibility should be reflected in the business. That’s not what they teach in MBA programs most of the time.
Castle: Well the good news is, I didn’t go get an MBA, wasn’t in business back when I went to school in the ’70s. Business was sort of bad. Coming from Burlington, Vermont, living there, Ben & Jerry’s was right. As Jostein said [in his presentation], when they talked about the three-part mission, socially responsible, that was like a brand new word. I think we were highly influenced by Ben & Jerry’s, about what it means to be a good business. We also, as we started to grow, we had people that worked for us that really cared about running the business, and we actually came up with the purpose of our business 25 years ago.
Our purpose is to impact the manner in which business is done. If you think about the B Corp mission, and Rhino’s mission, they’re basically aligned. They’re just using different words. … In the past panel [Leading Toward Growth] you asked what success looks like. … Success looks to me that we’ve impacted the manner in which business is done. If we can figure out how to have the income advance or anything that we come up with … that’s the biggest turn-on and that’s where my passion lies.
Welch: You’ve felt it from Day One?
Castle: Yeah. I sort of look back and go, “How did we come up with that purpose. It’s such an odd thing.” It didn’t really even make sense to us, but we had a really strong leadership team, we only had about 40 employees back then, and it just seemed to hit home. Now we all talk about work and a desire to have purpose, so all these things come around. I’m actually so amazed that we came up with that. I don’t even know, it was 25 or 30 years ago, and it has been how we look at our business and what turns us on for sure.
Welch: Is there any part of that, Kim? … You always talk about how you felt like this should be fun for the people engaged in it, and that’s another idea. That’s almost, I think, an affirmer to traditional business education. You also, I think, did not get an MBA, if I remember.
Kim Jordan: Yeah, no MBA here either. I speak in MBA classes. … For a while I spoke a lot about business ethics, which I just think is interesting, that a whole course’s work needs to go around what, in many cases, is pretty straightforward: Either it’s aligned with what you want or it’s not. We have what we call a core value and a belief about being a business role model, because we think you spend a hell of a lot of time at this thing called work. If it doesn’t have a bigger purpose and meaning, I think one has to ask why you’re there. For us we have 10 of them. One of them is also having fun, because it’s important to feel like … the days stack up one after another, and are all of them fun? No, but … if the totality of it doesn’t feel like, you know, “I am really loving what we’re doing here,” I think that’s a waste of human potential.
Welch: I’m fascinated by Michael’s story of origin as well. … You were going to grad school, and as you originally told me the story, you just looked at home health care as something that really needed to be done. Therefore, you decided you would have a career in that business.
Elsas: Well, not exactly, but it’s part of the story. The other part of the story was that I was trying to decide whether I wanted to work with young people or with the elderly. I started to work with young people, probably in the worst possible way: I was driving a school bus. If any of you have ever tried to drive a school bus …
Jordan: I’ve been a school bus driver for many years. I feel your pain, yeah.
Elsas: Another person who has refused to work with young people. That will cure you, immediately … because something happens to kids when they get on a bus. … Maybe it’s the yellow that turns them totally into insane people. … I took a job as a volunteer in a senior center, and I started to get this instant gratification, if you will. Kids may understand what you’re trying to do five or 10 years later, in terms of helping them or correcting them on a course, but I found working with the elderly … got me turned on to working with people who were older.
Then home care really did become my passion, not so much because of the folks that we service, but because of the people who provided the care: direct-care workers, who were at the time getting paid $5 an hour doing just this amazing work, doing work that most people just couldn’t do. If any of you have ever tried to spend 12 or 24 hours with either your grandmother or someone that you really love … how difficult that is, to do that. That’s what really attracted me to the work, was the people who did the work. Then what attracted me to come to Cooperative Home Care was that it was a company, and it’s really what I think we started to talk about, connected to the legacy issue if you will, which is being a worker-centered organization. B Corp sort of brings that out as one of the components. We were and still remain a wholly-owned company by the workers.
In other words, a true co-op in the sense that everybody gets one vote, one share, dividends are divided equally. Me as the president of the company, I share equally in those profits when dividends are issued. That worker-centered component, the B Corp certification, is really what we all aspired to, and worker-centered is an interesting concept because it’s not that the workers control what happens. It’s really about the decision-making. The decision-making that goes on in the company takes the workers’ concerns into account. That’s what is considered. How does this affect the workforce?…
We have a board. … There are 12 members on the board. … Eight are worker-owners. They have a majority on the board. The other four members come from some of our affiliates, because we have several companies now that are affiliated with Cooperative Home Health. That’s really what resonates with me when I think about legacy in the sense that it’s taking that worker-centered concept, and first of all preserving it, and then thinking about how to enhance it. That’s what we’ve been able to do. I think that’s really what we all ended up doing, and I think that that’s probably, for me at least, the driving force behind B Corp, along with the other very essential components, but that’s what I think drives it.
Welch: That’s really interesting because I think perhaps too much of the time we end up talking about the environment and societies and global impact. You strike for me a personally important chord, the experience of watching people’s lives change directly by their direct engagement in a business, because they work for that business. It’s extremely powerful and meaningful, I think, experience for all of us probably.
Amy, why were you inspired to come to Oregon?
Prosenjak: We were really inspired to come to Oregon, my husband, Steven, and I … I was leading that typical corporate life and I kept finding that the only thing I was getting out of it was money. We had a lovely house and a yard, and cars, and all these things, but there wasn’t much else at the end of the day. We knew we needed a change; we didn’t specifically say, “We should be in wine.” We loved wine, we had traveled to wine regions. … I’d done what normal corporate people do when they want to change jobs. I had hired a recruiter and I’d gone on all these corporate interviews to all these major corporations. None of it felt right, and I obviously wasn’t right for them either: Nobody offered me a job during that little run. Steve found this website called winejobs.com. That’s hilarious; no one would ever hire me in wine. What do I know about wine other than I like it?
Turns out it’s a business like any business. It’s about cost accounting, things I knew, inventory control, financial things. I came out for an interview and they took a risk on me. Surrounded by four founders, so a little bit of a different story than some of the people here that are the founders. I’ve been hired to help create legacy for these four founders that are still involved in the business and really create a place that has become a real growth business and have employees that are engaged and happy to be there and be a part of that legacy.
Welch: You say, “I’ve been hired,” and you’ve been there how long now?
Prosenjak: Ten years, almost.
Welch: Ten years, so you were hired a long time ago to create a legacy for the founders. I’m not sure everybody would say that.
Prosenjak: Right, and I don’t think that was a directive; that wasn’t in the job description. The job description said something like, “We’re long in responsibility and short on titles.” “Okay, these people are a little bit different. This isn’t the typical thing of concerning what your title might be.” I didn’t really know what I was looking for … but once I found it and started to feel it, “Oh, this is what it could be like.” You could be doing things for good through a business.
Welch: Tell us how you’re doing that then. … It sounds to me like you perceived one of your responsibilities as preserving that legacy and making it part of the company’s ongoing identity. … How?
Prosenjak: It became important to me. Those four people that started this business — Deb’s here, she’s speaking tonight, you’ll see them — they all have just enigmatic personalities; they all are so passionate about different pieces of the business. It became important to me to carry that on and to share that, and make sure they are each prominent with all of our employees, and yet we had good operational controls, and we were profitable.
Welch: Tell us about some of the things that you do that are typical of the company’s values.
Prosenjak: We have all-staff meetings, which when I first joined, the founders said, “We don’t have meetings. We don’t like meetings.” I said, “Well, I don’t like meetings either, but we could have different kinds of meetings, where we talk about things.” … Caring about the people is the number one thing, and yes, we make wine, so that’s pretty fun.
Welch: The legacy of Cooperative Home Care, Michael, is also interwoven with its responsibility to and its relationship with its people.
Elsas: When you talk about, to me, the core values of an organization like ours that is worker-centered. … The core values are not any different than the best practices. Those best practices become the core values of the organization, and the one that I find remarkable, if I may say in our case, is that we have 2,000 home care workers that go out into the field every day and provide care to individuals. We don’t have a central place where everybody comes, because the work is out there. Schedules are crazy. Sometimes you work in the morning and the afternoon, sometimes you work the full day, sometimes you work weekends.
…[of 2,000 employees] about 1,200 choose to be worker-owners. One of the core values or best practices is … People are working all day long … They don’t have time necessarily to come in and talk to their supervisor and so on.
We’ve had, for 32 years, an open-door policy, which says that at any time, any worker could come in and see anybody that they want, including the president of the company. We have a staff of 100 people; that drives the staff crazy. I’ve been there for 16 years; I can say there’s probably been about three attempts … to push back on that policy, because it can be disruptive to your day.
Welch: You mean managers who would prefer not to have that policy?
Elsas: Managers, yes, who have to stop what they’re doing and attend to the needs of the person, which usually is not something that is going to require a lot of time. The point is … what signal does that open-door policy send to the workers? It sends a powerful, powerful message, which recognizes the fact that I can’t tell you that on Tuesday, I’m going to come in at 10:30, because I’m not quite sure if my client is going to be at the hospital, or at the doctor’s office, I may not be able to get away. … It sends that powerful message that because you can’t tell us when you’re going to come in, you could come in any time.
… If somebody does come in and goes to the reception and says, “I need to talk to Michael,” they’re allowed to come. If I’m on the phone, I may have to say hold on, I may have to see what’s going on. It’s about those core values, best practices, whatever you want to say. That’s what makes the organization strong, that’s what makes them worker-centered, and that’s really what we cherish. Even though there’s been these three attempts, if you will, to fight back on it, and again, people realized how important it was.
Welch: They’re also your bosses; they own the company.
Elsas: Well they own the company in the sense that the board of directors … the worker-owners elect the board of directors. The board of directors sit on the board for two-year terms, many of whom have been back for more than one term, and they hire me. They hired me 16 years ago, and I report to them. They do have a lot of power, but what’s interesting about it, and I think a little bit of a misconception about worker-owned companies, is that the board does not run the company; they hired me to run it. It’s very clear that their responsibility is to set strategic direction within the company and to be engaged in those kinds of decisions. As far as running the company, they hired me to do that, and that’s what I do.
Welch: Kim, do you ever regret selling your company to the employees?
Jordan: No. Certainly we could have made other choices that would have been more lucrative, but again back to that concept of this is the one life you have, whether you’re letting your corporate life speak or your personal life speak. We set out, 25 years ago this year, to really be a business role model and a force for change, and I think that’s a common thing, cutting back to the legacy part of this. Before we ever made any beer we sat down and said what we want this company to be. Then when we had coworkers, we did that again. We’ve had probably three rounds of purpose, vision, mission, core values building over 25 years, and those become so important to the legacy.
I’ll take on people for mentoring opportunities now and again. I had someone who’s a friend, who’s an engineer who wanted to build up a framework, a vision for his company, but he wanted to write it all and you know, like, “OK. This is what we’re going to be. I wrote it down here.” It doesn’t really work that way. The way that people show up to express those core values or best practices really builds the DNA of the legacy over time.
Welch: You’re saying what your company is today, the company you founded, is a reflection of a lot of people collaborating, not a direct lineage of your intent?
Jordan: It’s 25 years of practice wisdom. It is also a direct reflection of my intent with some tweaks and morphs here and there, because I think one of the sort of weird roles of CEO is like … “No, we don’t do that here,” and sometimes it’s a little thing. … You morph the practice to make sure that it’s congruent with what you want to have happen and you also, I think, recognize when you need to stand out of the way and let other people morph the practice. We do things that are inexplicable to me. We have this thing called “Tony Danza” which is Tony Danza’s head … a papier mâché huge head with these really, really long arms, and it’s for a group hug, and we bring it out for particular occasions. Why is it called Tony Danza? Because the song, “Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza [Tiny Dancer]”. … It was lost on me the first time I saw it.
Welch: Both beautiful and kind of creepy, too.
Jordan: It’s good to remember that there is a fine art, I think, in “CEOness” to stopping and saying, “Absolutely not,” and also recognizing when other people have ways to give this thing flair and flavor. You need to stand behind them and say, “You go.” I think that’s where that legacy comes from and how you build what we call company perpetuation. Under that there’s legacy and founders’ liquidity, which is also an important thing to have to plan for and acknowledge as real and a part of the whole. Succession planning and that whole bucket for us is how do we make sure that the company goes forward, in a way that’s …
Welch: That perpetuates your mission.
Jordan: Well, that makes our hearts full and happy.
In answer to your question, no, I’m not at all sad that that was the choice that we made. We’ve done some form of open-book management and employee-ownership since 1995, so five years in to being a company, four years in, we started building wealth. …
Welch: Quick poll: How many of the panelists, I’ll throw myself in there, too, would almost certainly be richer if we had chosen to run businesses in a way that wasn’t values-based in the sense we’re talking about? How many of us could be pretty sure that they’d have more money? Ted’s not sure; that’s interesting, too. How many of the four of us regret that at all?
Elsas: No. We actually consciously are aware of it …
Welch: I know. You know that your CEO pay is a remarkably low level by New York standards.
Elsas: Yes, it’s quite low, which you wrote about eloquently in one of your articles.
Welch: I did. I outed your income. I hope that didn’t mess up your credit ratings.
Elsas: It’s OK. It’s all right. My wife was a little surprised.
Welch: Did she think you made more or less?
Elsas: I’m not saying. … It’s a conscious decision on our part and, yes, for me that always has been a very, very sensitive concern of mine. We do keep multiples, the way actually they used to be, when this country really kind of grew and really had a different kind of purpose, if you will.
Jordan: I think there are two parts, though, to your question. One part is that founders’ liquidity event, and I certainly would have been richer if I’d sold New Belgium to Anheuser-Busch, by multiples that are not even worth …
There’s also the value of the company. Would New Belgium have been interesting enough to anyone? … Would the value of New Belgium be as big as it is if we hadn’t shown up the way we do in the world? I don’t think so.
Welch: Ted, you would not be richer if you had run the company purely for profit?
Castle: Well, Rhino is owned by my wife and myself, so we’re different, that we were privately held. We had the purpose of impacting the manner in which business is done, but we have four principles. One is a statement about finances, one’s about customer suppliers, one’s about community, and one’s about our workers. That’s really the foundation. We actually did that 25 or 30 years ago, and we have a very solid process in place to look at how we’re doing that. I’m sort of a disorganized guy in many ways, and about 10 years ago I said, “If I’m going to keep running this company that’s growing, I need to get my act together a little bit.” I really spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to bring some madness into this journey. My idea of the business is basically a journey, and that’s what I like about it. I actually think business is where all the action is. I love what I do.
When I first started the business and left coaching, I was a nice-guy boss, and about four years into that all of a sudden I really sat down and said, “So what did I like about sports and games?” It was really competing hard and getting the most out of people, and that’s what really changed my business. We started with open-book management in the 1980s, and we’ve been doing it ever since. It’s not an easy place to work: We set expectations for people, and if they don’t want to be part of it, then that’s fine with us. You can go work someplace else, but this is what we’re up to. We take what we do very seriously; we want to be really good at what we do. The principles that we have are really important, and we challenge ourselves on that. We have a Wall of Fame Award every year, where we vote people in, employees vote people in, who are really exemplifying those principles.
The way I see it is, it needs to be alive in conversation. I think what you’d find in all the people that have been chosen to speak here today is, if you went to their business … and you said, “This is our mission or vision” or whatever the heck you call it, and somebody did an audit on your business, where can they see these things exist? Is it alive in the conversation? That’s all I try to do. I heard Jostein say, you’re not going to be good at this: perfection. I really liked that because, boy, that would be really hard, but I think we all try to be perfectionists, but really, what the point is, is it’s alive in the conversation: You be honest when you’re not doing it, and you be honest about how to improve. You involve not just the leadership team; you involve everybody in that conversation.
Fortunately, I got into that mindset early on, to try to get everybody that worked at Rhino to think and act like owners, and that’s what I do. If I see people sort of not getting it, I don’t think they’re wrong, I think it’s just they don’t know enough. My whole goal is to get everybody to think and act like an owner, and that’s a never-ending process. People come to work not trusting you; they’re not used to that. … We have incredible retention at Rhino because we provide that environment, that people, if they get it, they really get it. If they don’t like it, they don’t get it; then we actually don’t really want them there. The legacy for me is actually around the principles and living and breathing and trying to get better at it all the time.
Welch: One sentence then that would describe Rhino 50 years from now, if your intentions are realized. If you could depict it according to your ideals, what would Rhino be 50 years from now?
Castle: … The legacy question is one I really struggle with. We’ve looked at ESOPs and we’ve looked at different things. … I have a 33- and a 29-year-old. I didn’t do this to have my kids take over the business. One is in the business now; if that works, that’s fine. I think that is one of the biggest challenges that a business has, and I’m different than the people before. I’m not trying to be a certain size. I’m just trying to be really good at what we’re doing, and if we grow, we grow. If we stay the size we are, I’m OK with that, but it does leave that legacy question — a big responsibility for me that I definitely need to figure out.
Welch: Kim, New Belgium 50 years from now?
Jordan: That’s a great question. I just want to say before I answer it, our board of directors said to me five years ago, “You don’t necessarily have to enact your plan, whatever it is, but you have to start thinking about planning for meeting with people who have done similar things, letting this ferment.”
Welch: You’re talking about succession?
Jordan: Succession, company perpetuation, because what you don’t want to have happen is now you’re desperate. You’re sick, you’re something … something unthinkable has happened and now your back’s against the wall and you have to do this. Because it’s a long process; because it takes a lot of introspection to really … it’s not like going to buy a pair of shoes. You have to really think about what is going to matter to me. Fifty years for New Belgium? New Belgium will continue to be recreating a vital business role model with a community of co-worker-owners who get it.
Elsas: Cooperative Home Care 50 years from now depends a lot on you guys, the B Corps, meaning … if the world changes in the way in which B Corp has envisioned it, and all of us, everyone, all of the Best for the World has envisioned this, then Cooperative Home Care will do very well in that environment. One of the main, major factors for us to go through the B Corp certification was because we’re looking for that competitive edge. There’s a lot of home care providers out there. We wanted to distinguish ourselves; that’s why we became a worker-owned co-op. We thought that a quality job would lead to quality care; we still believe that, we know it to be true. That competitive edge will only work as more and more of the world understands the importance of the B Corp concept.
I think that in terms of our industry, there will be enormous shrinkage and there will be incredible opportunities, but unless the healthcare delivery system recognizes the value of worker-ownership, actually understands the value of profit, people and planet, it’s going to be tough. It will be tough for us. I honestly believe as Adam [Lowry] said earlier [in the Leading Toward Growth panel] that it’s going to be a long haul. We’re in it for the long haul, and I think there’s a good chance that we’ll persevere.
Welch: I think so, too. Amy?
Prosenjak: That’s what means legacy, I guess, is what we’re saying. All of our businesses are so different, and some of our core values may be slightly different, and our long-term planning may be different, but we’re all in this for the right reason, and it comes out just genuinely, so it’s fun. For A to Z, I think a 50-year horizon is to stick to our mission plan, which is to create a quality wine at an affordable price while being a force for good. … We hope that it continues on that path of trying to change the world.