From Workers to OwnersNovember 2021
by Rachel White
This is the first in a two-part series on Byggmeister's conversion to worker ownership. This post shares the perspective of the company's new owners. The second shares Founder Paul Eldrenkamp's perspective.
On October 8, 2021, Byggmeister’s employees purchased the company from Founder Paul Eldrenkamp and incorporated as a worker cooperative. According to our new bylaws, all employees are eligible to apply for ownership after three years and six thousand hours of employment. At the time of purchase seven employees, including me, bought in and became co-owners.
When I tell clients, partners, and colleagues that Byggmeister is now worker-owned, there is near-universal excitement and support. But there are also some questions, especially from those unfamiliar with cooperative businesses. Perhaps most fraught is: will worker ownership change Byggmeister?
My answer is always yes and no. Yes, a few important things will change. For one thing, every employee will have the opportunity to help shape the company’s future and share in the company’s profits. And when employees do buy-in, they become personally invested in the company’s success in a deeper way.
Beyond this, I expect little to change. Becoming a cooperative is an evolution, not a revolution of who we are and how we do things. It grows out of and formalizes our collaborative, team-based approach, while at the same time strengthening that approach. It also builds on a carefully planned leadership transition that predated the ownership transition by several years.
At least that’s how I answer this question. But I was curious to know how Byggmeister’s six other new owners would respond, as well as what else they would have to say about Byggmeister’s conversion to worker-ownership.
So, here they are in their own words.
Rachel: When did you decide you wanted to be an owner of Byggmeister?
Cador: I knew I wanted to be an owner when Paul said he wanted to sell Byggmeister to us. Byggmeister is a great company; it would have been such a shame for Paul’s retirement to be the end of it.
Francis: From the beginning! Becoming an owner just felt like the right next step for me and for the company. It’s hard to imagine how we could have moved forward any other way.
Emily: When I started at Byggmeister three years ago, the ownership conversion process was already underway. I was comfortable with the cooperative model because I went to a cooperative school through eighth grade, and my family belonged to a food coop. But I didn’t know whether this would be a good fit for Byggmeister. I got my answer after my first few ownership meetings. The discussions weren’t always easy or comfortable. But everyone stuck with it. I was really impressed.
Rachel: Are there other factors that you think make worker ownership a good fit for Byggmeister?
Cador: Yes, in the sense that we have so many long-term employees. We know each other well and trust that we’ll be able to own this company together.
Josh: Probably the biggest factor for me is the team. We all get along. And there’s no griping. I also didn’t see any better choice. I didn’t think it would work to bring an outside buyer who doesn’t know us. And I was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to stay together if just one or a couple of key employees bought the company.
Maria: In the past, I’m not sure it would have been a good fit. It’s a good fit now because of all the work we did to prepare, putting a management team in place and transitioning leadership well in advance. By the time we finally bought the company, the management team had been running things for several years without Paul’s involvement. We went into the ownership transition in an extraordinarily strong financial position, which gave people a lot of confidence.
Rachel: Do you expect that worker ownership will change Byggmeister?
Francis: Not really. It’s kind of like when you’ve been in a relationship for several years. You’re already living together, and you decide to get married. The day after the wedding you look at each other and realize that you don’t feel any different.
Josy: To me, ownership is a natural progression of how we work. Maybe it goes back to the tone that Paul set a long time ago, but the way that management interacts with the group has never felt top-down or heavy-handed. I have always felt that I have a voice. Worker ownership just makes this way of functioning official.
Emily: Yes, but only for the better! I think owning Byggmeister together will help all of us develop better people skills and become even more comfortable with difficult conversations—something that can only have a positive impact on our work with clients.
Rachel: Do you have any advice for other companies considering converting to employee ownership?
Josh: Talk to others at worker-owned companies. This helped me get a sense of what it would be like. One piece of advice I got that has stuck with me is, don’t fix what isn’t broken. If the company is well run, which hopefully it would be before you sell to your employees, keep the same management structure in place.
Francis: Make sure that people are comfortable with each other, have a shared understanding of the distinct roles within the company, and know where they fit in.
Cador: Take the time to learn together as a company about the different options to transition from your current structure. The process of making those early decisions will lay the foundation for future success and team building.
Rachel: How does it feel to be an owner of Byggmeister?
Josy: I think day-to-day feels the same, but there’s something special in knowing I’m an owner. I think I notice this in some other owners too—a greater sense of pride, a feeling of empowerment, and a deeper investment.
Emily: I didn’t expect to feel different after we signed the papers, but I do. I’ve always cared deeply about my work, and now that caring feels justified. As I’ve told friends and family about the conversion, I’ve thought to myself, “Wow. I own a piece of the company I work for.” I never thought I would have that.
Maria: I’ve been with Byggmeister for twenty-six years, and I’ve put my blood, sweat and tears into this company. In the past my friends would sometimes ask me, “Why do you care so much? This isn’t your company.” Well now, Byggmeister is my company.