Employees take ownership gradually at Oliver's Markets in Sonoma County
In most businesses, the owner works harder than anybody. The extra push beyond just the paycheck comes rewarded by equity in a company that grows in value.
Oliver’s Market, with nearly $175 million in sales expected this year from stores in Cotati, Windsor and two in Santa Rosa, launched an employee-stock-ownership plan in 2017. So far the new ESOP sounds good to employees, but their ownership stake is not yet tangible. In about September, employee-owners will receive their first statements showing how much of the company they own and what that tiny sliver might be worth.
Employees who have worked for Oliver’s for 10 years or more will see immediate vesting as partial owners. Others who are age 21 or older and work at least 1,000 a year - about half time - will vest three years from January 2017. The company has about 1,100 employees; nearly 700 will qualify for the ESOP.
The stock ownership resembles a 401(k) retirement plan but employees make no contributions. They receive ownership shares as a bonus, pro-rated based on their income. As with a 401(k), they can cash out if they leave the company.
Structurally, owner Steve Maass is selling 43 percent of the company to employees a bit at a time.
“We are really lucky how Steve treats us as employees,” said Roger Guttridge, store director at the Santa Rosa Stony Point location. “He treats us like family. That’s the vibe here.”
Maass opens the company’s financial information to Oliver’s employees, Guttridge said, a rare transparency in the grocery industry. “The more I show people, the more invested they get,” Guttridge said. “I show them how much we pay for rent, $3,000 to $5,000 a month for electricity. The ESOP gets people bought in more at every level. When I say hey, do you mind shutting the freezer door, they” understand. “Now we’re paying a good part of the PG&E bill.”
Guttridge has worked for Oliver’s for nearly 17 years. Previously he worked for Raley’s and Sonoma Market for about a decade. “Steve could have sold to a big company,” Guttridge said. “This is his way of saying, these people helped me out. I want to pay back to them, keep it a local company.”
For the past year, Jordan Midyett has managed the 20-employee bakery department at the Stony Point store. She came to Oliver’s in 2009 when she was age 18. “I grew up with this company,” she said.
“It’s very confusing,” Midyett said of the ESOP. “I don’t fully understand the vesting or the shares we will be getting. But I tell customers all about it. We are employee-owned. It’s awesome.”
Most of the bakery employees won’t vest for a while because they work less than half time, are under age 21 or have not worked for Oliver’s for many years. “I have a lot of part-timers,” Midyett said.
Marina DeDominguez is assistant manager of the 10-person produce department at the Oliver’s Market on Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa. She orders and buys produce for the department. “I love it,” she said of the job in produce.
An employee for 10 years, DeDominguez will immediately vest shares in the ESOP. The notion of vesting puzzles her. “It’s kind of confusing,” DeDominguez said. “It’s nice of the owner that he is doing all this for the employees. He cares about the employees.”
Eric Meuse works as general manager for Oliver’s Market, and as trustee of the ESOP. He has worked for the company nearly 28 years, starting barely a year after its founding. “To have an ownership stake really meant a lot to me,” he said. Maass could sell to another store chain, and most upper managers such as Meuse would lose jobs. “Oliver’s will remain Oliver’s,” he said.
Oliver’s changed to a social-purpose corporation in 2017 when it created the ESOP. That means the company is supposed to encourage its leaders to consider employees, the environment and the community as well as the company financial position in considering business decisions. Being a social-purpose corporation makes it easier for Oliver’s to repel an offer by another grocery chain. “We’re not only about the money,” Maass said. “We’re about the community. If they offered us $1 billion, we would obviously do that,” he said.
“We have been working on the ESOP for about five years,” Maass said. “I’m not sure I’d do it again,” he said, joking. “It is so incredibly regulated and expensive. Just setting it up was $350,000. Ongoing, it keeps getting worse.” The company pays a specialized attorney in San Francisco $800 an hour to help with the ESOP set-up.
To maintain the ESOP, Oliver’s must have its financial condition audited or reviewed. “You have to have an audit of the valuation,” Maass said, an annual process. A third-party company must distribute Oliver’s shares to employees. “It’s like a 401(k) on steroids,” he said.