At the recent conference of the Vermont Employee Ownership Center (VEOC) in Burlington, VEOC board president Paul Millman asked an important question to the attendees, who represented some of the many remarkably progressive companies in the Green Mountain State. “Are we different enough?” he wondered.
Good question. I wonder about that often when I think about South Mountain. Are we promoting a system that would, if widespread, create fundamental change in our broken economic system? Or are we just avoiding one avalanche chute by traversing to another with a slightly more gradual incline?
Hard to say.
In 1987 I re-structured my company from a sole proprietorship under my ownership to an employee owned co-operative corporation. It was a dramatic hinge point in the history of the company. Ownership became available to all employees, enabling people to own and guide their workplace. The responsibility, the power, and the profits all belong to the group of owners. There are no outside investors and no non-employee owners.
Profits are essential , but our cooperative ownership structure assigns the wealth we make to those who make it. Our democratic system of decision making offers everyone a voice. Our employees, who live in the community, and are raising their children here, and are part of the civic landscape, are making the decisions; therefore, community accountability is woven into the fabric of our system.
That’s different too.
Low environmental impact and principled corporate behavior share the same status as profits.
That’s different too.
But principles aren’t really principles until they cost something. And this year some of our principles began to cost something. Last fall, as we considered the re-building of our decimated work backlog, we re-considered some of those principles. Many of them. Here’s just one.
We have had a long-standing policy of only doing work on the Vineyard, the place that we know. That one flew the coop when we had the opportunity to do an extraordinary project across the water, for the Woods Hole Research Center, at a time when our future workload was less secure than usual. It wasn’t the first time we had such an opportunity, but this was the first time we forced ourselves – due to circumstances – to confront the logistical hurdles and internal complications we are faced with. I’ll talk more about this project – and its implications – in future posts.
As a company, we express many ideals. One that we express less often might be the most important of all – to assure that at all times the 30 families (and other associated individuals and companies) that rely on us for their incomes are secure in the knowledge that the work – and the income – will be there. Not so lofty. But this is the real deal, the rubber on the road, and other principles must work in service to that one.
That may be less different, but our democratic structure ensures that we will struggle, at least, to uphold our principles while we keep our business healthy. And struggle to be different enough, even when there is genuine conflict between our principles and the practical matters of doing business successfully.
The beginning of the Obama era is frustratingly slow; it’s not different enough. Each of us can have only a minor impact on the political process. Meanwhile, however, our democracy offers other choices. We have the liberty to invent the corporation of the future right now. We can make whatever kinds of companies we want.
Nothing stands in our way, except us. But we are a significant obstacle. It’s easy to say that we knew all the things the economic crisis, climate change, and the approach of peak oil are teaching us. We did, in a way, but it’s not different enough just to know these things. We have to act, to make fundamental change in the way we work, to learn these things in our hearts and in our guts.
The patterns that we had established over three decades no longer work, and the challenge is to do the work that we must – better service, tighter finances, deeper energy makeovers, higher performance buildings, new forms of old crafts – in this new economic climate. Maybe, eventually, we can be different enough to actually make a difference. Different enough to uphold our principles, even when it costs something.
It shouldn’t be so hard, I sometimes say. But it is. And we have only begun to scratch the surface of change. That’s scary.
But there’s an old Chinese saying that “Man stands for long time with mouth open before roast duck flies in.” We have to roast the duck.