Last week I traveled to Portland Oregon. It wasn’t only to get a wonderful day of skiing at Mt. Hood with my fine old friend Jonathan Orpin. It wasn’t only to stay with Jonathan, Maxine, and son Jake River at their beautiful Vermont Street house. And it wasn’t just to get a dose of Portland culture, hang with the downtown dirtbags, and sample some of the great food from the hundreds of food carts parked around the city (outta- this-world food and teeming with life – it makes you feel like you’re in Kowloon).
All those were good.
But the reason for the trip was to meet with the 19 members of the Partners Group who own the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, MI. Zingerman’s is one of the great stories of today’s business world, a hopeful harbinger of the Next Economy. The partners manage nearly 600 employees and the eight distinct businesses have combined annual revenues of $46 million. They are all food-related (and educational) and they are all in Ann Arbor.
Over time the Zingermans (Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, the co-founders, and their partners) have steadfastly resisted the temptation to franchise their stellar brand. Instead they have expanded at home, and they now consist of the following: the flagship Deli where it all started in 1982, Zingerman’s Bakehouse (bread and pastries), Zingerman’s Creamery (cheese and gelato), Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Zingerman’s Mail Order, Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory, Zingerman’s Coffee, and ZingTrain, the education business which “shares the Zingerman experience with forward-looking organizations around the world.”
For the last 6 months I have been communicating by phone and e-mail with Ari. He and a small group of partners have been designing a plan to transition Zingerman’s to an employee owned worker co-operative. When the plan is implemented they will become one of the largest worker co-ops in the U.S.
The partners were gathering in Portland for a three-day offsite retreat, partly to discuss the co-op design. Ari had asked each of them to read my book, Companies We Keep, and asked me if I would come to react to their governance and business transition plan.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet and think with such an extraordinary collection of people so brimful of honest intelligence.
It was quite a day. The dialogue was good. Although I was the only outsider in the room I felt comfortable there. It was relaxed but productive. Funny and philosophical. They work together with remarkable flow – tackling big issues with such passion and commitment to excellence (using first-rate meeting facilitation provided by Fran Alexander of Alexander Resources) that they are able to allow the great and the grungy and the elegant and the messy to all co-exist at once in the service of a greater good.
They’re not only competent and principled; they’re courageous too. For several decades all policy decision-making has been by consensus – not an easy thing to do in a large dispersed network of businesses. The two co-founders have veto power, but they have never used it yet.
And now they’re transitioning to a worker co-op. That takes courage too, or (as in our case when we did it 25 years ago) pure naiveté! And naïve they are not.
When I asked Ari and Paul if I could write about what they are doing (given that they are still in process and I didn’t know if it was public knowledge) Ari thought it would be fine and queried Paul who said, “Sounds just fine to me. That’s the power of putting the vision out there. It imposes accountability on us all to execute, preform and succeed.”
Now that’s the way to run a business, isn’t it? Fearless and transparent.
They also have a publishing house, called Zingerman’s Press. Ari has been writing consistently for at least the last decade. Two of his most recent books are ZINGERMAN’S GUIDE TO GOOD LEADING, PART 1: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business and PART 2: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader. He’s a good one, and these are thoughtful and engaging books that mix humor and wisdom as they introduce the reader to the methods and madness that led to Zingerman’s emergence as a powerful force in progressive business.
Paul reminded me that we had met once before, at a Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE) conference about five years ago. I remember that I was immediately impressed when he was talking about principled business and said, “But principles aren’t really principles until they cost something.”
Like everyone else, apparently, I asked Ari where the name came from. It’s a long story, and a good one, and he gave me the whole thing. You can hear it from him, but I’ll tell you one good part. After they had finally decided on the name Zingerman’s, says Ari, “one thing we still weren’t sure about was whether we should spell it the European way, with two ‘n’s or with one. Paul called his grandfather to ask his opinion. Didn’t take him but a second to decide: ‘with one ‘n’, of course, so it’ll be easier for them to write the checks.’ Paul’s grandfather was a very wise man.”
And so are the folks at Zingerman’s, who represent long haul, next economy thinking at its best. We at SMC appreciate this new association.
And we appreciate another one, too.
In December we hosted Blake Jones, CEO of Namaste Solar, – a 100-person worker co-op solar company in Boulder, CO – for several days of information exchange between our two companies. Namaste is far younger than Zingerman’s, but equally inspiring. Next post I’ll talk about Blake’s visit.