If U.S. Industry Plays Not To Lose, What Does Playing To Win Look Like?
A smart critique of the anticipated merger announcement from Dow Chemical (DOW) and DuPont (DD), by the Wall Street Journal’s Dennis Berman, finds fault with such mega intra-industry consolidations:
“Cut costs. Rationalize,” Berman sums up. “But there is a mournful edge to the whole idea. It’s as if these two companies—absolute bedrock of U.S. industrial might—have given up faith in themselves and their futures.”
Such a merger would no doubt result in thousands of jobs being eliminated, a prospect that seems to cheer activist investors. I’m all for running a low-cost business. But one wonders whether these mega-companies, by buying into the activists’ beliefs about milking mature businesses, haven’t cost themselves the productive input that some more enlightened companies receive from more motivated and engaged work forces.
I’m most specifically speaking of companies that have high levels of employee ownership, many of them under Employee Stock Ownership Plans, and in so doing have unleashed the creative power of employees-turned-owners. Owner-workers tend to be more productive and less wasteful, tend to contribute to a self-policing work place that minimizes friction between workers and management, and they offer up helpful ideas less forthcoming from workers who lack a piece of the action.
Publix Super Markets, W.L. Gore & Associates and CH2M Hill are among the largest majority employee-owned companies in the U.S. And a wide survey of research has found that employee-owned companies, compared to similar companies operating under different ownership formats, outperform. ESOP-owned S Corporations have also been shown to outperform the broader stock market.
Reasonable business people can disagree about Berman’s instant analysis, and the comments section following the article suggests the newspaper’s readers have a wide range of opinions to share. But few would dispute that many large businesses have, in Berman’s account, “been reduced to ‘sensible growth,’ ‘dividend return’ and ‘listening to shareholders.’ This is not an America playing to win. It’s an America playing not to lose.” (Tech is an obvious exception, Berman notes.)
The point of employee ownership isn’t to blunt the effects of the markets on workers. Rather, it’s to play capitalism as a team sport. The greater rewards reaped by employee-owned firms are shared with employee-owners. That means a comfortable retirement for working people, in many cases, and greater job security and satisfaction. Those aren’t anti-capitalist outcomes, but rather outcomes of a capitalist system that functions as it should.
It is among the reasons why H-E-B, the high-performing Texas supermarket chain, recent announced it will distribute 15% ownership to its workers. I predict that will only make the company an even more formidable competitor. It’s why Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories can compete against the world’s largest tech companies for engineering talent, and thus outperform its industry. And it’s why some smart private equity firms have begun to team up with ESOPs to improve performance of portfolio companies and achieve better exit results.
ESOPs aren’t for every company. But they’re an under-utilized capitalization format that has the potential to help American business regain and extend its edge globally.