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We’re shifting our focus and we’d like to explain why.

It has been a while since we’ve provided an update to our stakeholders, and for that we apologize. While it’s taken longer to come together than we expected, we want to explain our new agenda that’s focused on increasing access to business ownership.

Our journey to ownership

SCP was founded to fight unfair economic outcomes caused by both the “wheel of fortune” and systems that are stacked against certain groups of people. For most of our history, we’ve focused on income and employment: helping people facing systemic barriers find good full-time work. And we’re still passionate about that topic! Our workforce expert, Judy Doidge, continues to support many terrific demand-led employment and training programs. But the unfair outcomes that lead to ever increasing wealth inequality has two components: income inequality and capital or ownership inequality. Over the last couple of years we’ve started thinking more about the ownership side.

Rightly or wrongly, our observation is that a great many of the non-profit or charitable efforts to increase economic opportunity and reduce inequality are on the income side. Public policy also focuses there: universal basic income, tax policy, minimum wage increases, etc. aim to increase low incomes. And we’re supportive of these efforts! But, other than affordable housing, few seem focused on ownership. With asset ownership consolidating in fewer and fewer hands, there just aren’t many people with any real wealth, let alone the wealth needed to manage a crisis such as COVID-19. Finding and developing new ideas to help broaden ownership to more people and increase economic resiliency seems increasingly urgent, so we decided to dig in.

Interestingly, when we started talking to people about this, and framed it as being about wealth inequality, it certainly wasn’t a burning platform for everyone in Canada (“we’re not as bad as the US, amiright?”). But we’re seeing that shift. Not only is there new data that suggests Canada may actually be among the most unequal in the OECD, but COVID-19 has brought that inequality into stark relief. As SCP adviser Roger Martin discusses in his recent book, at some level of inequality, democratic capitalism simply isn’t sustainable. We don’t know exactly what that level is, but based on some recent elections, it’s safe to say we’re getting pretty close.

So, we’ve spent time looking for scalable and sustainable ways to provide accessible business ownership to the broadest possible group of people. And the best thing we could find was employee ownership. Specifically, US-style employee ownership.

US-style employee ownership is a game changer

We know, we know. It’s a bit tough to talk about the US right now. Everything seems a bit…poisoned. But the success of American employee ownership is impossible to deny. US-style Employee Stock Ownership Plans (US-ESOPs) enable owners to sell shares to their workers at fair market value, funded by debt, and at no cost to employees. They are broad-based, requiring shares to be distributed to almost all employees, and not just top management. Since they were established in 1974 a bi-partisan consensus has provided more and more incentives to promote their use. And as a result there are currently about 6,400 employee-owned companies in the US, with 14M employees sharing in $1.4 trillion in wealth. Yep, trillion. With a T. Well-known companies, such as Publix, Gore (makers of Gore-tex) and Clif Bar have significant employee ownership.

One of the great things about US-ESOPs is they’ve been around a long time and have been well studied. It turns out they grow faster, are more profitable, are more resilient in downturns, stay in their communities longer and pay their employees more before you take into account their share ownership. And when you do include their share ownership, US-ESOPs have proven to be a powerful wealth creating engine for many workers who otherwise have no access to ownership. According to one study, employee-owners have 92% more wealth than equivalent employees at other companies and many front-line US employees have retired with $1M+ payouts.

They’re also a terrific succession option for business owners, which is crucial at a time where a majority of owners of private companies in the US and Canada are approaching retirement. Selling to a US-ESOP allows owners to protect the legacies they’ve built, preserve jobs in their local communities where they will continue to live, reward their employees and receive a fair return for their companies. So many wins!

For our Canadian readers, US-ESOPs aren’t the same as the “ESOPs” you’re familiar with in Canada, which are mostly meant for upper management. Nor are they stock purchase plans, which allow employees to buy shares at a discount or funded by company loans. The critical feature that makes them especially useful is that they don’t require employees to have any current wealth, or even any disposable income, to participate and there’s no downside risk for the employee. A few useful references on US-ESOPs are this website, this video, this website, this podcast and this terrific report.

To summarize, US-ESOPs have proven to be scalable and sustainable, and because all employees participate and they don’t pay for their shares, they’re also accessible. This meets all three of our criteria for broadening business ownership.

SCP’s two-pronged employee ownership strategy

So, where do we come in at SCP? In two ways.

First, we are working with major Canadian pension funds to invest in US-based employee ownership. Despite the success in the US to date, there’s still a major gap preventing even more employee ownership growth: a lack of debt capital. But the capital needed is actually a great fit for the investment criteria of pension funds, who are always looking for new ways to invest. We’ve been building relationships with US-ESOP advisors over the last year, and if we can demonstrate how pension money can be used to support employee ownership while generating an attractive return, we think we can move billions of dollars into the sector, resulting in billions (trillions? why not!) more in employee wealth. We think it’s a huge opportunity: more detail on our approach is here.

The second thing we’re doing directly addresses the obvious question: why isn’t SCP doing this in Canada? The answer is simple: we can’t. Canada’s employee ownership environment suuuuuuuucks. Canada provides no incentives to support employee ownership, and provides no corporate structure comparable to US-ESOPs. There are some worker co-ops (300 or so employing about 5,000 people) and some companies have worked very hard to overcome the bad regulatory environment and provide employee ownership anyway (such as EllisDon, Friesen’s, Beau’s and PCL). There are option plans and share purchase programs, but these are generally targeted at upper and mid-management and often used by large, publicly-traded companies (i.e. not broad-based and big miss on accessible). The UK was similar until 2012, when they commissioned a major study that resulted in new rules and incentives in 2014 that have jumped-started EO; employee ownership in the UK is up 150% since then.

So, we’re starting a campaign to change Canada’s employee ownership policies. As we look to rebuild our economy after the very unequal devastation of COVID-19, employee ownership should be an integral part of an inclusive growth agenda. Not only is it proven to provide opportunity for employees to build wealth, it protects local jobs, increases company resilience in downturns and provides an answer for Canada’s coming business succession crisis as baby boomer business owners start to retire.

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Our efforts to help small businesses survive the pandemic didn’t work. As we wind down the Save Small Business campaign, here’s what we learned and why the future can be different.

“I have so much fear. How will I feed my family?”

“I’ve stopped working to save lives, but am about to lose everything I’ve built.”

“This is scary as hell. I have employees to pay. Kids to feed.”

We watched these words appear in a Google spreadsheet on the early morning of March 23 2020. Written by small business owners across the country, their stories represented what so many people were feeling in that moment, a week after hundreds of thousands of small businesses suddenly closed because of COVID-19.

Reading these stories was heartbreaking — but the sheer quantity was shocking. Late the night before, a small group of us had hastily created a website called SaveSmallBusiness.ca, inviting other small business owners to share their stories and sign a petition demanding support. We didn’t expect much to come from it. But by morning, 200 small businesses had signed up. Within 24 hours, our group mushroomed to 2,000. …

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A lot of holes remain in government programs targeted at small businesses. But a few straightforward fixes would help a lot.

Canada now has a bunch of programs in place to support small business: a wage subsidy (CEWS), a loan (CEBA) and a rent subsidy (CECRA). The programs are fine, and are helping a lot of businesses. But, there are some clear holes, and the small business community is quite aligned on what they are and how to fix them. No one wants to continue to ask for more, but the holes are quite large. Businesses, livelihoods, families will be crushed unless they are closed. Here’s how to do it:

1. PROVINCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: Commercial Evictions Moratorium and make CECRA mandatory. The UK did this on March 24th, Australia on March 29th. New York State on March 20th. We are hearing that landlords are not coming to the table to agree to the CECRA plan. Businesses need to be protected from eviction due to forced closure, and landlords need to be forced to agree to what is a REALLY good deal for them. Provinces agreeing to CECRA and not imposing a moratorium on evictions either do not understand how small business works, or don’t care about them. There’s no other explanation for not taking this obvious step. …


Jon Shell

Entrepreneur, hopeful capitalist and aspiring economic justice activist

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