For the EVOLution of Business

EVOLving Conscious Ownership and Governance at Once Again Nut Butter

Episode Summary

Once Again Nut Butter Collective, an employee-owned company with a passion for doing things the right way for its people, products and the planet. Founded in 1976 by a husband-and-wife team with an entrepreneurial flair, Once Again has grown from a company run out of an 800-square-foot basement into a thriving business that produces millions of pounds of organic and natural nut and seed butters. Recognized as a leader in ethical and sustainable business practices, the company founded its Honest In Trade program to define the team’s efforts and take them to the next level. In addition to their support of farmers in underdeveloped countries, initiatives to protect the environment, and unsurpassed safety and quality standards, this fun-loving family of 86 employees also actively supports its community and non-profit organizations. Bob Gelser is the General Manager at Once Again Nut Butter. Bob earned an associate degree in mechanical engineering from the State University College of Technology at Alfred in 1985 and a Bachelor’s degree in manufacturing engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology. Also joining us is Colin Wilcox, an employee-owner, QA lab technician, and internal trustee at Once Again. "If the environment is changing, you need to change and adapt with it," says Once Again Nut Butter General Manager Bob Gelser. At Once Again, a democratically-run ESOP, that evolution includes their ownership and governance structures. "If you're still maintaining your core values and your mission, your business model can be flexible." Tune in to learn: -Their unique structure that blends the best of Employee Stock Ownership Plans and Worker-Owned Cooperatives -Balancing roles as employees, owners and stockholders -How ESOPs outperform financially and are more resilient in recessions -The importance of "deciding how to decide" -How their "Honest In Trade" program invests in the supply chain -Maintaining a 4:1 ratio between the highest and lowest paid workers (compared to 278:1 across the USA)

Episode Notes

[1:45] The founding of Once Again Nut Butter, an early adopter of organic certifications

[3:15] How Bob was convinced to become General Manager, despite not believing he had enough of a business background
Read the story in Bob's RBJ profile here: https://rbj.net/2011/08/12/leader-is-nuts-about-the-job-and-the-product/

[7:00] Succeeding a founder/owner and maintaining the culture, while helping the employees to navigate their three roles as owner, employee and shareholder

[8:30] How Colin chose Once Again based on their culture and employee ownership practices
"We're not just a co-op, we're an ESOP that's democratically run"

[10:30] The EVOLution of the unique Co-Op / ESOP model at Once Again to get the best of both worlds

[12:50] How decisions are made with this unique governance model

[15:30] How to onboard employees with the "Employee Owners Manual"

[17:20] Annual shareholders meeting, valuations, voting and other tasks of a "Trustee"

[18:15] What it means to get "vesting" in an ESOP, plus bonuses based on hours worked, seniority and base salary

[21:15] "Honest in Trade" program, investing in the supply chain and helping to start cooperative businesses

[26:00] Product innovation

[28:30] Making difficult and costly decisions in the short term that align with their long-term interests and higher purpose

[32:00] How ESOPs outperform and are more resilient in recessions

[33:45] Sensitizing stakeholders to tell the story and share the purpose
Learn more about the Chamber's CLIMB program here: https://greaterrochesterchamber.com/programs-events/climb

[36:00] Making budgeting decisions democratically and embracing change

[39:30] Challenges to maintaining culture with growth
"We can't be held to our structure we have today. The employee structure has changed since it started in 1976. We have to think of ways to keep this model alive...As long as we keep the integrity of the company, the mission, vision and core values, the business structure comes second to that."

[42:20] Teaching this model as a succession plan for other organizations

[43:30] Learning to lead a democratically run company
"To have an open mind to change, to listen to employee input, to have mentors outside your organization. You have to understand the environment that you're in. If the environment is changing, you need to change and adapt with it...if you're still maintaining your core values and your mission, your business model can be flexible."

[46:20] Lessons learned and advice for other companies interesting in becoming an ESOP
"How are you going to decide how to decide?"

Learn more about Once Again Nut Butter: https://onceagainnutbutter.com/
...or find at Lori's Natural Foods, Abundance Co-Op in Rochester, or Whole Foods