Reading John Abrams's new book about the advantages of a successful employee-owned business is like taking a little course in a new kind of economics. In The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place [White River Junction, Vt: Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2005] he details his experiences of the past 18 years with the growth of his homebuilding firm, the South Mountain Company, on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. The book has many good pictures of houses, inside and out, that the company has built as well as good photos of the owners and employees.
Abrams and his friend Mitchell started their business in 1972, building their first house in Vermont. They both had good experience in the basic skills of the building business -- woodworking, sanding, sawing wood and overall planning and designing. He says that in 1984 his partner "went on to other things." But Abrams persisted, and we realize as we read his family history that his interest in creative business practices goes back to his grandfather, an immigrant from Russia to New York, over 100 years ago. He started a business in 1922 as a supplier of hardware and other supplies. Although the business finally failed, John Abrams says it didn't have to happen, and he had tried to learn from those past mistakes.
Abrams's success is a contrast to the histories of many businesses, both large and small. The South Mountain Company now has $6 million a year in sales, and among its 30 workers are 16 owners of the business. The goal is for every employee to become an owner. And how does that happen? Eligibility begins when a worker has been there for five years. Owners have to be committed to the company, be good workers, be ethical in business practices and be dedicated "to having South Mountain be one's primary work."
Now about growth. We don't usually think of expansion in a business as anything but positive. But that is not necessarily true. When successful, cooperative companies go public, Abrams says they are required to "prioritize profits for shareholders." As I understand it, that is what happened to the famous Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, which was taken over by Unilever. So his advice for a growing company is to go slowly and stay flexible. Abrams quotes an anthropologist who says that about 150 people can share a social relationship or cooperative enterprise like a business, but not many more than that. Luckily, this book contains not just broad outlines of the workings of a business. It also has some good, down-to-earth suggestions on things like conducting meetings and reaching consensus in a group.
Abrams, like many of us, is quite sensitive to the uniqueness of where he lives and does business. Part of his pledge to his customers is that his company will work only locally. He loves "the Vineyard" with its woods and water. Over the years he has become more and more dedicated to its future well-being as a great place to live, and he waits to preserve it for his children and grandchildren. That is a task so grand in scope he calls it "cathedral building."
William Greider has very good things to say about Abrams's book and his business ideas. He is even optimistic about their spread to other companies. He says, "With goodwill and serious values, they may be portable to other places, including larger enterprises, where the people also want to do things differently." So I'd like to say to the top executives at Wal Mart -- "Read this book! Maybe your giant corporation could have slowly expanded into a more socially responsible business from right there in Sam Walton's birthplace, little Kingfisher, Okla." It's probably too late for that, but it's not too late for other business people to learn from Abrams.
Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074, or email BubbaBieri@aol.com.