Just as the COVID-19 pandemic started raging in March 2020, Trident Bookseller and Cafe In Boulder, Colorado, small businesses around the world face a similar challenge: how to make ends meet.
Employees want to have a real financial situation about what happened to their employer. They also have a lot of ideas on how to keep the business running, and they want to have a bigger say as a group of people who interact with customers on a regular basis.
Facts have proved that employee ownership solves these two issues, providing transparency and a new path to sustainable development and growth.
It has been in business for more than 40 years and was initially owned by four partners. One owner sold his shares to employees. The total number of owners has increased to 13, and employees are welcome to buy shares in the company after one year of employment.
In a situation that some people might condemn as an anti-capitalist nightmare, Trident Booksellers and Cafe (also known as the “Trident”) not only found new life, but also found a new lease of life from its newly established employee owners. Growth opportunities.
From Buffered Small business, big lesson Podcast episode fourAs well as the accompanying unpublished interview, multiple employee owners of Trident shared why the bookstore was converted to employee ownership and how this shift has a positive impact on the business.
Sell shares to employees
After holding ownership for decades, one of the four owners of Trident wanted to cash out his stock during the pandemic. He began the process of finding a buyer and noticed a promising opportunity: his employees.
At first, when Trident’s partners wanted to sell his shares, no one thought that considering Trident’s history and employees’ performance in the company, employee acquisitions immediately became meaningful.
This cafe attracts a large number of regular customers, some of whom have been here for decades, and they think the weird culture, friendly staff and historic buildings are the main reasons why they always come back. Over the years, employees and regular customers have established a strong bond of friendship. Sophia is a barista owner of Trident, she even said that a regular customer feels like her uncle, not just a customer.
This environment makes employee shareholding attractive to the other three owners of Trident. They realize that strong connections between employees and customers can benefit the entire organization.
Employees often act like the owners of Trident, sharing ideas upwards and caring deeply for customers. Therefore, giving them the opportunity to truly become owners is an important next step, as it not only rewards the loyalty of employees, but also helps ensure that Trident retains its unique culture under the new ownership.
Cyanne Stonesmith, the employee owner who runs the Trident bookstore business, explained that “given all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic,” employees “feel the time” to buy the business. At that time, nine employees bought the stock, and Cyanne said that the employees collectively owned one-third of the company’s shares.
Everyone can talk to the manager
After the trident became employee-owned, a significant positive change occurred. In the past, frequent customers who had questions or wanted to talk to the owner—customer feedback has always been part of the culture—need a grand singing and dancing. If employees are nearby, they must either grab the owner or forward the notes upwards and want someone to listen.
Now, every customer can talk to the manager because they probably just made coffee for you. And under the new cooperative ownership structure, the original three owners will occasionally work in Trident shifts to get closer to their customers and co-owners.
Jake, assistant manager and partial owner of the beer and wine project at Trident, shared his feelings about this transformation.
“We are not just trying to enter the next quarter and grow, grow and grow,” Jack said. “That’s good. It feels that people’s voices are respected. They feel that they are heard.”
The new sense of being heard by employees partly stems from Trident’s new consensus-centric management style. Under the previous ownership structure, four owners made decisions, and employees executed those decisions. Employee feedback is always welcome, but it does not always enter the decision table. Now, Cyanne shared that the 13 owners pay more attention to building consensus on decision-making and use the majority vote structure to make decisions.
“It has nothing to do with the individual,” Cyanne said. “This is about a community, and being able to work with your colleagues and your co-owners is one of the most valuable things.”
The first task of the meeting is to ensure that everyone’s ideas are heard before voting, and then the team operates in a style structure that disagrees and submits, so the decision-making will not be lost in the endless conversation. This means that people will not always behave in their own way, but the weekly (or sometimes fortnightly) management meeting structure provides everyone with time to express their opinions.
“Everyone’s opinions are respected, everyone has a say, and then at the end of these discussions, if we need to make a yes or no decision, we will vote, which is a majority vote,” Cyanne said. “So even if everyone disagrees, or everyone does not get the results they want, we all respect each other’s opinions and ideas very much.”
The impact of ownership
Since its establishment more than 40 years ago, Trident has been a central figure in Boulder, fostering a community with global influence. The barista has even been recognized by travelers visiting Trident in different countries. Regulars and holiday guests are excited that their favorite barista is also part of the company’s owner.
An unexpected benefit of Trident is that employee ownership has become its own marketing activity. Cyanne says that new customers—boulder and tourists from the area—have chosen to stop at Trident because they are fascinated by the coffee shop where baristas own part of their business. This is not intentional, nor is it aggressive marketing, but the close culture of Trident means that regular customers have heard of this shift, and the news spread, and people are fascinated.
However, under global recognition and cool factors, the real impact of employee ownership is hidden: not only do employees now own part of the company, they are proud of the company again, but owning a part of assets brings real value to employees. Play a role in their lives. As the home ownership of millennials and Generation Z becomes more and more out of reach in cities such as Boulder, owning corporate shares becomes an asset that employees can borrow, use, and have a deeper personal impact on them.
In addition, because Trident has established a consensus-based management and welcomes new employees to join the company after one year of work, Trident has more opportunities to make an impact, not just create local employment opportunities. The current 13 owners are happy to see the next one.
“I’m really happy to have more people buying,” Cyanne said.