Father and son carpenters carrying a wood plank in their wood workshop


You might not have considered all the options.

More than 50% of small business owners do not have a plan for what will happen to their businesses when they are ready to retire. Planning ahead is key to a smooth transition. Business owners have many options, including passing on their business to family members, selling to management team members, selling to an outside purchaser (such as a competitor, vendor, or supplier), selling to an investor, or selling to employees. There are proven ways to sell to employees that can benefit business owners, employees, and the community.  


There are thousands of successful, thriving, employee-owned businesses across the US. In North Carolina alone, there are approximately 154 such companies. Most are more successful than they were when they were privately-owned.


Employee Ownership could be the right solution

In addition to providing a tax-preferred exit strategy for selling shareholders, employee ownership has many other benefits, including:

  •       Preserving jobs and community impacts – Maintaining the jobs in North Carolina rather than moving or losing them.
  •       Helping companies attract and retain good employees – Employee-owned firms with engaged cultures have higher retention rates.
  •       Creating new tax benefits for the employee owned business – Some employee owned firms, such as 100% ESOP S Corps, are tax exempt.
  •       Improving company performance - Studies have shown that employee owned firms tend to out-perform comparable companies, while exhibiting more resilience during economic downturns.
  •       Improving wages and benefits – Employee-owned companies also tend to have higher wages and better benefits.
  •       Enabling employees to build wealth over time – Once the selling shareholder and associated loans are paid off, a portion of annual profits are allocated to employee retirement accounts.
Portrait of a worker in a coffee packaging and distribution warehouse

Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs)

The most common form of employee ownership in the United States is the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Nationally, there are more than 6,500 active ESOPs today (about 137 in North Carolina), representing more than 14 million employee owners (more than 750,000 in NC). ESOPs are retirement plans, somewhat like 401(k)s, except the invested dollars all go into the company where the employees work. And importantly, like a 401(k), an ESOP can be tax-advantaged - if the company is an S Corp, whatever portion of the company is owned by the ESOP (if it is 30% or greater) pays no federal or state corporate income tax. So a 100% ESOP-owned S Corp is generally tax-exempt. If the company is a C Corp at the time of sale, the selling shareholder can defer capital gains taxes indefinitely if they sell at least 30% of the company’s shares to an ESOP. 


If your company has 20 or more employees, low debt, and is consistently profitable, an ESOP may be a great option for you. Otherwise, another employee ownership structure may be better. Does this sound complicated? You can read all about ESOPs on the National Center for Employee Ownership and ESOP Association websites and there are many experts available to help. 


More about ESOPs:

https://www.nceo.org/articles/esop-business-continuity (EN)

https://www.nceo.org/articles/esop-employee-stock-ownership-plan (EN)

https://www.nceo.org/articles/reasons-esop (EN)

https://www.esopinfo.org/videos/ (EN)

https://community-wealth.org/content/employee-ownership-building-better-american-economy (EN)


Worker Cooperatives

While ESOPs are the most common kind of employee owned company in the U.S., the most common form across the world is the worker cooperative. These are companies that are governed democratically, with employees voting for the board of directors. Each employee owner receives one and only one voting share. There are more than 465 worker cooperatives in the U.S., and about 17 in North Carolina. Worker co-ops can be a great option for smaller companies or those that want to prioritize workplace democracy. You can read more about worker cooperatives at the Democracy at Work Institute website.


More about Worker Cooperatives:

https://institute.coop/what-worker-cooperative (EN)

https://institute.coop/sites/default/files/resources/COT_BecomingEmployeeOwned_FINALweb.pdf (EN)

https://institute.coop/tools/for-worker-coops/conversions (EN)

https://www.electricviolinshop.com/blog/evs-featured-by-unc-tv/ (Story of Electric Violin Shop) (EN)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joiFRVqy00Y (Story of A Child’s Place) (EN)

Woman working in flower shop. Smiling Mature Woman Florist Small Business Flower Shop Owner. Florist woman working in a flower shop. Small business. Flowers delivery, creating order
Woman Welding - Eastern NC

Employee Ownership Trusts

A new form of employee ownership, popular in the United Kingdom and just beginning to catch on in the U.S., is the Employee Ownership Trust (EOT). These companies are owned by a trust, established by the selling owner, with the requirement that all profits above those needed for reinvestment in the business go to the employees. Employees are only beneficiaries of the trust during the time they are employed. Some businesses choose a perpetual form of the trust (depending on state law) to ensure that their business will remain employee owned in perpetuity. EOTs lack the tax benefits of ESOPs but are also significantly less expensive to create and administer.


More about Employee Ownership Trust

http://eotadvisors.com/the-british-are-coming-esops-and-perpetual-trusts-employee-ownership-trust-eot/  (EN)

https://nceoc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Perpetual-Trust-Case-Study.pdf (EN)

https://www.nceo.org/article/introductions-employee-ownership-trusts (EN)

https://alternativeownershipadvisors.com/blog/eot-new-kid (EN)

More Links to Explore to Consider Your Options

Business Succession Planning: An Owner's Manual  by Chris Cooper and the staff of Ohio Employee Ownership Center At Kent State University (EN)

A Conceptual Guide to Employee Ownership for Very Small Businesses by the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) (EN)

Employee ownership options: Find the right fit for your company by Project Equity (EN)

ENSURING YOUR LEGACY: Succession Planning & Democratic Employee Ownership by ICA Group (EN)

Becoming Employee Owned: A Small Business Toolkit by the Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI) (EN)

Fifty by Fifty (EN)

Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations: Curriculum Library for Employee Ownership (CLEO) (EN)

Employee Ownership is Worth Investigating

The next step is to get advice and learn how to start your journey to employee ownership.