In 2008, Chelsea Green Press published Companies We Keep by John Abrams. It is the second addition of The Company We Keep first published in 2005. Companies We Keep isn’t a new book, but I found it well worth reading in 2014 not only for its insight into the development and philosophy of the author’s worker-owned business, but for a systemic rethinking of business in general.
The well-written book follows the journey of Abrams’ South Mountain design-and-build construction company on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. The chapters cleverly follow eight “cornerstone” principles that Abrams developed and promotes to improve how business is done. Forming a co-operative corporation for his company is central to his progressive business ideas. Throughout the book he tells his personal story while weaving into it innovative approaches to business and community.
Not just interested in his story, Abrams profiles some companies that committed to employee ownership, all of them successful today. These include Select Machine, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Carris Reels, and Mondragon. Carris Reels, originally a Vermont based company, was in the process of converting to a co-op during the writing of the book. CEO, Bill Carris, had a pragmatic approach to business, acknowledging that profits = existence. But Carris also understood that “we need to combine the productivity of the free-market system with better distribution of its wealth, goods, and services.”
Today Carris Reels is no small operation with an impressive 450 employee-owners, and the company is nationwide. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is also thriving today with about 210 employees that own the company. Select Machine is still going in Kent, Ohio, with 10 worker-owners. And Mondragon boasts 247 businesses and co-operatives.
With such examples of successful worker-owned businesses, it’s strange that worker ownership is not more widely understood and recognized as a business solution in the U.S. Abrams wondered this back in 2008. Pointing out Mondragon, Abrams asks why such a federation of successful co-ops (notwithstanding recent Fagor events) is such a secret in the U.S. Abrams suggests that co-ops might not be able to raise capital because they are not attractive to outside investors.
Many experts are cited in his book to explain worker-ownership and its benefits including: Marjorie Kelly author of The Divine Right of Capital, Jacquelyn Yates, author of The Real World of Employee Ownership, Corey Rosen, author of Equity, and Carol Beaty and Harvey Schachter, authors of Employee Ownership: The New Source of Competitive Advantage.
But of particular interest in Companies We Keep is an emphasis on cooperation as an alternative to competition. This might sound radical considering how ingrained competition is in American society, but a strong case has been made for the importance of cooperation by author Alfie Kohn. Abrams carefully considers Kohn’s book No Contest and other authors that value cooperation. In a section called “Mining Collaboration, Curbing Competition” he cites Kohn’s No Contest as well as Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, Dr. W. Edward Deming’s Made in Japan, Jeffrey Hollender’s What Matters, and Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work.
Abrams juxtaposes competition and cooperation:
“The effectiveness of competition as a mode for reaching specific, highly targeted goals — such as maximum profitability — cannot be argued. My experience has taught me, however, that we do better across a multiplicity of goals, producing greater, more lasting satisfaction, when we work in cooperative modes, balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders.”
Abrams suggests methods for business that will ideally become more mainstream. I recommended Companies We Keep for understanding and developing “multiple bottom lines.”