Attending last year’s annual national conference of the ESOP Association, I marveled at how it has grown. Once a gathering of roughly several dozen people, it has become the premier conference of employee ownership advocates, with nearly 1,000 attendees.
Many people have contributed to the success of the ESOP movement over the past three decades, but it is largely inspired by the work and vision of one tireless champion, J. Michael Keeling, who served as the trade group’s president and chief staff officer for 28 of its 41 years (and is, I am happy to write, my good friend). The ESOP community will pay tribute to Michael, who retired March 1, at this year’s conference taking place May 22-24 in Washington, D.C.
There is much to honor Michael for because, quite frankly, he viewed the promotion of employee ownership as his life’s mission, a trust that went well beyond the formal duties of his job. Michael was instrumental in transforming the landscape of employee ownership, consistent with his belief that “a well-managed employee-owned company is not a destination, it is a journey.”
Today, an estimated 6,660 ESOP companies employ nearly 14.3 million participants nationally, and close to 2,000 other profit-sharing and stock bonus plans invest substantially in company stock that mirror ESOPs in other ways. Altogether about 28 million employees participate in some sort of employee ownership plan, controlling about 8% of corporate equity, estimates the National Center for Employee Ownership.
It wasn’t always this way. Michael spurred the growth of employee ownership by making the ESOP Association much more than a lobbying and political advocacy force. Through his leadership and drive, the ESOP Association and the Employee Ownership Foundation he began in the mid-1990s boosted employee ownership through a trifecta of research, professional development and state-level grass roots support.
Let’s start with research. Michael realized early on that to win widespread public and legislative support, the association needed valid and independent data to demonstrate how well employee-owned companies perform. Under the aegis of the Employee Ownership Foundation and often working in collaboration with Rutgers University and the National Center for Employee Ownership, he saw to it that research was generated that provided the validation the employee ownership movement required.