In 2004, the leadership of King Arthur Flour gathered to formally sign over control from longtime owners Frank and Brinna Sands to the company’s employee stock ownership program (ESOP). The two had been gradually transferring shares in the Norwich, Vermont, flour maker to the ESOP since 1996 as part of a long-planned exit. Opposed to selling the company to outside buyers or extended family members, the Sands had instead worked with then-vice president of finance Steve Voigt to engineer a transfer of ownership to their own employees, a surefire way to keep the company close to its roots in small town Vermont. Now they were ready to conclude the deal that was nearly a decade in the making. Surrounded by lawyers and the ESOP leadership, including current co-CEO Suzanne McDowell, Frank Sands signed over his family’s company.
The gravity of the moment was at odds with King Arthur’s casual culture, and McDowell remembers being momentarily taken aback. “The room felt like it was a bunch of men in suits,” she recalls. That is, until Frank Sands, in customarily comic fashion, shot her a wink from across the room.
Honoring Sands leadership, the flour company, which dates back to the 18th century, has made a concerted effort to stick to its small-town identity despite its growing profile. Employee ownership is the cornerstone of a broader set of goals the company has formally enshrined since voting to become a B Corporation in 2007. (B Corps—including companies such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s—legally obligate their boards of directors to balance profit along with impact on employees and community.) Fittingly, the company has adopted an equally unconventional leadership structure.