For employees of WinCo Foods, Christmas is just around the corner, in July.
That’s when they will receive their annual statements telling them how much money is in the personal retirement accounts being kept in reserve for them by the company.
WinCo is owned by its workers in an employee stock-ownership program, or ESOP. The Boise, Idaho-based company operates 89 discount stores, with an estimated volume of $5.3 billion.
Each year the company puts approximately 20% of an employee’s total compensation into an ESOP account. Of the 11,000 front-line employees currently in the ESOP, more than 400 have accounts worth more than $1 million for when they retire, Steven L. Goddard, president and chief executive officer, said.
“Those who have been in the ESOP for awhile look forward to that annual statement in July,” he told SN, “and newer employees see their excitement and anticipation, and that heightens their interest in the ESOP.
“That interest may not occur immediately, but over the years it becomes very real. Because when people become aware there’s $1 million or $2 million in someone’s account, that certainly creates quite a buzz among the employees.”
WinCo asked employees to write essays last year on what it meant to them to be part of an ESOP, and several of the 25 essays published in WinCo’s employee magazine mentioned the annual statements.
Kris Hoppenworth, a cashier at WinCo’s store in Hazel Dell, Wash. — who has been with the company since 1993 — said she had no idea at the end of her first year as an employee “why there was so much buzz about this small piece of paper that each employee was given.
“Once it was explained to me it was their ESOP statement, it became apparent that people had great concerns over its contents, so I looked at mine. Not much to show for the first year, but maybe if I stayed with this company, my ESOP statement would prove to be of more interest to me. After five-and-a-half years I was vested — the ESOP money that had accrued was now mine. It couldn’t be taken away.”
According to Dan Horne, a loss-prevention clerk at a WinCo in Vancouver, Wash., “I had worked for WinCo for a few months when a lead clerk told me about his new ESOP statement. But why was he so excited?
“He told me, ‘WinCo has a bank account with your name on it. They put money in, and all you have to do is keep working, and someday you might be a millionaire.’ ”
Kirby Myers, a cashier at the same store, said he was encouraged when he saw “that first profit-sharing statement revealing how well my company did last year as a direct result of the efforts we, the owners, invested. It was encouraging too to see, in actual shares accrued, that my own efforts were rewarded.”
WinCo has been an ESOP company since 1984, when employees purchased the majority of its shares for $10.6 million.
Citing data from the National Center for Employee Ownership, the company said ESOP account balances tend to be three to five times higher than the U.S. average for a 401(k) plan.
It also said employee-owners are more invested in their companies’ success, less likely to quit or be laid off and more prepared economically for retirement than those in other industries.
For the fiscal year ended in March 2012 the ESOP had 64.9 million shares, with a value of $2.6 billion and an annual growth rate of 21.5% a year.
According to the company’s newsletter, a $1 investment in Kroger 10 years ago would be worth $1.75 today, a 6% annual growth rate; $1 invested 10 years ago in Walmart would be worth two cents more, $1.77; while $1 invested in WinCo a decade ago would be worth $7.30, for an average growth rate of 22%.
Full vesting take five years, with one vested year equivalent to at least 1,000 hours worked during the plan year.
Feature Story: WinCo Goes for the Win
Goddard said the people WinCo hires are probably not significantly different than those hired by other companies in the industry, “but over time, the ESOP helps them become different, especially once they understand what it means to be part of an employee-owned company.”
Some employees really grasp the concept, and their work reflects their pride of ownership, Goddard said, “while others don’t embrace it — maybe because they took the job to work their way through school or simply because they don’t get it.
“But the vast majority of employees do embrace the concept of ownership, and they will sometimes try to emphasize the concept to those who don’t get it — either by talking to a manager or talking directly to employees who aren’t applying themselves on the job the way they should.”
Several WinCo employees wrote in their essays about the pride they take in their work as owners.
“I get back what I put in,” Amy Pearson, a deli manager-in-training at a WinCo in Gresham, Ore., said. “I am only one employee out of thousands, but I can make a difference.”
Being an owner, she wrote, “makes me want to try harder to make my department look full and fresh — to make a point of saying hello to a customer and to make my workplace a good environment for my fellow workers.”
According to Shobna Chand, a variety clerk in a WinCo in Puyallup, Wash., “Being [part of] an employee-owned gave me a chance to see the company in a unique perspective. It changed my view of the work ethic. My commitment, motivation, competitiveness, my hard work, dedication, sense of participation and performance make my job more personal.”
Ramiro Arevalos, an assistant supervisor in the chain’s Modesto, Calif., warehouse, offered similar thoughts. “As employee-owners, we should take care of our company as we take care of our home. Nobody wants to be in a hostile environment … Our co-workers are like family. We get along with some, and others are hard to deal with, but we need each other to complete our daily task in a smoother and more effective way.”
For Jennifer Stockton, a deli clerk at a WinCo in Lakewood, Calif., “The ESOP gives us a sense … that the harder and more efficiently we work, the better we are taking care of everyone — ourselves, our families and our company.”
Jeff Duarte, lead clerk at a WinCo in Marysville, Wash., said he learned what employee-ownership meant early in his career. “A colleague and I were throwing freight one night when he came to a stop at a can whose label was gone.
“I would have tossed the can in with my go-backs, [but] he pulled a pick-tag off a nearby piece of plastic and used it to re-attach the label to the can, then placed it on the shelf. He noticed I was watching, pointed to the can and said ‘That’s our ESOP.’
“With a single action, he made me realize exactly what company ownership meant. Now, when I am throwing freight and find a loose label, I re-attach it because it is my can. When I am driving a forklift, I am careful not to scratch the floor because it is my floor. Company ownership gives our actions new importance because at WinCo we are in our own house.”
According to Vosco Rash, an IT applications administrator in WinCo’s general office, “As each of us succeeds, we all succeed. We are not just working for a nameless stockholder but for the person next to us. We are a family united by our shared goals to make this the best company.”
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