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Here’s the ambitious five-to-six-year goal: a million more employee owners. And here’s the strategy: help to establish employee-ownership centers in states covering 70% of the US population.

The newly formed group with these objectives calls itself the Employee Ownership Expansion Network. “It’s all about grass-roots marketing,” says Cecil Ursprung, former CEO of Reflexite Inc. and now chairman of the expansion network’s board. “We want to increase the number of employee owners, and we think the way to do it is through more state centers in a linked network with a common business model and strategy.”

Some of the thinking that led to the network will be familiar to people in the EO community. Employee ownership strengthens American democracy. It creates more opportunities for people to achieve the American dream. Employee owners earn more, save more, and have higher net worth than nonowners. A company owner who sells to the employees keeps the enterprise independent, providing jobs and wealth-building opportunities to the local community and the people who helped build the business.

What’s new here is a practical business model that fills a strategic gap. Existing state-level employee ownership centers are scarce—there are currently half a dozen active ones—but are highly effective. They work with political leaders to foster a supportive environment. They provide information and hands-on assistance, much of it from peers, to company owners who are considering a sale to employees. There tend to be more employee-owned companies per capita in states with well-established centers than in states without. Still, no national organization has launched a sustained, full-scale effort to expand the number of such centers, or to support them through a national network.

Enter the new organization, which goes by the abbreviation EOeX (pronounced E-O-X). Its business model, as Ursprung describes it, “takes some pages from the franchise book and some pages from the joint-venture book.” The goal is to make the parties—national network and state centers—“really need each other.”

Cecil Ursprung

As part of the groundwork, Ursprung and his colleagues worked closely with the Pennsylvania Center for Employee Ownership, or PaCEO, founded in 2016 with the assistance of the NCEO. In its two-year life, PaCEO has introduced the idea of employee ownership to hundreds of Pennsylvania companies and political leaders, and is already helping several owners begin the transition.

This work has enabled EOeX to begin developing operating manuals, timelines, standard charts of accounts and so on, all of which should enable fledgling state organizations to scale up quickly. That’s the franchise part. The joint-venture part is that the centers spawned by the network will mostly operate independently, while the national organization coordinates efforts and provides expertise.

Right now, the new network has a five-member board, including Ursprung and others with expertise in employee ownership. The board has raised some seed capital,and it recently appointed an executive director, Steve Storkan, who comes to the network from a job as director of ESOP administration at Alerus Financial in Minnesota, where he was responsible for much of the firm’s ESOP business.

The priorities now, says Ursprung, are raising money—“we want to crush the funding issue”—along with fleshing out the staff and developing informational programs for nascent state centers to offer their clientele. The initial programs will focus on telling stories about employee-owned companies, from the perspective of people throughout the organizational ranks. Technical details about ESOPs can come later.

Big ideas like employee ownership spread slowly—until they reach a tipping point, and then they spread faster than anyone could have imagined. If EOeX can successfully pursue its ambitious mission and implement its strategy, those million new employee owners should provide a critical push toward that tipping point.