The Carris Community of Companies makes reels: large hardwood reels for cable, small plastic reels
for light-gauge wiring, and just about any other kind of reel you can imagine. They also make furniture,
pallets, and other products.
It’s hard work-the kind of work that makes your hands rough, your muscles sore, and your body tired.
They’ve been told that employee-ownership doesn’t make sense at a company like theirs. People say
that better-educated and better-paid employees are more likely to think and act like owners.
But now, five years into employee ownership, Carris is making substantial progress towards their
corporate goal to become “employee owned and employee governed.” Their leaders are in demand
as conference speakers, and audiences pepper them with questions about “exactly how they do all that.”
Headquartered in Rutland, Vermont, Carris now employs over 1,100 people and has sales around
$100 million. About half the work force is in Vermont, but major facilities are located in nine other
states, from North Carolina to California, as well as Mexico.
Carris Reels was founded by Henry Carris 50 years ago. His son Bill Carris took over as President
and sole owner in 1980. In 1995, Bill began transferring stock to an ESOP, which now owns 43%
of company shares and will continue to acquire shares until it owns 100% of the company.
This article shares some of the lessons that Carris has learned about putting ideas about employee
ownership into practice.
Ask “Why Not?”
The company has a tradition of questioning conventional wisdom. For example, when the company
was drafting the ESOP documents, Bill Carris knew which features of plan design he wanted to
specify himself. He decided to let the employees figure out the rest. “Why not have employees
design as much of the ESOP as possible? I don’t care what the allocation formula is, and they’re
the ones who are going to have to live with it,” says Bill.
An employee-management committee worked out a plan, which itself challenges standard ESOP
procedure by considering more than wages and salaries in determining stock allocation. They
knew they wanted a ratio based on wages, years of services, and an equal allocation. The
committee did not feel comfortable deciding how to balance those elements, and eventually
developed three different proposals. They left the choice of which proposal to a company-wide,
The company continues to find voting a valuable tool. When changes were needed in the health
benefits plan, it was suggested that employees should vote on which of four options best met
their needs. “Why not?” said Karin McGrath, director of Human Resources at Carris. “Now
we’ve got a plan that most people want and almost everybody understands.”
Write it Down
In 1994, before the transaction was finalized, Bill Carris put together a booklet with his vision
of where the company was headed. The Long Term Plan for the Carris Community of
Companies emphasizes humanist goals like self-governance and sharing wealth: the
company’s stated goal is “to upgrade employees’ health, wealth and happiness.” The plan
also acknowledges the importance of customer satisfaction: “Without satisfied customers,
there can be no profit, and without profit there can be no business.” Everybody who is
interested knows why the ESOP was adopted and what their company may look like
in the future.
Every employee at Carris votes for a representative, one for every 50 employees.
Together with corporate and plant management, the representatives constitute the
company’s Steering Committee. The Steering Committee meets twice a year in
Vermont to guide corporate policy, hear employee proposals, and plan training and
communications. Putting such power into the hands of elected employees was a big risk,
and one that the company is committed to staying with, convinced that the group is
essential to the company’s vision and its success.
Many of the most difficult problems resulted from employees having unrealistic
expectations about how the company would change-and how fast. Company leaders
believe that a major stumbling block is over-promising. Leaders should be sure they
can follow through before committing. For example, employees are invited to submit
petitions to the Steering Committee through their representatives. The committee
could not respond to all the suggestions, and many people were disappointed.
“In retrospect,” says Karin McGrath, “I wish we had warned people that it might
not be realistic to expect more than 5 or 10 percent of suggestions to be acted
on right away.”
When You Gather Input, Provide Feedback
Carris has asked employees to fill out surveys, including ones designed by researcher
Cecile Betit, and used the information to guide its process. Last year, employees filled
out the Ownership Culture Survey, an attitude survey design by my firm, Ownership
Associates, for employee-ownership companies. About three weeks later, employees
saw the survey results as part of a training program which built directly on the data.
The quick turnaround gave employees the sense that their voices were heard, and
the results were integrated into the content of the training. Such customized feedback
helped expand and challenge employee perceptions of themselves and their company.
Be a Good Citizen
The Carris Community contributes 7% of profits each year to charity, and employees help
determine who will receive these contributions. An article in the Boston Globe described
another citizenship initiative at Carris-each year, 5 to 10 employees are selected to
participate in the “Full Circle” travel program. They go to third world countries and
meet people from all walks of life. Participating employees often say that the program
gives them a new perspective on their lives. But does it benefit the company? Bill
Carris thinks so: “when people come back, they’re not only better citizens of the
world--they’re also better citizens of the Carris Community.”
Becoming an “employee owned and employee governed” company is a long-term
process. The company is currently planning how it wants its governance structures
to evolve over the upcoming years. They have been working with us on an influence
allocation chart that will help employees productively participate in making decisions.
They are planning the concrete steps-including training, gathering input, legal documentation,
and lots of committee work-with the goal to build a management and governance structure
that is durable, inclusive, and business-savvy.
Is it working? The Carris Community of Companies is on a long road, but they are clearly
making progress. The Steering Committee will meet again this month, and they have a full
three-day agenda. The survey data shows that not all employees feel like owners yet, but
they overwhelmingly think that ownership is important. There are many obstacles left, but
the company’s leadership and its work force are working hard to build a company where
everyone is proud to be an owner.
For questions about the Carris Community of Companies, contact Karin McGrath
at 802-773-9111, or by email at
Loren Rodgers is a consultant at Ownership Associates, a consulting firm with an
exclusive focus on employee-ownership. For more information, see