Friday, July 3, 2009

Employee Owned Companies

Yesterday, Full Sail Brewing celebrated 10 years of employee ownership. They have a lot to celebrate. Full Sail appears to be thriving largely because they seem to have an exquisite sense of the market and have made some pretty savvy commercial decisions that seem to have worked out very well (e.g. the logo and packaging redesign of a few years ago - including the cringe inducing "Brewed to Stoke, Stoked to Brew" slogan - and the successful release of Session). Of course, they also produce excellent beer... But should we expect employee ownership to make a company like Full Sail more or less commercially savvy?

Economists in general have always been fairly skeptical of employee owned companies. The dominant theme in the literature is generally that the incentives of employee owners are to reward themselves at the expense of the firm and to be more interested in the short term success of the company than its long term growth, as well as to have too diffuse a decision making structure and to have too little independent supervision of employees. For example, can employee owned companies make the hard decision to cut positions in economic downturns?

On the other hand, employee-owned companies can be seen as a solution to a classic principal agent problem in that they tie employee compensation to the economic success of the firm. In this theory, employees should be more motivated, disciplined and productive as they understand that their effort is directly linked to firm performance. This incentive is amplified for smaller companies. [One reason why economists tend to be skeptics is that this incentive is often pretty small at the individual level, so would seem to be dwarfed to the incentive to give yourself a big raise regardless of firm performance, for example]

So is Full Sail the exception the the rule or a classic example of the sensibility of employee ownership? Well, it turns out that almost every study of employee owned firms has found that they are either no worse or slightly better than non-employee owned firms in terms of firm performance. [See this nice meta-study for some evidence] It appears that ownership in companies can, in fact, boost firm performance be giving employees a larger interest in the success of the firm.

It is particularly interesting that in an industry that is artisanal in nature this should be true - you might expect another tension between making distinct beers with small market potential and more mainstream beers. Full Sail seems to be mastering both, they were pioneers in developing the more macro-style 'Session' beers, and yet produce some of the most distinctive beers in their 'Brewmaster's Reserve' series. How much does all this have to do with being an employee-owned company is impossible to say, but perhaps it is not too surprising after all.

Regardless, here is to another 10 years of success to Full Sail. Cheers!

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