Mission Possible: Looking at employee-owned companies

A Cleveland company is re-imagining the workplace and helping other businesses to transform and create wealth within communities.

CLEVELAND – The pandemic got us re-thinking how we spend our time and about what’s truly important. From that, a legion of workers left their careers to try something new and more meaningful.

Long before COVID-19, a forward-thinking Cleveland company also wanted to re-imagine the workplace, so instead of creating profit for an owner, Evergreen Cooperatives is driven to create jobs and wealth within communities.

“There are no handouts,” CEO John McMicken told 3News. “I mean, these are tough businesses to run, and some of these jobs are not easy at all. Really all we are giving is the opportunity to earn more than just a paycheck.”

McMicken heads up ongoing business planning, as well as evaluating new service offerings for the business. One of the corporation’s first is an industrial laundry service that contracts with hospitals and assisted living facilities.

“There is a lot of capacity here to do more, process more linen,” McMicken said. “More linen means more revenue; more revenue typically means more jobs.”

More revenue and more jobs are good news for the owners — who are also the employees, sharing in the company’s profits.

Evergreen Cooperative Laundry’s largest client is the Cleveland Clinic, which recently renewed a five-year contract. Herbert Allen is a laundry worker, who also sits on the board of directors.

“Being part-owner of a company is a fabulous thing because you have a little say,” he explained. “You have a little share in the company and you can also save for the future.”

Donald Lappin worked his way up from production floor to supervisor.

“New employees come in and I try to explain to them, ‘If you have the right mindset, there is a lot of growth,'” he said. “‘You can grow into the company and grow higher. This is the opportunity here.'”

That opportunity spreads into the community. Allen says the laundry has supported voter registration drives and helps those with criminal records. He calls Evergreen a “family-oriented” company.

“They understand it is more than a job,” he added. “It’s looking toward your future that you might not have had.”

Starting any business requires risk. That’s why Evergreen Cooperatives pivoted from creating businesses to helping existing ones. In the process, they saved jobs that might have disappeared.

“This is a shift toward looking for existing businesses that already have a good financial track record and who are a good fit for employee ownership,” McMicken said.

Enter Phoenix Coffee. Its previous owner was looking to move on, so in late 2020, its fivelocations became employee-owned, with investment help from Evergreen.

“We found it really hard to find traditional funding,” Director of Coffee Christopher Feran noted. “We are a hospitality business, so you go to a bank, they are going to laugh at you. And then you say ‘We want to turn it into a co-op’ — that was not going to happen, but Evergreen understood the vision and the work. “

Evergreen provides guidance in running a co-op, and roughly 18 months in, Feran sees positive signs.

“What I can tell you is our pool of applicants is the strongest it has ever been,” he claimed. “Even for barista jobs — especially for management jobs — and the caliber of talent that we are seeing come through is pretty incredible, and I think I can attribute a lot of that to that we are a co-op and offer this opportunity.”

Most of the staff at the Cleveland Heights location live in the neighborhood, but few can afford to own a house here. Once business returns to pre-pandemic levels, Feran estimates employees will receive substantial profit-sharing bonuses.

“We only have three people at our east side store who drive,” he said. “Everyone lives within the community; they walk to work, and right now they can not afford to own a house. It’s our goal to make so if they want to become part of this community and own a home, they should be able to with the profits they get from being co-op members. “

Evergreen’s blueprint for success is getting national attention: The corporation is fielding inquiries from businesses outside of Ohio, curious about the employee-owned model.

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