What Employee Ownership Means to The Sky Factory: Everything

What Employee Ownership Means to The Sky Factory: Everything

Founder says artists attracted to company that encourages entrepreneurial spirit

Bill Witherspoon, founder of The Sky Factory, a recent winner of the Top Small Company Workplaces 2010, attributes employee ownership as the underlying factor in the company’s ‘skyrocketing’ success.

The Fairfield, Iowa firm that creates authentic images of nature for ceilings and walls has instituted a unique employee-ownership structure that is available to all employees after one year.

“The goal here at The Sky Factory is let’s have no employees, zero employees, and 100-per-cent owners,” Witherspoon says.

Having owned six companies in the past, Witherspoon says he’s followed the rules for start-ups and management but was never pleased with the results. When he founded The Sky Factory in 2002, he was ready to try something decidedly different.

Knowing that artists are particularly entrepreneurial and used to working on their own terms, Witherspoon says he felt ownership in the company would help attract, utilize and keep talent.

“I wanted to engage everybody as fully as possible so that we wouldn’t always be losing people and having to look for new people — we could build something really solid,” he says.

The “bootstrap operation” has grown to 34 employees with an annual revenue of $3.9 million.

Employees are able to buy stocks annually, with the percentage of stock available based on the company’s growth for that year.

“At the end of each year we do a valuation . . . (and) that corresponds to an increase in stock that should go to the people who did the work,” explains Witherspoon.

Staff members buy the stock, even though it’s been discounted by 80 per cent, to cultivate a greater sense of ownership. Witherspoon says in a past company he gave employees stocks but found gifting did not motivate employees.

To that end, every staff member who has been given the option to buy Sky Factory stock through a written promissory note to the company has bought to the maximum limit.

A company filled with owners has led to numerous successes, most notably increased productivity and innovation, cites Witherspoon. He points to the company’s consistent growth during the recession despite its products predominate use in new construction builds.

“Things happened that came out of the whole group that never would have come if we had a hierarchical system and there were a few people responsible for leading this crisis,” he says.

“We all started to focus and brainstorm possible approaches and turned those brainstorms into specific programs. This was a result of everyone thinking and minimizing expenses, it came from every level of the organisation."

It’s these kinds of outcomes that have Witherspoon giving a sweeping review of what employee ownership has meant to The Sky Factory.

“Everything – I am sorry it’s sounds so ridiculous.”

— More to Come

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Writer Bio

Camille Jensen's picture
Camille Jensen

Camille Jensen is an employee share ownership consultant with ESOP Builders, Canada’s largest provider of employee share ownership plans (ESOPs) for small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Prior to joining ESOP Builders, Camille was a generative journalist and team member at Axiom News. She credits her time at Axiom as fundamental to her understanding that business is one of the best opportunities to make a difference in the world.

Camille is a B.C. Partner for Social Impact and volunteer with Okanagan Changemakers.

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