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Book Data

ISBN: 9781603580007
Year Added to Catalog: 2008
Book Format: Paperback
Book Art: Photo insert
Dimensions: 6x9
Number of Pages: 352
Book Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Release Date: September 10, 2008
Web Product ID: 418

Also By This Author

Companies We Keep

Employee Ownership and the Business of Community and Place

by John Abrams

Foreword by William Greider


Introduction to the Second Edition

You should never have your best trousers on when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.
—Henrik Ibsen

A ship in harbor is safe—but that is not what ships are for.
—John A. Shedd


There’s something I’m worried about. It has to do with me.

Each time I read about the exploding economies of China and India and the resources they may consume to emulate the American Way, I wonder why I don’t devote the rest of my life—every waking hour—to working on climate change. Imagining the consequences of this pursuit of global parity is enough to suck the hope from me like a vacuum pulls crumbs from a rug.

I worry, too, that I don’t change the way I live more significantly. Change is hard. I loved my old Toyota Land Cruiser and drove it a quarter million miles. But after 9/11 when those bumper stickers with a picture of Osama bin Laden said, THANK YOU FOR DRIVING YOUR SUV, I felt I just had to switch. So I bought a hybrid. Now I only support terrorism when I’m going uphill.

None of us can do it all, but each of us can do something. And maybe it’s more than we think. At South Mountain Company, the design/build company I founded in 1975 that is now owned and operated by its employees, one of our goals is to make all operations carbon-neutral in ten years. We have not yet fully defined what that means—for us—but we are moving toward the goal nonetheless. As I write, in March 2008, we heat our building and run our forklifts with biodiesel, some of which we make ourselves. We generate 25 percent of our electricity with a wind turbine. By the time you read this we will have increased that to 90 percent thanks to a new, more productive wind turbine and the addition of a solar-electric system. In our work, we are moving closer to net-zero-energy houses, and even our subsidized affordable housing is built to a standard that will allow it to be “forever affordable.”

So what? How does our little drop in the bucket matter?

First, it gives us hope. Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, says this about hope:

Hope . . . is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.1

This is one of the reasons we do what we do—the conviction that it makes sense, regardless of its modest impact. It may be just a drop in the bucket, but rivers are nothing more than accumulations of drops. These drops may have broader impact that may be hard to measure.

At its core, climate change is not a technical problem. It’s about how we live, what we value, and how we organize our economy to serve our lifestyles and values. To change our relationship to the Earth we must change our relationships to one another. We need to change our definition of success, so that it’s less about doing and making as much as we can as fast as we can and more about satisfying human needs as elegantly and effectively as we can. We need to think about enough rather than more. We need new forms of governance and business.

At South Mountain our cooperative ownership structure assigns the wealth we make to those who make it. Our democratic system of decision making offers everyone a voice. Our collaborative culture promotes a healthy, meaningful workplace. These, too, give me hope.

I am finding that—since the original publication of this book in 2005—there is a thirst for hopeful stories that bring out the best in all of us, and a concurrent awakening of interest in the potential of broadly shared ownership. This idea—which still mostly flies beneath the radar—is beginning to surface all over the world, in companies small and large. If a lack of believable models is part of what inhibits change, perhaps the story of South Mountain, and democratic, community-based companies like it, can provide inspiration, or at least information, for those looking for a more attractive approach to business success. I would like to think that our story, and those of others who share this journey, can help us as we try to assemble the components of a restorative future.

That future will depend in part on how we address climate change, perhaps the most vexing issue humankind has ever faced. It will require us to think differently, act differently, and dream differently. It will require us to remodel our economy, one drop at a time. It will require radical political change as well. As author Peter Barnes says in Climate Solutions:

We need to act quickly . . . to fix the market flaw that causes climate change. That means creating a workable and lasting system for limiting our pollution of the atmosphere. Such a system would reflect the fact that the atmosphere is a commons that belongs to everyone. It would cap carbon as it enters the economy, and gradually lower the cap [by 2 percent per year] so that, by 2050, emissions are at least 80 percent below the current level.

He goes on,

A leak-proof descending carbon cap will have many positive ripple effects. Higher carbon prices will spur private investments in conservation, efficiency, and non-carbon technologies. Utilities will know what kinds of plants to build. . . . Automakers will know what kinds of cars to build. . . .2

And legislators will finally know what to subsidize: mass transit, smart electricity grids, energy efficiency, renewable energy, converting waste to resources, extended producer responsibility, localization, third-party certification of natural resource use, and those endeavors that promote and restore community.

As a culture, we have just begun these transformative tasks. We need to muster the equivalent of a wartime mobilization to design and build an entirely new worldwide energy system and ethos. If we commit unprecedented investment and unleash our creativity, we are likely to produce economic opportunity and prosperity in the face of crisis. This great undertaking will create good work, alleviate poverty, and save the planet from ourselves. It will take more than investment; it will require collaboration of a type and scale heretofore unknown. We will need new tools, new abilities, and new ways of working together. All of us will need to own the endeavor. A central requirement for the journey will be the ability to own our workplaces and share responsibility for the outcomes, both good and bad.

That is what this book is about. It’s about the recognition that when the people who are making the decisions bear the responsibility for the consequences of those decisions, and also share in the rewards that accrue, better decisions will result. It’s about building community within the workplace and connections to the communities where we work and live.

By learning the skills of collaboration in the workplace, the benefits can spread to civic and social life as well. In the November 2007 issue of The Journal of Organizational Behavior, Gretchen Spreitzer, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says that her research has led to the conclusion that “When employees can participate and have a role in governance issues, they are likely to . . . be further attracted to participatory leadership in other settings.”3 Exposure to egalitarian methods in the workplace can nourish democratic inclinations in all walks of life. It is my belief that widespread employee ownership of business can play a part in the new human story as it unfolds, by spreading the ethics of ownership, responsibility, democratic participation, and ecological stewardship.

Curbing corporate abuse, reining in the global corporate juggernaut, and mobilizing to grapple with climate change are largely dependent on the kind of political change Barnes recommends. But politics is a crapshoot, where the dice may not fall the way we wish and each of us can have only a minor impact on the political process. Meanwhile, however, our democracy offers other choices. While we work toward political solutions, we have the liberty to invent the corporation of the future right now. We can make whatever kinds of companies we want.

Nothing stands in our way.

My earliest memory is an incident that occurred when my family lived in San Francisco from 1949 to 1952. I must have been two. I was still in a crib and I couldn’t talk, or only barely, but I could climb in and out of my crib. It seemed like half a mile to the other side of the room, where my sister Nancy’s bed was. Three years older than me, she was a mentor and friend. She talked to me a lot. And she had a pillow on her bed.

I had noticed my parents had pillows, too, on their bed. Why didn’t I? It was nearly bedtime. In my one-piece pajama suit, all flannel and containment, I padded out of the room, down the hall, and into my parents’ room (they were probably downstairs; Nancy was in the bathroom brushing her teeth). I tugged at a pillow. It slid off the bed easily, and I dragged it down the hallway to my crib.

The pillow was unwieldy, like a sack of grain. I pushed it up against the crib bars, over my head, tussled with it a bit, and then with a final effort tipped it in. I had a pillow. I hoisted myself up and in, squirreled under the covers, and settled my head into this new soft luxury.

My mother came in to read me a book. She pulled up a chair next to the crib. Then she noticed. “Where did that pillow come from?” I wonder how I reacted. Deer in the headlights? Or nonchalant, smug with success? Who knows? She left the room, and when she came back a moment later, she was cooing and apologetic: “Oh, you felt left out? Everyone else had one and you didn’t? Oh, well . . . you’ve got a pillow now.”

Oh, the sweetness of being understood!

When I told this story once, my wife, Chris, chuckled and said, “Pretty funny that your first memory is of the discovery of a plot to deny you something and your subversive activities to right the wrong.”

Talk about being understood.

That’s what writing this book has been like. Sometimes the message is understood. When the book was first released in 2005, I had the opportunity to see the results of my work, just like our designers and carpenters do when they stand back to examine a completed house. At the time, however, I had no idea how people would react, or even if they would. On the one hand, the response to the book has not been deafening, but it has been steady and enthusiastic. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to further develop it, having learned enough—from readers, friends and family, people in the company, and events of the three years since its publication—that I have something more to say.

A number of people have asked for a new thread: How can companies make these transitions; what is the road map to employee ownership, and how do we traverse it? As my good friend and faithful critic Jamie Wolf says: Can you make this book be about reinventing my company?

To address that, I have expanded the focus on employee ownership: more depth, more breadth, and more of the practical information necessary for businesses considering a restructuring. The context is important. My fellow baby boomers own several million businesses, and during the next two decades most of these founders will exit. The businesses will either shut down or be passed on. Selling to employees is an option that deserves to be more widely understood, for it offers powerful benefits to all parties. There is a need for more information as employee ownership becomes an important entity of choice. There is new promise, and there are even new tax mechanisms that make employee ownership more widely applicable.

The first chapter is the beginning of our story. The second chapter examines the idea of employee ownership and its place in our economy. It aims to put the story of South Mountain Company in a broader context. The rest of the book continues our story, traversing the ground we have covered and connecting it, I hope, to the awakenings I see all around me.

In the appendices there is a detailed blueprint of the South Mountain system. There is also an agenda with the steps needed for employee ownership conversions, and resources to guide and assist the effort—the itinerary for safe passage.

I have made revisions and updates throughout the book as well, many of them in response to specific inquiries I have received from readers.

“So . . . ,” say some, “why not just write another book?”

Because this one’s not done yet, for me at least. Rather, it feels ripe for renovation. The additional information I want to communicate fits neatly into the existing context, and I would like for those who read this second edition to have the full experience of this book, not some other one.

There’s another thing.

Sometimes—this will ring a bell, I’m sure—we walk away from a completed conversation or emerge from a meeting, and, on the way home, we suddenly realize, Oh yes, of course, that’s what I should have said. That’s what would have changed the tenor of the conversation, and moved it forward.

That’s what this feels like. I have an opportunity here to keep the conversation going, to say the right thing, to . . . well, to nail it, at least occasionally, I hope. I get to say some things I meant to say, and didn’t, or didn’t know enough to say at the time. Through the Companies We Keep Web site I hope this book can begin an ongoing conversation. Visit [] after you finish the book, and let’s keep talking.

Remember, this is all about us. It’s about sharing ownership of the future. It’s about thinking differently, acting differently, dreaming differently, and encouraging one another along the way. If this book, and the ongoing exchange it may provoke, can help us to learn to work together in healthier, more productive ways, then I’ll rest easy. I still may be doing less than I wish, each day, to tackle climate change. I still may not do enough to change the way I live. I may not have the conviction that all things will turn out well. But I will have the hope that, by acting together, our lives and our companies and our time together will make sense, regardless of how it all turns out.


  1. Vaclav Hamel, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, English translation by Paul Wilson (New York,Vintage, 1991), 110.
  2. Peter Barnes, Climate Solutions (White River Junction, Vt: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), 69–70.
  3. Gretchen Spreitzer, “Giving Peace a Chance: Organizational Leadership, Empowerment, and Peace,” Journal of Organizational Behavior (November 2007), Wiley Publishers.


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