A Journey of Ownership: Key Takeaways from 5 Years as an ESOP


Congress introduced ESOPs in the 1970s to promote employee ownership and engagement. The objective was to facilitate ownership transfer to employees without upfront costs. They emerged as a model for reshaping the relationship between employees and their companies.

A study conducted by the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) in 2017 highlighted the remarkable benefits of ESOPs. The findings revealed that being part of an ESOP was associated with a 92% higher median household net wealth, a 33% higher median income from wages, and a remarkably 53% longer median job tenure. Presently, around 6,500 companies and 10.5 million employees participate in ESOPs, empowering American workers nationwide. What’s more, the state of Missouri stands out as a beacon of employee ownership, boasting an impressive 180 ESOPs and a staggering 52,015 employee owners. These numbers paint a vivid picture of the impact employee ownership has had on both corporate performance and individual financial well-being.

By granting workers a direct stake in the success of their companies, ESOPs have become a driving force behind improved corporate performance and increased employee prosperity. Moreover, they challenge the prevailing narrative that economic mobility is an unattainable dream, offering a tangible solution that empowers workers and revitalizes the spirit of entrepreneurship within the American workforce.

In a world where consolidation and private equity investments have become commonplace, Winter-Dent, with over a century of independence, chose a different path to secure its future, transitioning to a 100% Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) in February 2018. To celebrate 5 years as an ESOP, Steve Nicholson, CEO and an employee-owner at Winter-Dent, took time to answer a few questions delving into their remarkable journey. Steve shares insights into the goals and motivations behind this significant transformation. 

Winter-Dent Jefferson City office ribbon cutting celebration

Q: What led to the decision to make Winter-Dent an ESOP company? What were the goals for the change?


For over a century, Winter-Dent had remained family-owned and operated, but in 2018, the time had come for a change. Deeply rooted in its commitment to independence, Winter-Dent leadership sought a solution that would maintain its track record while ushering in a new era of employee ownership. Unlike many organizations that gradually dip their toes into employee ownership, Winter-Dent took a bold leap by converting to a full 100% ESOP company right from the start. This decision was significant and presented tremendous opportunities for the firm and its new employee-owners.

The goals were, first and foremost, to perpetuate the firm's legacy. Winter-Dent aimed to position itself as a long-term player in the communities it served, fostering an ownership mentality that resonated throughout the region. By selling the company to its employees, Winter-Dent ensured that its future was secured in the hands of those who had a deep understanding of its values, active involvement in the communities it served, and a vested interest in its long-term success.

Another crucial goal was to empower the employee-owners, offering them the opportunity to take greater control of their destinies and establish a personal stake in the game. This newfound ownership instilled a sense of pride and commitment among the workforce, creating a strong bond that transcended the conventional employer-employee relationship. Moreover, the ESOP structure proved to be a powerful tool for attracting top talent. In a challenging recruiting environment, Winter-Dent became an attractive destination, offering prospective employees the promise of long-term stability, growth, and a tangible sense of pride in their work.

By embracing the ESOP model, Winter-Dent solidified its commitment to the future while honoring its past, weaving a story of employee empowerment and a steadfast pursuit of excellence.

Q: You're celebrating 5 years into that transition. How are you doing against those goals?


When assessing progress, Winter-Dent has been performing extraordinarily well. We have garnered recognition for our achievements and actively participate in ESOP associations at both national and regional levels, including the Nation Center of Employee-Ownership (NCEO) and the ESOP Association of America. Engaging with a network of like-minded companies, we exchange best practices, ideas for employee-owner development, and strategies for the responsibility we have in educating our owners about the value of their ownership stake. While Winter-Dent still offers traditional benefits like 401(k) plans, the true reward lies in the investment of being an owner, which necessitates dedication and hard work from every employee-owner.

Building an ownership mindset requires deliberate effort and a strong focus on communication. Winter-Dent has prioritized effective communication as a crucial component of its success as an ESOP. To foster business literacy and provide continuous education forums, we established The Blue Ocean Committee. This committee plays a pivotal role in enabling employee-owners to enhance their knowledge and skills in various areas. It serves as a platform for understanding financial results, taking control of individual futures, and gaining line-of-sight on the company's mission. Winter-Dent conducts monthly all-agency huddles and monthly meetings of The Blue Ocean Committee. This commitment to maintaining a disciplined tempo and pace is key. It reflects our awareness that developing a company of employee-owners who fully embrace their positions and comprehend solid business concepts is a long-term journey.

Despite our accomplishments, we understand that there is still much work to be done. Winter-Dent remains committed to continuous improvement, recognizing that our journey toward creating a company where employee-owners truly understand the "why" behind their actions will take time. With a clear focus on effective communication, ongoing education, and a strong sense of responsibility, Winter-Dent strives to nurture a thriving community of employee-owners who not only embrace their roles but also contribute to the long-term success of the company. 

Winter-Dent Jefferson City Chamber of Commerce BBQ

Q: What have been some, perhaps surprising, benefits of becoming an ESOP that you didn’t anticipate?


We didn’t anticipate Covid, and no one did, but the result has been seeing how quickly the employee-owners responded and rallied around different concepts. We had all these plans in place when we became an ESOP, and then when the pandemic hit, we had to pivot and convert all those ideas into a digital format. It was impressive to witness the rapid response and unity among employee-owners when confronted with new concepts and challenges. It is often said that no one cares more about a company's success than the owner, and now, Winter-Dent boasts a workforce filled with owners. That experience serves as a testament to the resilience and adaptability of our employee-owners when faced with unforeseen challenges to ultimately strengthen the organization and propel the company toward continued success.

For us, the phrase Humans Helping Humans is a driving force behind all that we do, with clients and with each other internally. For that reason, we actively monitor our employee engagement numbers and have witnessed steady growth. Every six months, we evaluate our internal Employee Net Promoter Score (ENPS), a measure of employee satisfaction and loyalty, and have seen significant improvements over time. The positive impact of these improvements is evident in our company culture, fostering an environment of collaboration, enthusiasm, and shared ownership.


Q: What have been some of the biggest challenges and how have you overcome them?


Gathering and organizing financial information in a way that allows leaders to interpret it and connect it to individual employees' roles has been an ongoing challenge. Understanding how revenue is generated and distributed is crucial for employee-owners to truly grasp their role in the company and how their efforts contribute to its success. Achieving this level of understanding doesn't happen overnight and requires a steadfast commitment to continuous education.

To overcome these challenges, Winter-Dent has prioritized continuous education initiatives. We have implemented training programs, mentor/mentee relationships, and established a player/coach/leader (PCL) group. These efforts aim to build out additional layers of support within the organization, ensuring that future leaders are properly trained, onboarded, and equipped to lead effectively. By prioritizing continuous education and enhancing leadership development, Winter-Dent continues to empower its employee-owners, ensuring that everyone understands their role, the company's financial landscape, and how their contributions align with the company's overall mission. This is a testament to our dedication to the long-term success of our ESOP journey. 


Q: What advice would you give a company considering making that change for their company?


Understand the commitment required before making the decision. An ESOP is not a quick and easy exit strategy for an owner simply seeking a reprieve from the daily grind. Rather, converting to an ESOP demands a high level of dedication to ensuring the best outcomes for the new team of owners.

In our opinion, it’s imperative to conduct thorough research and actively engage in the ESOP community. Attend association meetings and connect with other companies that have undergone the transition and can provide invaluable insights into the process. Learn from their experiences, understand their motivations for transitioning, and gain knowledge about the first steps and subsequent stages. This prep work is essential and makes for a successful transition. Do not jump into an ESOP without comprehensive preparation and understanding. The commitment required is significant, and taking the time to thoroughly explore and learn about the process will set the foundation for a successful transition. 

While they will be the first ones to tell you that it hasn’t been a perfect transition and there is still a lot more work to do, at this point Winter-Dent's remarkable journey serves as a testament to the transformative power of becoming an employee-owned company. Instead, it demands a high level of dedication to empowering the new ownership team and ensuring the company's long-term success.


Chili Cook Off 3-1

Winter-Dent Team Participation in a Chili Cook-Off Fundraiser for Big Brothers/Big Sisters

Award-Winning Results 

Through their commitment to communication, education, and fostering an ownership mentality, Winter-Dent has achieved extraordinary results. That has been demonstrated by recent awards Winter-Dent has received acknowledging its ongoing commitment to leadership development and the culture of ownership:

Winter-Dent's experience demonstrates that an ESOP is not just a financial arrangement but a catalyst for cultural transformation. The engagement and unity among employee-owners have surpassed expectations, fostering a sense of pride and shared purpose. As Steve Nicholson rightly put it, Winter-Dent now has a company full of owners, exemplifying the profound impact an ESOP can have on employee commitment and motivation.

GRITT 1-1Winter-Dent wins the GRITTiest Company of the Year 2022 


Winter-Dent's success story is not an isolated case. The ESOP model is gaining traction, with a groundswell of companies recognizing its potential and the bipartisan support it enjoys. Younger hires, in particular, are seeking opportunities to be part of something bigger, to have a stake in the game rather than simply collecting a paycheck. The ESOP structure aligns perfectly with these aspirations, offering a path to both financial security and a meaningful sense of ownership.

As Winter-Dent continues to flourish as a 100% employee-owned company, its accomplishments serve as inspiration for others considering the ESOP path. The benefits go far beyond the financial realm, reaching deep into the fabric of the company's culture and employee engagement. Winter-Dent's story reminds us that through careful planning, dedication to open communication, and a genuine commitment to employee empowerment, any company can embark on a transformative journey toward becoming an ESOP and reap the countless rewards it has to offer.


The Power of ESPOPS for Companies by Winter-Dent

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