By the D. Davis Kenny Company ESOP Education Committee San Antonio, TX

For a new ESOP Education Committee, building understanding of and enthusiasm for employee ownership is akin to climbing a mountain. There are the challenges of communicating in the rarified atmosphere of ownership; peaks and valleys of enthusiasm to navigate; glaciers of new, complex information to learn; and icy ledges and potential avalanches awaiting the unwary.ClimbESOPMountain

If you’re ascending “Mt. ESOP” or just contemplating strapping on some boots, implementing these “survival” strategies we’ve learned over the last two years will make your effort more successful.

  • Get seasoned tour guides
  • Outfit your team with the proper gear
  • Take small steps to build credibility and confidence
  • Sharpen your tools to deepen understanding and enthusiasm

1. Get seasoned tour guides

The D. Davis Kenny Company is a San Antonio-based manufacturer of wedding albums, proof books and commercial bindery services. We were acquired by the Chilcote Company in 1997 and entered its ESOP in 2000. We were excited to join the ESOP but had no clue what an ESOP was or what it meant to be employee owners.

After some initial ESOP education, our ESOP trustees created an ESOP Education Committee at our facility. Following the successful model implemented at their Cleveland location, they defined the committee’s role as one of communication and education. The initial sign up sheet for volunteers was posted and nineteen people offered to serve (about 20% of our workforce). We were very pleased with the response and interest of our employees.

Still, you can imagine the mess that could have resulted if the ESOP trustees, local management or a group of employees selected the Committee members. To avoid that, every volunteer was interviewed by our communications consultant, Jim Bado of Workplace Development. Based on criteria developed by our trustees and his experience working with ESOP companies, Bado recommended the final Committee composition, which was adopted by our ESOP trustees.

At our first Committee meeting, Bado and Bob Marn, one of our ESOP trustees, educated the team on the Committee’s role. We gained teamwork skills and learned a roadmap of how ESOP Committees develop into effective teams. From the outset, we were cautioned to avoid jumping into activities too quickly. We’re all results-oriented people, but our guides stressed the need to educate ourselves first. We kept employees informed by sharing our minutes on a bulletin board and talking informally with our departments. We wanted our fellow employee owners to know that we weren’t slacking off at our jobs, but instead were preparing to climb Mt. ESOP.

2. Outfit Your Team with the Proper Gear

An effective ESOP Education Committee needs three types of skills: knowledge of your ESOP and business, teamwork skills for working as a group and communication and presentation skills for conveying the information to employees. To focus our energies and resources, our guides made our mission development as our first task. We defined our mission as:

“The D. Davis Kenny Company ESOP Education Committee’s mission is to promote a comfortable atmosphere by educating, motivating and supporting our company and co-workers. This will enhance the company’s quality of work, continuing growth and achievement.”

Once our mission statement was completed, we elected a Committee Chair, Co-Chair and Secretary (no team survives long without leaders) and began educating ourselves about our ESOP. We attended the Southwest ESOP Chapter conference in Houston and started working our way though our Summary Plan Description Booklet (SPD). Our tour guides, Bado and Marn, walked us through the SPD section by section, helping us navigate the sometimes confusing and code-section-laden terrain of our ESOP plan’s mechanics.

Initial progress was slow and a little frustrating. But it was critical for us to learn as much as possible to be effective communicators and answer employees’ questions. ESOP month, October, was fast approaching and, even though we had barely started up Mt. ESOP, we decided it was time to show employees what we’d been working on.

3. Take small steps

We decorated our facility with ESOP balloons and a giant-sized poster to kick off ESOP month. Firing up the grills, the Committee cooked hamburgers and hotdogs for our first annual employee luncheon. At the end of the month, we sponsored a Halloween costume contest and potluck. The costume contest was fun and entertaining. To eliminate any judging bias, we asked venders to choose the best costumes. These small steps were successful, and our efforts were recognized by
the Southwest ESOP Chapter as we won the award for the “Most Effective or Unique Special Event or Promotion.”

4. Sharpen your tools to deepen understanding and enthusiasm

Our “party” events worked, but we wanted to “ramp it up” and focus our energy on education. To raise all employees’ knowledge, we started an ESOP Quiz based on SPD information. Our goal was to get people reading their SPD, which can be a challenge. We placed ESOP questions into people’s check envelopes – something that most people do look at! Each correct answer was worth $25. If more than one person answered correctly, which was always the case, we held a drawing at lunch for the winner.

The payroll stuffer game was a success. We continued moving up Mt. ESOP by touring our facility’s different departments in June 2003. This was a great benefit for Committee members: we better understood each others’ job responsibilities and were able to increase communication among departments. One of our long-term goals is to have everyone in the company participate in a tour.

By July, our payroll stuffer game was losing momentum. People weren’t as excited about it. We created a new game focused on teamwork, rather than individuals. People played over lunch with their departments. They threw darts, burst balloons and answered SPD questions hidden inside the balloons to earn points. People had fun and learned at the same time (although a few of our employees need to take a remedial course in dart throwing). We called it Climb the ESOP Mountain because that’s what we’re all doing to make our company successful.

Keep climbing

Our efforts were recognized by the Southwest ESOP Chapter in 2004, and we earned the honor of being Southwest Chapter ESOP Company of the Year. Our parent company, the Chilcote Company, was also recognized as Ohio/Kentucky ESOP Company of the Year. We competed with our parent company for national ESOP Company of the year in DC this May. We lost, but still won because Chilcote was named national ESOP Company of the year.

While we’re honored to have been recognized, we’re still climbing Mt. ESOP everyday. As you mountain climbers know, reaching the summit takes energy, commitment and dedication. Making our ESOP a success requires the same things.

For more information on the ESOP Association’s ESOP Report see