Note: Wiley|Wilson was recognized in May of 2019 with an Annual Award for Communications Excellence (AACE) from the National ESOP Association for the Ownerfest event described in this article. 

Employee owners celebrate

Photo courtesy of Wiley|Wilson / Jonathan & Hannah Photography

If there’s one thing that captures the concept of employee-ownership it’s connection. Connection to each other, both in day-to-day interactions and as people. Connection to the company, and the pride and responsibility that come with being part of, and benefitting from, such a unique business structure that traditionally owned companies don’t experience. Connection of one’s own individual efforts to the broader shared success of the company.

How do you help foster such connection? One way is to host a regular event that brings all employee-owners together … whether monthly, quarterly or annually, like Wiley|Wilson does. Every year, the 100% employee-owned architecture-engineering company hosts a two-day Ownerfest retreat at its Lynchburg, VA, headquarters, bringing in more than 130 employee-owners from its five locations, including Alexandria, VA; Atlanta; Raleigh and Richmond.

Its Ownerfests build on the momentum the company has been creating since its ESOP began in 2000. “This is the value of Ownerfest: it’s an investment in our employees,” says Connie Burnette, Vice President and Department Manager, Accounting & HR. Burnette is the company’s go-to ESOP expert and is also a Plan Administrator. “The retreat is part of growing trust among teams that aren’t in the same office.”

The ESOP Committee has organized all of the retreats since its first one in 2012, planning the topics and activities for each one. Feedback from past events helps them plan what the next Ownerfest should look like.

“Having a dedicated ownership event every year really drives home the importance of the ESOP and our ownership culture, and I think that’s the message that everyone takes away from Ownerfest,” says Amy Markland, an ESOP Committee member. “Our entire Board of Directors not only attends the event, but actively participates in the activities and engages with all attendees. People leave Ownerfest knowing that this is ‘our’ company and they take that responsibility seriously.”

Education, social and fun events are planned by the Committee to promote a team-focused environment that builds on the company culture. Each member has a role in taking care of every aspect of the event: location, food, materials, marketing, communications, logistics and game planning.

“One of the key benefits of Ownerfest — and one of the top reasons people attend — is the opportunity to socialize, network with, and just get to know other employee-owners in a laid-back, face-to-face setting,” says Markland. “We always hear reports of employee-owners who connected at Ownerfest and they then carry that connection through in different ways. People feel more comfortable reaching out to their fellow employee-owners when they have questions about something or need assistance on a project. Those connections made at Ownerfest last long after the event is over.”

Planning takes several months. Wiley|Wilson began planning for October’s event last May. Burnette says the Committee realized during the planning phase that the past few events had focused less on education and more on interpersonal skills, like communication and innovation. Those are important topics, but the Committee wanted to present fresh content for attendees. Add in all the new hires who had recently come on board, and the timing was perfect for an education-focused event. They brought in an outside ESOP expert — Jim Bado from Workplace Development, Inc., — to help create and present some of the ESOP-related materials.

“We weren’t looking for a consultant to charge a fortune and spend tons of hours figuring out what we needed,” Burnette says. “Jim knows what to do … boom! He has experience with firms like ours. Everything seems effortless.”

“Ownerfest 2018 was definitely the most education-heavy event that we’ve had because over the past year we have hired many new employee-owners who were unfamiliar with the ESOP concept,” Markland says. “Ownerfest helped those new hires get a basic understanding of how our ESOP operates, but we were also careful to include content that our longer-tenured employee-owners would appreciate and benefit from.”

Burnette says Bado communicates really well with groups, connecting with them and keeping everyone engaged, interactive … and awake. “He explained our ESOP in a way that was fun,” she says. “He got even the shyest person to participate!”

Bado worked closely with the ESOP Committee to create engaging materials that appealed to all levels of knowledge of Wiley|Wilson’s ESOP plan. In fact, the Committee played a crucial role in the customization process, providing feedback and direction to target the training activities.

Workplace Development guided employee-owners in exploring the connection between personal daily efforts and the company’s overall future success through a series of interactive training sessions. There were workshops about the mechanics of Wiley|Wilson’s ESOP and how it benefits everyone; small group discussions around roles and responsibilities of employee-owners (with a few unexpected facts); and the Great Game of Ownership card game covering the day’s information — with a little fun and friendly competition thrown in.

The retreat was such a success that the ESOP Committee decided to submit the Ownerfest materials for a 2019 Annual Award for Communication Excellence (AACE), sponsored by the ESOP Association. The winner will be announced in May. Burnette says, “We had so many comments that it was the best ever, even from more tenured employees who’d been to all retreats.”

If you’d like to discuss how Workplace Development can help your ESOP communication team to run fun events that build connections and more ESOP appreciation please contact Jim Bado at or 419-427-2435.