ESOP Roundtable 5

Posted by Robert Isherwood on Feb 25, 2022 1:27:21 PM
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Victor Aspengren hosts Robert Isherwood from AMBAC International: This episode of the Change The Game Podcast is from a previously recorded live roundtable event with Robert Isherwood from AMBAC International as he discusses how his employee-owners have an ownership mentality and the ways they demonstrate it. 

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ESOP Roundtable 5


Ownership Has to be Taught: Roundtable 5

Victor Aspengren hosts Robert Isherwood, AMBAC International

(This episode was recorded in February of 2022.)


Key Episode Take-Aways: 

1. Psychological Ownership (click to jump to this topic below) And then there's psychological ownership and psychological ownership is what happens when somebody comes in, you know, like, you get into work and you're walking across the parking lot, and you see an empty coke cans in the parking lot and you pick it up and you throw it away. That's psychological ownership, you know, you're not going to leave litter around your house.

2. AMBAC does an enormous amount of education.  (click to jump to this topic below)  And that, I think, is one of the key things. I know that several of the questions that came in and some of the panelists discussions and things like around how do you create that engagement and, and to be honest, a lot of it just boils down to education.

3. AMBAC got rid of all the policies. (click to jump to this topic below) Yeah, so we got rid of all the policies and we replaced them with guidelines and the guidelines for example, personal time off, once upon a time, you had to get supervisory approval and you had so many days vacation and so many days of sick leave and it was complicated and and and for all the supervisors you know, then part of their job is managing whether or not you can take time off. Forget it, get rid of all that kind of stuff.

Continue scrolling to read the full episode transcription.

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CTGP Show 80 ESOP Roundtable 5

Thu, 2/24 8:20AM • 1:02:08


esop, people, ownership, owner, kinds, robert, company, culture, employee, meeting, committee, questions, book, ceo, ownership mentality, numbers, education, business, employee ownership, group


Announcer, Victor Aspengren, Robert Isherwood


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Victor Aspengren 01:27

Welcome, everybody to The Great Game of Business ESOP roundtable Number four. My name is Victor Aspengren. And they have graciously asked me to facilitate these roundtables. So, I've been doing them since they started them. And today we're talking about creating that ownership mentality or getting people to think like owners. So, to get started, we have our panelists, Robert. So, Robert, I'm going to let you kind of introduce yourself and give a little history of when you became an ESOP. And when you're doing The Game, and just kind of give us the background and what your company does, and how many people all that good stuff.


Robert Isherwood 02:03

Yeah, sure. So, um, Robert is really, I'm the CEO of AMBAC International. We have been around for over 110 years, actually. And we principally manufacture heavy duty engine components. So, things like fuel injection, and related things for the extreme end of the heavy duty world. So very big tractors and very big trucks, and those kinds of things. We're a small company, actually, we're about 50 people. And, you know, about 12ish million in sales. And we've been an ESOP since the mid-80s, actually, but we've only been open book. And therefore, I would say, have employee-ownership psychologically, for the past four years.


Victor Aspengren 02:52

So that's when you started The Game was four years ago. Yeah,


Robert Isherwood 02:55

approximately. Yeah. And it's been it's been a powerful, amazing journey, in the in the short for four years. So.


Victor Aspengren 03:03

So to the audience, we have a great list of questions. So, Robert, and I are going to try to address the questions that were submitted. So, thanks to everybody for submitting a page of questions. And we'll, we'll try to address all of those questions, either through our stories or commentary, but I've got the list. I'll make sure we get through those. But so, I have to ask, Robert, you've been an ESOP since the 80s. Well, why isn't the ESOP creating the ownership mentality, because that's what a lot of people think, is that when you become an ESOP things change.


Robert Isherwood 03:34

Then magically, you're suddenly everybody is an owner, and they start behaving differently, and all kinds of great things happen. Right. And that's just not the case. And I think that there's an enormous difference between an ESOP which is - in my mind - and I'm not technical, is a legal form of ownership, you know, through trust, and there's a lot of great merits to that we are an ESOP company. I'm very proud of that. And I think that that is a very, very powerful tool, in a lot of ways. And then there's something different. And then there's psychological ownership and psychological ownership is what happens when somebody comes in, you know, like, you get into work and you're walking across the parking lot, and you see an empty coke cans in the parking lot and you pick it up and you throw it away. That's psychological ownership, you know, you're not going to leave litter around your house. That's a different reality, I would say, and psychological ownership or, you know, acting like an owner comes through education and connection to the numbers and understanding the financial impacts otherwise, and the ESOP is a piece of paper, you get in the mail once a year, and you're not really sure how to read it. And not much more than that.


Victor Aspengren 04:45

Right? So on a scale of 1 to 10, what was your employee-ownership ranking prior to Great Game of Business?


Robert Isherwood 04:52

It would be probably a 1 or a 2. So, we had ... we had all of the mechanisms in place. And people were getting their statements. And then those kinds of things were happening. But nobody really understood why and nobody understood what the numbers on the ... how they could control the numbers on the page and what the numbers on the page meant.


Victor Aspengren 05:11

And now that you've been practicing four years, where would you put yourself on that scale?


Robert Isherwood 05:18

We, you know, it's not perfect, right? So I would say, you know, we're probably about a 7 or so.


Victor Aspengren 05:26

That's a huge improvement in four years. Oh, fantastic.


Robert Isherwood 05:29

Yeah. Yeah. In fact, just when we began the education process, the amount of improvement we had in the first 90 days was, you know, dramatic. And then it's been, you know, it continues to this day, in fact. Just in fact, today, we had a lesson in our huddle about what employee-ownership means.


Victor Aspengren 05:51

Tell us about that lesson you learned in your huddle today?


Robert Isherwood 05:53

Yeah, we do a lot ... we do an enormous amount of education. And that, I think, is one of the key things. I know that several of the questions that came in and some of the panelist’s discussions and things like around how do you create that engagement and, and to be honest, a lot of it just boils down to education. And we do education all the time, nearly every week, if not more than more often than not, and little bites. So today, one of the things that our ownership committee did employee ownership committee did is they gave everyone in the company a document that had basically two columns. What does it mean to be an employer, an employee owner, and what does it not mean to be an employee owner? For example, in an ESOP, being an owner means that you share in the rewards, it does not mean that you're personally liable for the company's debts. You know, those kinds of things. So that, you know, just one small example, but we do stuff like that all the time.


Victor Aspengren 06:48

Yeah. I think one of the myths for the audience out there is a lot of people think when you become an ESOP, that financial transparency or sharing the numbers comes with being an ESOP. And that's technically not the case as just in your perfect example, you weren't open-book prior to practicing Great Game. And there are many, many ESOP's that do not open their books, and I was exposed to an ESOP back in 1999. I was also exposed to The Great Game of Business back in 1999. Our ESOP, just like what you said, Robert, our ESOP is not what triggered the ownership mentality in our folks. Especially in the early years, because in the early years, your account statement might be a few $1,000, maybe even a few $100, depending on the ESOP structure. And until account balances ... what I always say is when they become significant, and significance is in the eye of the beholder. So, for one person, it might be $1,000, for the next person, it's 100,000, and the next person, it's a million, and until that account, really becomes significant, the ESOP doesn't really trigger ownership mentality. And I, and I've just flat out over the last 15 years or so I just tell everybody, if you're an ESOP, and you're not sharing financials, you're upside down, it's just it makes no sense to me. And you can talk ownership culture, all you want. But if you're not willing to share the numbers, then you're really not supporting the ownership mentality. Because when you share the numbers, that's also a symbolic act of trust. And if you think about ownership and a family or ownership in a small group, there has to be a level of trust in the traditional ownership structure for those companies to be functional. So, you create the ESOP. Nobody's practice at being an owner, other than maybe the owners that were there are a small handful, but everybody thinks the ESOP's just gonna make everybody an owner, and I say without open-book, and that's a part of it. It's not everything. But it is fundamental to understanding the ups and downs of what business is all about.


Robert Isherwood 09:00

Yeah, yeah. If you want, if you want your team to behave like owners, you have to treat them like owners. And that's fundamental in my mind and treating them like owners means you give them a legitimate saying that in the business, you teach them how it works, you teach them the financials, you give them access to all the information, and then you invite them and expect them to make decisions based upon that knowledge and that information. They're partners, they're not servants. And that's a very, very different point of view, I think and but that's where you start getting into what ownership means and how it expresses. And then you start seeing behavior. And when you start seeing behavior, oh my gosh, you know, and then it's like lighting the match to gasoline, it goes off.


Victor Aspengren 09:50

Right. So when you started your journey for financial literacy, and before I go there, Robert, somebody asked if you'd share your two page document with the participant Would you be willing to do that that you're ESOP, communicating with?


Robert Isherwood 10:03

So I would love to I can't share it directly.


Victor Aspengren 10:07

We will get it to the Great Game, folks, and they can send it out.


Robert Isherwood 10:11

How about that? Yeah.


Victor Aspengren 10:13

So Kylie and the team will get that sent out to everybody. did was it did it take a year before people started grabbing it? Did it take 30 days, six months? You know, some people haven't practiced open book. Sure. And one of the questions is, you know, what's the downside to being an owner? And opening the books? I? I think people it scares a lot of people why that quiet? You know, what's the downside to all this?


Robert Isherwood 10:41

Yeah, yeah, there's, there is a lot of fear. And there's a lot of misconceptions around those fears. And to, you know, a few questions embedded in there. One of them is how long did it take? In our case, it took probably, I would say, a month or two, into the process of us adopting Great Game as our operating system before you started seeing some positive employee ownership kinds of things. And now we're years into it. And we're still seeing things happen. And still, you know, just yesterday, I got a fantastic question from one of the associates here that was like, oh, man, I should have thought of that. But then he was thinking like an owner, and I wasn't. And so, it, it's an ongoing process, but it doesn't take long to ... it doesn't take long at all, to start seeing some favorable benefits to it.


Victor Aspengren 11:33

I think one of the things when you open the books is you got to be willing to answer the questions. Yeah. Because as soon as you start sharing the numbers, because people they assume the profits are higher than they are, they don't know, you know, what are all the bills? Well, the bills are just like at home, for the most part in a business, other than maybe some GAAP accounting. But I think one of the ... one of the key things to successful open book, but I think it's also that ownership mentality. And it goes back to my example, when you have a family or a partner group or whatever, if you don't think there's some lively debates in those business owner, you're crazy. Now, the difference is, is when you open it up to everybody, there, you have the potential for a lot more of those debates, because it's a lot more people. So I do think from a leadership perspective, there is an added and it's not a burden, but it's an added purpose and an added tasks that you have to make yourself available to explain some of these things and answer the question, sometimes it's one on one, sometimes it's in a group setting, but I think that's as fast as you can move is that you have to give legitimate answers to the questions that come from open the books,


Robert Isherwood 12:45

You do. And then and in my experience in previous organizations, which were more of a command and control structure, closed books, I, as a manager, middle manager, I spent an enormous amount of my time on what I would call almost like policing actions, you know, trying to make sure that everybody was getting there on time, and they weren't taking too long a break, and that they're, you know, production quotas, were meeting standards, and all of that. You know, on enormous amount of time on all those kinds of things. Now, I spend, essentially no time on any of that kind of stuff, we don't even have employee policies. So all of that has been replaced with a much higher value added effort. And that is around education and understanding of purpose and mission. That's the one thing about an employee ownership culture, and really getting the benefits they it takes an amazing amount of time, it is well worth it, it's very rewarding, both on the numbers on the scoreboard financially and personally, but you really need to be willing to put in the time to make sure that everybody is on the same page. So we use a great game of business high involvement planning process to do that. And to make sure everybody understands, you know, when I come in, and I perform these actions, this is the effect I have on the financials, and it's good or bad, and I get to make decision whether or not I like it, or don't like it, or could do more, or could do less, but this is the effect that I have on the financials. So that education process then starts yielding.


Victor Aspengren 14:17

Yeah. So, I'm sure the audience is wondering, you have no employment policies. So, can you give an example of one where you had a policy and what and you got rid of it what give us an example or two of that?


Robert Isherwood 14:30

Yeah, so we got rid of all the policies and we replaced them with guidelines and the guidelines so for example, personal time off, once upon a time, you had to get supervisory approval and you had so many days vacation and so many days of sick leave and it was complicated and for all the supervisors you know, then part of their job is managing whether or not you can take time off. Forget it, get rid of all that kind of stuff. Give personal time off which is a recordable thing on timesheets. We are fat free, right? We're manufacturing. A lot of people who are hourly, they clock in and out. But it's up to you to manage your PTO with in the context of making responsible adult decisions, so, everybody ... and one of the thing ... one of the great fears I hear about from other owners and CEOs is, what about that one person is going to take advantage of that, you know, what about that one that one guy is going to ... Okay. Hey, you know, that happens. I'm not naive enough to know that that doesn't happen. Those aren't your people.


Victor Aspengren 15:35

Yeah. And why penalize the group? Yeah, the whole the good, or the one? So, it's like, yeah, right, you penalize everybody because somebody out there is going to abuse it. So that means you imply that everybody's gonna do it. Because we did the same. We did the same thing. Robert, back in the day, we had, they went through a demerit program, they went through penalizing start time, leave time, lunchtime, break time. My God, they had more of a complex thing of how you're going to get in trouble. And once we got down our journey of open book, and employee ownership, we got rid of the whole thing. The only rule that we had was you had to just call if you were going to, if you're going to be laid, or whatever, that was our only policy, and nobody got in trouble. But if somebody abused it, as you said, then by golly, that's where leaderships got to step in and say, I'm going to have that conversation with that person. And when we did that, it all went away. Because everybody's overslept. Everybody has a crisis at home with the kids or the spouse, or the pets, or whatever it might be, or your alarm clock didn't go off. Nobody's that good. And so we just said, and it goes back to your comment, we are adults. And if we can't hold ourselves to adult contact, this isn't a bunch of kids, where you have to protect them and set all the rules, we're functioning adults and companies, and it's got moving to that adult - adult relationship instead of the child parent relationship. Your job take care of me, Robert?


Robert Isherwood 17:13

Yeah, it goes back to treating ... these are partners, their co-owners? It's a very different relationship than then a classic, you know, employee, you know, kind of ... a sort of sub adult human that is there to perform a task. I don't, maybe there are other kinds of people in the world, I don't believe that they exist. I don't believe humans are wired that way. And I don't treat them that way. And guess what, by and large, they don't act that way.


Victor Aspengren 17:48

Yes, I'm with you on that. If you give people aspirations to improve and do more, they'll do it. If you put boundaries and boxes around them, then there's boundaries and boxes around the way they work the way they think. And the way they participate in a business.


Robert Isherwood 18:06

People will rise or fall to meet your level of expectation. Yeah, so plan accordingly. And then when you take that ... you know, some of the basics, you know, like we don't really ... like I don't take attendance, those kinds of things. And then when you extrapolate that up a little bit to the financials, and then that's where the real fear comes in with so many owners and other CEOs that I've talked to in the past, and they come ... we have people come to the plant all the time, you know, walk around the halls, we even have our competitors come and walk around the halls and see all the financials, and you know, it's completely exposed. And there's a lot of fear around that. Well, what if, you know, what if, you know, what, if they find out that you've got, you know, 1.2 million in the bank, they're gonna want it right. And so, you know, all of those kinds of fears start coming out, what if they take that information, do something, you know, nefarious with it? And, you know, today, every time that those kinds of things ever happened, the exact opposite thing happens, you know, that? They don't do that. Right? Yeah, it's just yeah.


Victor Aspengren 19:09

You know, that's one thing for the audience that an example of where we didn't ... we formalize a little bit of the ownership, you know, a lot of in a typical ownership structure, there's non-compete, or no solicitation, whatever it might be within that core group of people. When we fully open the books, because we shared everything, including wage ranges for every position. If you want to become the CEO, there's my wage range, you can aspire to be there. But we had engineers and salespeople that had signed non competes, we made a condition of employment for every single employee to sign a non-compete because we said we're going to share all the information with you. But we do have to protect the whole because there are some situations where a competitor's right across the street or something. So we did. We did do that. I'm not saying that's forever. But we actually lost two employee owners over it. Because they didn't want to sign it. We just said, Well, that's a condition of employment. They both left. But within six months, they both came back, and wanted their jobs. And I said, Well, you are an owner, and you chose to leave because you didn't like it. So we filled those positions. Sorry, and we moved on. That may sound harsh, but part of being an owner is you live with choices.


Robert Isherwood 20:28

Yeah, yeah, that's absolutely true. And what we what I've found is that what we end up happening, and what I, you know, I tell people around the plant, winners are no winners, right? A good friend of mine taught me that one time. And so we find that in terms of retention, attraction, and those kinds of things. That treating people with respect and dignity, which is one of our core values, benefits us in that people treat us. And so, they treat our information with respect. They treat our intellectual property with respect, they, you know, and those kinds of things. And so, I fully appreciate that there's a lot of legality, and you should definitely talk to legal counsel about some of these kinds of issues. Don't listen to me. In other words, however, in my experience, betting on the good side of people pays off more frequently than, than betting on the dark side.


Victor Aspengren 21:27

Amen. Amen. to that. I agree. I agree. So, one of the couple other questions related to ... you said you had an ESOP committee or an ownership committee. So obviously, you're practicing of the Great Game and the open-book financials as part of developing your ownership culture. But what role does your committee play in the development of your culture?


Robert Isherwood 21:50

Huge. And we ask ... so actually, we have two, we have one of them, that's a more of a, what we call the design team. But they're the more of the playbook and strategy and things like that. And then we have this group. They've named themselves the CEOs. And, and very many kind of, quote, management decisions are made in that group, up to and including pay raises, work hours, all of those kinds of things. And that group is a representative cross functional representative group of people at all levels of the organization, except executives, there are no executives allowed in that group.


Victor Aspengren 22:33

Only by invitation?


Robert Isherwood 22:35

Only by invitation. And so, you get, you know, you get men and women on the shop floor ... supervisory level. And they're the ones who are deciding a lot. In fact, you know, last year, they decided ... or they came up with a recommendation on what our pay raises were going to be. They also are the ones who are kind of the keeper of the culture, and that core values, MiniGames and those kinds of things. They have, I would say, suggested oversight.


Victor Aspengren 23:08

Okay, how often do those committees meet? Do they meet weekly, monthly? Or is it depends on what's all going on? Or how, what's their frequency?


Robert Isherwood 23:17

I think weekly, but I'm not in any of them. So, I'm not 100%? Sure.


Victor Aspengren 23:25

Okay. Yeah. Yeah, ‘cause that was one of the questions. I mean, our committee, typically they met. I think they started out meeting weekly in the early days of the ESOP, because it was, you know, such a learning curve. And then they just moved it around, if they felt they needed to meet, they met. And if they didn't, they didn't have a meeting, they may not have a meeting for six weeks or two months, because there really wasn't anything going on. We were super busy from the business perspective. So, we kind of let the committee ... which I think goes to yours ... if you have a functional committee ... the one thing we did do with all of our committees, as we gave them all billable hours. So we had a corporate rate that we applied to everybody, we just said our corporate rate is, whatever, $30 an hour. So when you're having a meeting, it's going against your budget, because they had a budget, every committee did on an annual basis. It's up to you to be effective, because your time goes against that budget, because it's all part of it. So, it was part of our open-book of meeting time is valuable time, make sure you're being productive with your meeting time because it goes against your budget, which means you can't do other things that you might want to do because you're talking too much and not getting anything done. So that was one thing we did to help that.


Robert Isherwood 24:43

One point our groups decided that they limited the time for huddles and things like that. And they did it so they could get back out on the shop floor and make billable hours.


Victor Aspengren 24:54

Yeah, yeah. And that this kind of goes back ... one of the other things we did with the ownership mentality is unless it was something that was a mandatory like HR issue or regulatory issue, none of our meetings were mandatory. That goes back to your owners, you know what's most important if you think it's more important for you to be on the phone with the customer, or turn the widget, or whatever it was sweep the floor, if you think that was more important than the meeting, then you can decide. But you can't bitch about missing the meeting. Now, we always had minutes of most of our meetings so people could see it. But if you choose not to be there, and you missed a robust conversation, well, then you have to live with that, because that's part of being an owner. So, we had many times people miss meetings. It may be a few bumps in the beginning, but then after a while, they figure out, you know what, I'm going to go to the meeting, because some of those meetings seem to be like you guys are really having some good discussions, and maybe I should go to him. It's not just a humdrum meeting. But I'm being taught that it's a participatory meeting where we are having a lively discussion and maybe making some decisions.


Robert Isherwood 26:09

Yeah, yeah, that's really, really good. And you know that kind of goes to some one of my pet peeves that I hear a lot nowadays is, oh, people just don't want to work anymore. People don't want to go to meetings, or people don't want to, you know, people want to do that people are like, that's just a crock, to be honest. You know, they don't they don't want to work for jerks. I'll give you that. They don't want to go to boring meetings that have no point. I'll give you that. But you know, if people want to win, and they want to be on a winning team, and then if that's the culture that you're living in, they want to be there.


Victor Aspengren 26:45

Right. Yeah, exactly. So, we had a couple just specific questions. One of them was how much are your annual contributions and or dividends to the ESOP. Would you mind sharing what your contribution is on a kind of rough annual basis as a percentage of comp that goes into your ESOP?


Robert Isherwood 27:05

I'd be happy to send you the ... I don't, I don't know that I could quote I know that. You know, last year, it was $135,000, paid out to the ESOP to about 20 or so retirees. Okay, but I don't have the specifics. Yeah, like that question.


Victor Aspengren 27:26

Yeah, that's fine. Based on the NCEO, they did a study a number of years back most ESOPs are putting somewhere between 8 and 12% of compensation into the ESOP as a contribution. That's the contribution. Dividends are not as common. They typically are more common and more mature ESOPs when they have a lot of retirees, and they may need to do dividends, because contributions are based on wages, typically, you know, it's your wage against everybody else's, it's a percentage. Dividends are paid out by the number of shares you have. So, it's not a comp based thing. It's based on the number of shares you have in the ESOP is what you get of a dividend if it's paid. So that's just technical. Yeah, you can go to the NECO website, they probably have some more data on that, because there's data there. Another question was just, you know, what are the taxes when they come out of your ESOP? Well, if you're past 59 and a half, there's no penalty, it's just like a 401k, or any other qualified retirement plan. And then your tax that you pay is basically it's going to be your income tax of when you get older. So if you're working another job, and you're pulling out of your ESOP, you might be in a different tax bracket. So it's all that tax planning, as you retire, that you if you want to pay less tax, you make less and the more you make, the more you pay, and the ESOP, as paid out comes into your earnings as that's paid out to you. So, or if you roll it over into a qualified plan to another 401k, or an IRA, then you can stretch out those taxes further out or leaving to your estate, so to speak, but


Robert Isherwood 29:09

Technicalities of ESOPs. ESOP is a really powerful tool, and I really like it. It is complicated. And it's important to get the details, right. So, it's important to have a good advisor help you as you navigate some of your options and some of your thinking on that. Overall, it's it's significantly less complicated than other kinds of things that you might be doing as an owner of a company. But you do want to get the details, right.


Victor Aspengren 29:37

Yes, I totally agree. And if you go to a service provider, and they keep saying I don't know, then you might want to check around look for some others because


Robert Isherwood 29:44

You might want a different service provider.


Victor Aspengren 29:46

Yeah, there's some variation in the level of understanding and all that good stuff ... how it works. So don't be afraid to at least talk to other people. I mean, loyalty is great, but sometimes you outgrow your advisors. Whether it's ESOP, whether it's your CPA, whether it's your corporate attorney, as you grow as a company and get more complex sometimes you need somebody that has a different perspective or more experience in that realm. As far as like your culture, your events within the company who sets those up? Is that one of your committees?


Robert Isherwood 30:22

On the celebrations?


Victor Aspengren 30:24

or your or an event or your shareholder meeting or


Robert Isherwood 30:28

The .. let me say it this way, the CEOs, which is that kind of you'd say the HR function, they're involved, is


Victor Aspengren 30:38

that, is that an acronym? Or is that just that's their title, CEO


Robert Isherwood 30:41

Celebration, education, onboarding. And ... sorry, anyway, celebration, education, onboarding,


Victor Aspengren 30:50

okay, because there's another group where it's certified employee owners, like, anyway.


Robert Isherwood 30:55

Yeah, they hijacked, I guess, but in any case, the point of it is, that group is involved in a great many of those kinds of things. But we celebrate things all the time, almost daily, there's something going on that we're celebrating, or wins ... we celebrate all wins, it doesn't matter if it's $1 or a million dollars. And so, we have, you know, events, you know, cookouts or team members are going out for lunches, or dinners and stuff like that all the time. I don't know that anyone is really coordinating all of them. Or anybody even should coordinate all of them. I mean, you're working on ... you're working with a group and you knock the ball out of the park. Have fun, do something. You don't need to ask me. You don't need to ask the CEOs, you know, slap the guy on the back or whatever. Right?


Victor Aspengren 31:47

Yeah, well, I know our committee, they, they took charge of it. And then the typical organization, you'll probably relate to this, you know, the committee was formed. And they do the holiday party, they do the summer picnic, they do our ESOP shareholder event. And it was always the same old people that would always volunteer to do all the, you know, the work? Well, they got tired of it. And they made the plan. So what they did is they put up a signup sheet. And it was the summer picnic. And they said, if we don't get six people to sign up to help with the summer picnic we're not gonna have it. They ... and they decided it was the committee, they had their charter. They did not get six people; we did not have the summer picnic. And I remember Tom, as I crossed the parking lot came right up in my face and he said, It's your job to make sure that we have a summer picnic. And I went, now, Tom, I had nothing to do with that decision as the CEO. And I said, honestly, I'm kind of glad we didn't have it, because I got a really I got a lot going on. Oh, he was just aghast. Now, there are a lot of people that felt that same way. But this goes to that adult to adult, it was a lesson. And once we didn't have at once, that that never happened again, because they always had, somebody would fill in that sixth spot, because they wanted the event. But it required everybody to step up, you know, it's just not so and so's job to create these events, it's our job to create these events, as you said, anybody,


Robert Isherwood 33:27

I found that, you know, what some of those kinds of things now, my role has become to encourage people to do it to celebrate the win at a level that's really nice. In other words, you know, we'll say we're gonna have a cookout or something like that. So, we're gonna shut the plant down. And, you know, they can shut the plant down anytime they want to and have a cookout anytime they want to, but they tend to do is they'll tend to say, well, we really need to make production this month. So, we're not going to have a party. We're gonna just, you know, do something really short. And I'm like, well, timeout, you know, you put some huge numbers on the board, you really deserve something really nice. You know, we got another small example. Last year, we were named the best place to work ... One of the best places work in South Carolina, which being one of the best in your state, Best Place to Work is huge. So we had this debate about okay, how are we going to celebrate I'm like, you won this World Series. You know, you know what happens when you win the World Series, you get a ticker tape parade, you get, you know, you do something. And so, because, you know, employee owners, they want to hit production, they want to save costs, they you know, they want to extract another penny out of every out of every dollar. And so it's interesting that it's not so much holding them back or making them do it. It's encouraging them to take a moment.


Victor Aspengren 34:56

Yes, to have a little fun. We have plenty of time to work. Right?


Robert Isherwood 35:02

Exactly, exactly. Yes. Work should never be higher than number three on your priority list.


Victor Aspengren 35:07

Yeah. Yeah. Um, one of the questions was, and maybe you have this, Robert, I don't know. But the question was, is there any kind of profiling you can do to make sure somebody is going to be a good owner? It's a good question.


Robert Isherwood 35:23

It is a very good question. And yes/no. I've never met a human being that didn't have the capacity to make a great owner. I do know some people that have had a lot of really bad education, and how not to be an owner, or in the old world. You know, we're blue collar, we don't do that kind of thing. Or we're white collar, we don't do that kind of thing. And those sorts of things. But I think it's, it's innate in everyone. And then it's it ... So I call upon leadership to bring out that innate feeling, and to build a culture or an environment that allows that to flourish. And I'll give you an example of why I think it's innate, because every single person in the world that you know, they have a home or let's say, everybody comes to work here, they have a car, they have a home, all those kinds of things. Well, if anyone were to go out and say, Okay, I'm going to take your car, or I'm going to take your house, they would have a really strong ownership reaction. Right? That's my car. You know, don't you know that, you know, that kind of stuff. So, so it's there, right? So now let's bring it out and say, okay, this is your company. So a coke can and the parking lot is in your parking lot? This is in your house? I mean, what would you do if someone threw a bag of garbage in on the front door of your home? Or what would you do if you wanted to have your kids have a really great life and grow up in a nice community? How would you ... what would you want that to look like? Well, you'd want it to be, you know, you'd want these things, you'd want them to have financial security, you want them to have a good education, you want them to have, you know, a good relationship with the community of worship, and all of those kinds of things. Well, just bring that spirit into the workplace.


Victor Aspengren 37:22

One of the things we did, because I one of our definitions of culture is culture is a cult where you understand remain or exit, because cultures can be very strong, whether they're a top down, or whether they're highly participatory. And not every culture, you know, fits everybody. I do agree with you that people have the capacity. But we all kind of we tilt one way, or another based on our experiences or what we've done. So, one of the things we did is we have the official interview group that was like the supervisor or the head of a department, really talking about the technical skills and all those. But then we had a secondary committee that was filtered through our ESOP committee, where they would pick the group, and it was a cross sectional group. And they would sit down with the candidate or the top three candidates, and really just talk and their sole purpose was to say, are they going to fit? Are they going to be a good owner, within our company, and that was their sole purpose and their questioning? Now, we had a coaching, little HR coaching of things you can't ask. But once we got through that, and there were several times where that group countered what the other group thought. And after, you know, some time went by and they were right, things came out, we learned some things about the people and like, you know, what they saw something that we did, which goes to the macro studies of, you can teach the technical stuff and all those things. Do they really fit culturally? And we really did a broad based approach and we let our owners help make that decision. Are they the right person to fit?


Robert Isherwood 39:01

In that, yeah, that's really powerful. And we, you know, we have a very defined clear culture, I would say, and it's very strong, it's getting stronger, and it's not for everyone. That's not to say that not everyone can't be in an ownership culture. It's just that at Ambac, international, here's what here's the thing's the way we ... so for example, everybody's numbers is on the board every day. That may be a little bit uncomfortable for some people who don't want to who don't want to live in that. Okay, that's fine. No harm, no foul. You're just not our guy. Right. You know, there are many companies in the world. There's a lot of ways to contribute. There's a lot of things you can do. This just isn't one of them. But we hire to your point we hire for fit primarily. And then we teach for skill. So and we do that for one reason, because it's harder to hire for fit. It's easier to find the right skills, it's harder to find the right kind of, you know, the right chemistry. But also, we move people around a lot. And this is something that I think is a really good thing. And I'd love to see more of it. You know, so we have people working on the shop floor at one point, and now they're working in sales. And, you know, in the future, they may be working in purchasing, or they may be working in strat, or, you know, all this kind of churn within the organization. Skills you can teach. Fit, ownership, passion is much harder to teach.


Victor Aspengren 40:32

So, in that instance, Robert, I have a question. So, you, you know, people are moving around learning new skill sets. What do you do when somebody moves, and they're not successful?


Robert Isherwood 40:46

Oh, and it happens, you move them again?


Victor Aspengren 40:50

Yeah. And the reason I asked that, oh, go ahead.


Robert Isherwood 40:53

Sure. Yeah. So, what you don't want to do is you don't want to set somebody up for failure, or you're never going to have anybody volunteered to do anything ever again. You know, you say, well, you know, you're going to ... Hey, you want to try being a CNC machinist, right, that takes eight to 10 years before you can become competent at it? Sure. I'd like to try it. Well, bang, you screwed up on your first day, you're fired, that no one's going anywhere near that again. But you can take, and you can say, well, you know, here's some outside training or some internal mentoring or some help and, and then you can try it after a while you say, you know, this is all well and good, but it's really not for me, I'd rather try this other things. Okay, cool. And you can, you can move around and try that other thing.


Victor Aspengren 41:35

Yeah, I'm a huge fan of that we had what we called no fear of promotions. So, whatever. Not everything, but we had some leadership positions where you know, everybody, well, I could do it better. You know, you don't know what you don't know till you're in it. So, we had a group of 60 people, we had four leads within that 60 people. And we allowed every single person the opportunity to be a lead for a quarter ... for three months, we bumped their salary to appropriate level. You know, it was temporary. And 59 out of the 60 people wanted to do it. How many leads do you think we actually got that wanted to continue to do it after we went through that cycle?


Robert Isherwood 42:20

Maybe one, that's a hard job.


Victor Aspengren 42:23

We had about four, because they all said you know what, for that pay, and the headaches, I don't want to do that. But it was very interesting, because people assume they make all these assumptions of what it's like to be in that position. And once they did that I can remember out there, oh, don't worry about it. I know, I remember what it's like, it'll be fine. And it just reduced all the angst of that whole team. And even new people that came in once they got their feet under them, they were given the same opportunity to try it out if they wanted to try it out. And it wasn't just there, we did that everywhere. And I think that's one thing that organizations miss, like you said, you train them, you help them. But if they know that they can always go back to what they were doing. It's just you have to be smart of how you move the pieces of your ownership around to make ...


Robert Isherwood 43:14

Sure. We have to maintain production, right. So, it's an extremely technical world that we live in. So it's not the opportunity is there all the time. It's not that every single day, people are changing jobs, and you know, not kind of like musical chairs or anything like that going on. There's some thoughtfulness behind it. But the ... particularly, you know, as we see the dynamic changing in the workforce, and people talk about the great resignation, or the great recession and all those kinds of things. What you're looking at, is that dynamic happening on a global scale. Roughly the same number of humans existed a year ago, but today, you can't find anybody. Why is that? Well, they're reevaluating their lives, and they're really evaluating where they want to spend their time. And guess what, they don't want to spend their time working for a jerk. Okay, they don't want to spend their time in an organization where they there's a glass ceiling, or their significant disparities, or, you know, there's no opportunity for growth or promotion or any kind of personal satisfaction.


Victor Aspengren 44:18

And I do think on a macro level, we are at a tipping point in regard to employee ownership, that people are looking for something different. And, you know, ESOPs has only been around a little over regeneration, and I think, is it starting, you're starting to see generations of people saying, I'm going to work for an employee on company, and I think, younger people, employee ownership has become more of a mainstream idea and academia. You know, ESOPs worker cooperatives, trust, whatever it is that ownership makes a difference. And I think also people are starting, especially quote, the younger generation ... they understand what equity is. There, you know ... hey, I want a piece of that pie, and I want it sooner than later. And in a traditional structure, it's always later, but within an ESOP, it starts as soon as you get into the plan. And I think, didn’t you say that your plan you had a year later something and then you changed it to get into the end of the ESOP?


Robert Isherwood 45:24

No, I didn't say that. But I don't ... I don't remember off the top ...


Victor Aspengren 45:28

Okay. I was thinking there ... I know a lot of ESOPs, you got to wait a year, and then depending on the timing, it can be up to two years. And this is another myth that can be changed. So, when we started our ESOP, you had to be 21. You had ... it took up to two years to get in the plan. And then we said, well, we want you to be owners, and it's like, well, you can't even get into this stupid thing for two years. So we changed all that. We changed it to 18. We said, if you're old enough to go under the forces and die for your country, you should be able to get into the ESOP. We took care of the issue of money with vesting. And then the other thing was that was we put them in the ESOP, just like when they got all the rest of their benefits. So health, vacation, disability, you're in the ESOP. It was 90 days, you're in we we said we want to participate, and be an owner?


Robert Isherwood 46:21

I would say we begin ownership, education, and ownership training in the interview process, and actually, almost in the marketing for the job process, and I saw a chat, a person asked if it's easier to hire people in an ESOP. I would say it's not easier hiring people in an ESOP. It's easier hiring people in an ownership culture. And as we spoke about earlier, that may or may not be the same thing. But so we have in the very right at the very, very beginning. You know, you’re kind of brought into this world where you're treated like a partner, basically, you're expected to behave like such. Yeah.


Victor Aspengren 47:02

That was another thing we did as an ESOP. For those out in the audience. You know, if you have a final group of people, if you give somebody your ESOP plan summary, which normally people don't give it to anybody till after they're hired, give it to them before, because let's say you have three people, if people come back and don't have questions after they read an ESOP plan, summary document, that's a sign of, are they going to be a good owner? Did they really read the thing? Because if they don't come back with a question, I wouldn't be shocked. Because most people, let's say, came from an ESOP. But the vast majority of people don't come from an ESOP. So, it's a way to kind of test the waters. Did they read it? And what kind of questions do they asked me after they read it?


Robert Isherwood 47:43

Yeah. So actually, in the, in our inner interview process, we show people the scoreboard, if they're not actually in the huddle, occasionally, they're in the huddle, but we try to make sure that they see the scoreboard. And whenever I'm talking with a potential candidate, I always talked to them about our cash flow and our current cash balance. For that same kind of reason, you know, like ... here's the reality of the situation. And I will tell you, you know, I always try to tell you that the absolute truth that in that interview process that kind of sorts out the people who are interested in that kind of entrepreneurial, performance mindset ... kind of a world work, or if they're looking for some other world, then they can rule us out pretty quickly.


Victor Aspengren 48:27

Yeah, here's another one in the chat. How do you break down silos in your organization? And I know, I think that's part of the challenge when you come become an ESOP. And what I always say it's the good of the whole versus the good of the one, and whether that's an individual or a silo. And this goes to I think, in many cases, your reward programs, whether it's your cash bonus, or your compensation systems, you want to align ... because everybody's participates in the ESOP, and it takes everybody to build value. So I think how you design your rewards program, or your bonus plans, can help break down those silos, because sometimes they're tilted towards silo thinking, and then when you become an ESOP, well, yeah, you you might be the profit center and somebody else doesn't make as much profit. Well, it takes everybody to build value within an ESOP because there's one value there's not multiple values.


Robert Isherwood 49:24

Yeah, one of the first things that I did, after getting involved in management here as I got rid of the bonus program. Just completely eliminated it. Once upon a time there was a tiered bonus program, and if you're a man, or a bla bla bla, and if you had technical, you know, all this kind of nonsense. No, no more. So we have one number and everybody gets rewarded based on that single number. And that broke down a lot of silos. Another thing that we do to break down silos is we tie people together across functions and across departments as much as possible and whenever possible, and to the point where it can actually work against us. Like there's a little bit of unclarity about roles and responsibilities sometimes. That's the not-so-great part. But the great part about it is, you're not entirely sure what department you work in. And I keep telling we're company 50 people, I keep telling people, if you don't have at least 50 people, you don't have a department, you're not a department, you're a person. You know, your name is Heather, your name is Melody, your name's Corey, you're not engineering. You're Corey. We know you when we like you, but you're not a department. So that I think helps a lot. And then another thing that, for example, the raises, you know, raises are determined by the company by the people. You get to pick your own brains. And to end making ... having those things, those conversations where you're debating with your peers about, you know, the merits of real serious business issues, I think tends to not so much break down silos but prevents silos from building up.


Victor Aspengren 51:13

Yeah, I would agree with that. We don't ... we had a company meeting once and the gentlemen stem said .... back in the day, this was early 2000. Everybody should know ... nobody should make less than 12 bucks an hour. Yeah. I said, Okay. And it was open forum. Well, let's pay everybody 12 bucks an hour, we'll just reduce the benefits. While we can't do that, because then the benefit people jumped in. I said, Okay, fine. Well, we'll keep all those the same, we'll get rid of the bonus program. Well, no. So that didn't go I go, Okay, we'll keep all that we'll just let the value go in the tank, woah woah, for the people close to retirement. And part of ownership is, you're never going to get it perfect. It's ... you're trying to balance this all out to meet a spectrum of people, because we all had a different stage of life, where all those things at some time become more important than the other. At some point in your life benefits are really, really important. And another part, it's the bonuses, and then another part, it's more of the retirement. So, it shifts over time. And people start to think in absolutes, and just say, well remember back when you were at that stage, which was more important, because it doesn't stay the same as you go through your career within a company, it changes over time. That's the human nature.


Robert Isherwood 52:22

For sure. And one of the actually related to the chat I saw pop up. We have, we have a very, very broad age range from people who are just starting out to people who are what you would traditionally think of as well in the retirement years. And in that age range, we have to come up with a consensus about what we're going to do on some of these things. And there's a significant percentage of our population that really doesn't care about that retirement benefits yet, right. They're not at a stage in their life where this is this is a major concern. They have lots of other concerns, like time off for their children and things like that. But so how do you in an ESOP do you ... an ESOP is a retirement tool. Employee Ownership is a management operating environment or a point of view or a belief system? How do you balance those? Well, you know, a lot of ways, one of which is that we do educate the ESOP as a retirement tool. Absolutely. But we educate, ownership thinking, at every level at every age group. So if you have ... one example is if you have the information to make the decision, then you have the authority to make the decision.


Victor Aspengren 53:37

Yeah, yep.


Robert Isherwood 53:39

And that is an ownership question. Completely divorced from retirement and all the other kinds of very important legal aspects of it. But you know, at the end, if you're 2:30, in the afternoon, and you're trying to decide, well, am I going to pick vendor a or vendor B? You know, I'm gonna bet on the long term, not the short term, because I'm thinking about this as my home over a long term.


Victor Aspengren 54:03

Yeah. So back to the old marshmallow experience, you know, you're going to eat the one marshmallow. You do, then you don't get the whole bag of marshmallows. That experiment they did years ago with kids. And it's the Ownership mindset. And it's not right or wrong. It's just there's a difference.


Robert Isherwood 54:21

Yeah. When we did the raise budget last year, and I recommended that the company have across the board 5% raise because we were seeing inflation appearing all over the place. And a lot of people here are, you know, they're feeding families and stuff, right? So, gasoline goes up $1 A gallon, that has a material impact on that families, choices. And so, I said, you know, 5% across the board and the employee owners chose to forego the raise. That was the only number I didn't expect. And they knew me well enough to know. They could come up with anything thing and I had to give it to them. You know, they can if they came back with 50%, they would had a 50% raise for about a week and then we'd go bankrupt. But they came back with zero, because what they wanted to do is take that same amount of money and spend it on capital infrastructure for the company. So that we could be more cost competitive. So that we could go after another product line and a different business world. That's the ownership difference. That's ... those are .... those people are not here for a paycheck. They're here to build a company. And that's, you know, a very different point of view. And then they backed it up with a MiniGame, right. So MiniGame where they went after operating costs, and, and how much they could reduce operating costs, overhead costs were the amount that they were going to be given a raise. So, guess what, they got the new machines, and they got the raise, and we lowered our operating costs. So now we're more competitive, better technology, able operate faster, lower overhead, and we paid better than our competition? Yep. That's the Ownership mindset.


Victor Aspengren 56:03

Now, that's, that's something for the audience to aspire to. How would your people not take a raise for the sake of the company for equipment, or technology, or whatever it is? That is a very powerful statement of the culture that you've created, Robert. Because ideally, I think you're kind of up at the pinnacle, because it's always changing, and you always got to work on it. And those stories, you just love those stories. But I think it's a real gut check for organizations when people are willing to sacrifice themselves. You know, we went through a layoff in the early 2000s. And I can't tell you the number of people that came to me and said, don’t lay me off, or lay me off, don't lay off so and so because, I've got other things to do, I can do this. So, you know, I'll go ahead and lay me off because these other there's other people that need their job more than I do. But they were critical people, but the fact that they made the offer, multiple people came to me and said, lay me off. I mean, who hears when people run the and say, well go ahead and lay me off.


Robert Isherwood 57:08

Yeah, yeah.


Victor Aspengren 57:08

And it kind of goes to that same mentality of what you did there. It's very powerful. I remember one time we had a company meeting and our ESOP committee told me, ... they said, you and the leadership team cannot come to the meeting. And I said, okay, and they go, you have to stay because we had an offside meeting. They said, we'll call you when you can come in. To this day, I have no idea what they addressed. But they said, We need to have a conversation, but you guys can't be there.


Robert Isherwood 57:41



Victor Aspengren 57:41

And they took care of it. And I honestly can tell you, and people go, are you crazy, I'm like, hey, they said they had it, they took care of it, I'm not going to lose sleep over it, because their owners. And they took responsibility and did whatever it is they needed to do. So we've got just a few minutes left, Robert, any other classic stories or words of wisdom that you could share with the audience before we close today?


Robert Isherwood 58:10

I would, I would say that ... and we've talked about a little bit, but right now, there's a lot of press around recruitment and retention, and people moving jobs and a lot of those kinds of stuff, all that kind of stuff. And I think the Great Game community in the employee ownership community has an enormous advantage in the marketplace that's coming up. And so I would just encourage all the people to play that advantage. You know, this should be a pinnacle of your culture, and your recruiting efforts and your retention efforts and stuff. Employee Ownership is a fundamentally better deal for the owners. It's a fundamentally better deal for the employees, it's a fundamentally better deal for the community. But it's up to us to tell them and be an example. And then guess why you're not gonna have any problem hiring people, you're not gonna have any problem finding customers, you're not gonna have any problem finding suppliers. But you got to do it.


Victor Aspengren 59:08

So with that, because obviously, you're a leader that believes in this. What was the trigger? How did you all of a sudden say, we're going to start opening the books did you? Did you go to one of the conferences? Did you read the book? I mean, something triggered within you, Robert, you said, I'm going to start doing things differently.


Robert Isherwood 59:27

Yeah. So I got the ... so I ended up at this job. And I was talking about some of the things I wanted to do. And one of the guys that I worked with at the time said, you know, I read a book and the author of the book says kind of sort of the same things that you do. So you you might want to be interested in reading the book. So, I read it and I was like, dead on that's exactly what I want to do. I didn't believe it was actually possible. I believed it was marketing and I went to other companies, and I invite people to come to AMBAC anytime you want to and walk around on the shop floor and talk to the employees on the floor. Not the executives. And I did that with other Great Game companies and other open book companies talking to a forklift operator that understood what inventory turns was changed The Game, in my mind.


Victor Aspengren 1:00:13

And for the audience, I think that's great wisdom. You heard Robert story. So some of you out there might say, Well, my CEO, or our owner would never ever do that. What I've always told people is get them to their peers and believe it when they hear it from a peer, because when you're inside, it's like, oh, here comes Robert, here comes Victor again barking at me. If you can get them to an audience where they hear it from a different person, they hear it in a different way. Whether it's a conference, whether it's giving them a book, or whether it's a CEO roundtable, anything you can do to get them exposed to a different mentality is one way to help turn the corner because sometimes, that's what you're looking for you believe in all this, but you're not the ultimate decision maker on whether you can do open book, or whether you can do ESOP, but you can definitely influence their educational component, which is what Robert said all along. Education is the key in the Ownership mindset. And it starts all the way at the top, all the way to the bottom, however, you want to cut it, everybody can learn something when it comes to that. So all folks, we are right at two o'clock. That's what I was scheduled for today. So Robert, thank you so much for sharing your stories, your wisdom, and I would, and you have the open where people can come talk to your folks. So if you're in the neighborhood, you guys should stop by Robert, talk to his team. And you may learn even more as part of that education. So, thanks, everybody. There'll be another ESOP roundtable in the future so stuff will get sent out by The Great Game of Business and have a great rest of the winter. We're almost through it. St. Patty's Day is right around the corner and sprayed obey here. And hopefully COVID is on its way out, everybody. So with that, have a great day. Thank you all very much.


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The Change the Game Podcast is produced by The Great Game of Business. To learn more, visit

Topics: Company Culture, Entrepreneurship, Leadership

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Hosted by Rich Armstrong and Steve Baker the Change the Game podcast highlights true life stories of organizations influencing positive change by doing business differently. They’re teaching people how business works and closing the gap between the haves and have-nots. It’s capitalism at its best. Inside each episode, you’ll discover stories of entrepreneurs who are Changing the Game.

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