Ron Calhoun found that employee ownership was the route to take for Palmer-Donavin’s succession plan Featured

8:01pm EDT April 30, 2012
Ron Calhoun found that employee ownership was the route to take for Palmer-Donavin’s succession plan

Ron Calhoun was planning to discuss plans for his company’s 100th birthday back in 2006 when the discussion with the board of directors took on a more serious note. After the birthday plans were nailed down, it was time to talk about the future ownership of the wholesale distributor of residential building supplies and HVAC equipment.

The second generations of three families owned the company that was founded in 1907, but no third generation descendants had an active role in the business.

“We were looking to dilute the stock down to the third generation,” says Calhoun, president and COO of Palmer-Donavin Manufacturing Co.

That was not the best scenario for continuation of the company — it made it too likely that the company would dissolve.

Palmer-Donavin was doing well enough. Revenue for 2011 was $163 million, down a bit from a high of $174 million previously, and better than 2010’s $147 million. About 230 are employed company-wide.

Calhoun got to thinking and remarked on how much his predecessor, Bob Woodward Sr., put an employee focus on the company during his 60 years with the company.

“The culture of our company is very much an employee-oriented culture that he developed through his policies and compassion for the business and people,” he says.

“We talked about where a company goes. Do you go to a private equity firm? Do you go to a strategic buyer, and then what happens to the company, what happens to the management and the people?

“I think from our ownership and board perspective, they wanted to maintain the integrity of the company and the people, and felt an obligation to management and the people to see that the company could go forward.”

The proposal that was the best fit was an employee stock ownership plan. It would be a way to give back to the people who helped build the company. After talking to a number of people in the industry who had taken their companies in an ESOP direction, it was time to decide.

The leadership settled on the ESOP as a succession plan for Palmer-Donavin. The company was sold in 2007 to the ESOP and went from being 100 percent shareholder-owned to 100 percent ESOP-owned private company.

“It’s been interesting along the way, and because of our past, I think we transitioned into it very well, and we got everyone’s goals aligned,” Calhoun says. “We have been very successful since.”

But just because the papers had been signed doesn’t mean the work is over. Here’s how Calhoun faced the challenges ahead of him.

Make the ESOP fit

From the perspective of a company’s vendors and customers, the transition to an ESOP is virtually invisible. But from the board of directors and managerial areas, it is quite a bit different.

ESOPs are rarely used to rescue a company in financial trouble but are most often used to provide a market for the shares of departing owners of companies, to reward and motivate employees or to take advantage of loan incentives to acquire new assets in pretax dollars. ESOPs, in nearly every case, are a contribution to the employee, not an employee purchase.

In preparation for the transition, company owners usually will need to hire an attorney and an investment banker to appraise the company, set a value on its shares, put together a share allocation schedule and arrange financing if needed.

Once the Palmer-Donavin board of directors voted to go the ESOP route, one of the next steps was to hire a trustee who would represent the employee-owners when voting.

“She represents the ESOP employee owners,” Calhoun says. “She votes their stock and is completely independent of the board, so she provides a true independence in the association of the employee owners of the company.”

When selecting a trustee, it is a matter of hiring a pro. Through the process of interviewing, you should be able to find a professional trustee to meet your needs. Then take him or her through a meet-and-greet process.

“You should go around with your trustee and your chairman of the board to employee meetings to tell them about the changes that are coming — and that the decision was made to sell the company,” Calhoun says.

An administrative committee should be formed that is responsible for the management of the ESOP and the shares. They will work closely with the trustee and keep the trustee informed of business concerns. They work together as far as share redemptions and things of that nature and any reporting that is necessary.

Most important of all, the trustee votes for the shareholders and attends the annual meeting of the board of trustees. This is one of the major points employees will need to know.

“The trustee votes on matters on behalf of the employees; for instance, the trustee would vote for the election of directors representing the employees,” Calhoun says. “The trustee votes if there is a decision to sell a majority of the assets of the company or a major event.”

The Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service require an annual valuation of the shares and the trustee hires a third-party evaluation team to perform this duty.

The most common method to allocate the shares to employees is in proportion to their compensation, although different formulas may be used, such as years of service or a combination of the two.

Another question to be answered is when the employee becomes vested in his or her shares.

“What we did — that the trustee and our attorney said we should not do but we felt that going through this transition we should — is that we gave pre-ESOP vesting to all employees so the vesting period on the ESOP is six years,” Calhoun says. “They recommended that we take that and have every employee start over at the time we implemented the ESOP, and we just didn’t feel good about that, and we allowed them their previous time with company to vest. So if they were with us six or more years, their ESOP shares vested at 100 percent when they received them.”

The company leadership wanted to continue the tradition of being an employee-friendly organization.

“The culture of our company has been an employee-oriented one,” he says. “Bob Woodard had what we called an appreciation plan. If the company was profitable, all of a sudden all of the employees would get an extra week’s pay or a bonus would show up in their paycheck, and they didn’t know when it was coming. It was just kind of random.

“Now with the ESOP contribution, shares get distributed every year. It is really kind of based on the same thing — shared distribution is based on each individual’s income level but done on a regular basis.”

Educate the employees

One of the largest benefits of an ESOP is the ownership culture and the pride that the employees take in being employee-owners. While some employees will feel the honor right away or early in the transition process, others may be doubtful of the benefits and will need time and attention to work it all out.

“The challenge for the company is how you educate the employees to understand what the ESOP is,” Calhoun says. “It is a very difficult concept for everyone to grasp, so we spent a lot of time on it.”

One useful tool is a communications committee that will take on the assignment to tell employees on a regular basis what is happening with the company and the ESOP.

“We publish what we call The Owners’ Manual every quarter,” Calhoun says. “It talks about the different aspects of the business and different educational pieces that we put in there to help the employees understand better what’s going on with the company, what’s going on with their investment in the ESOP and the business strategy.”

The first message to be communicated is that the biggest advantage of an ESOP is that it will offer employees the chance to create the ownership culture of everyone in the organization.

A communication tool that Calhoun found helpful was to set up a company intranet site to encourage questions from employees about the ESOP. These are posted on the site with a response, usually from the human resources department or someone else in the organization that has more expertise in an area.

“I think there were a lot of people who were very nervous about it, that were skeptical. But I think hopefully those concerns have been satisfied over time,” Calhoun says.

“It’s a learning process. As far as each year when we have to go through like the redemption of stocks for people leaving, those types of things get a little cumbersome and you want to make sure that you do that through the right process. It’s very regulated.”

When employees leave the company, they receive their stock, which the company has to buy back from them at its fair market value.

Efforts to spread the word about the ESOP should be frequent and creative.

“You can do different things such as lunch with the CFO, to small individual meetings, to having an ESOP committee, which is made up of employees from all the different areas and sections of the business,” Calhoun says. “They meet at least on a quarterly basis. They are charged with doing some things to bring an awareness, and ownership awareness among the employees. They have come up with some different types of games and things that can be used at company picnics or all-employee meetings that help communicate the message.”

Increase your company value

For a company going through a recession, having an ESOP adds a whole new dimension and a new tool to operate the business.

“Our business went down from a high of $174 million before the downturn to $147 million, and during that time we had 320 employees; we are down today to 233,” Calhoun says. “Many of those changes were just through attrition, but we did have everyone look at their departments and evaluate what are the tasks that we need to do, and what can we do to improve ourselves and where we have redundancies to try to cut out that duplication.

“I think through managing through that type of a downturn in our business — everybody focused extremely well in that and agreed to take on more than their share to keep the ship going forward. It was a pretty seamless transition through that, and we were able to maintain our profitability through those times.”

In the long term, ESOPs provide a convenient way to which bonuses can be tied. A rewards-for-profit plan focused on return on assets encourages employees to meet goals and rewards them when the goal is achieved.

“A rewards-for-profit plan replaces the typical profit-sharing plan,” Calhoun says. “Initially, employees had been able to see the company value grow because of debt repayments. Now it’s just like when you own a house, you build up equity by paying off the mortgage. Well, our mortgage is paid off, so we now have to increase the value of the house. We’ve got to see how we can grow our top line revenue and our bottom line profits in a sustainable way that will increase our value.”

How it works is an ROA or a profit objective is set by the board, based on abilities. It runs on a continuous 12-month basis and is paid quarterly to the employees.

“Then based on a formula, whether you are at 100 percent of the goal or 125 percent of the goal, the employee gets one week’s pay. If you are at 90 percent, it’s 90 percent of one week’s pay. If you are at 150 percent, it’s 150 percent of one week’s pay. It’s been very effective.”

How to reach: Palmer-Donavin Manufacturing Co., (614) 486-9657 or www.palmerdonavin.com

Ron Calhoun

president and COO

Palmer-Donavin Manufacturing Co.

The Calhoun file

Born: West Lafayette, Ohio, just east of Coshocton

Education: Ohio University. I got a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the College of Business.

What was your first job?

For my very first job out of college, I was a bartender at Maumee River Yacht Club. I was able to network that into a sales representative position for the National Gypsum Co., selling drywall in the Columbus market.

What was the most important business advice you ever received?

My mentor and former company president Bob Woodward kept saying it’s the people who make the company and the company is nothing without the people. I think that’s so true. Also, without integrity and honesty, you have nothing. You have to have integrity and character in everything you do.

Who do you admire in business?

Outside of Bob Woodward, I think one person I admire most is probably John McConnell of Worthington Industries. Actually, my father retired from Worthington Industries. He had always been an hourly factory worker all his life and went through working on union organizations and went through strikes and closing of facilities. He got a job later in life with Worthington and retired there. He always respected Mr. McConnell. The policies and programs the company had for all their employees created quite a loyalty among the employees and allowed my father to retire. He is 85 today and is and doing well — I think it’s the culture that is built within an organization. I recently was fortunate enough to talk to one of the board members and get some insight as to how they did some things.

What is your definition of business success?

Business success is creating a vision that people can trust and fulfilling that vision where everyone prospers.