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Being a Worker-Owned Cooperative can make your Company Best for the World

Transparency is a hot topic when it comes to doing business the right way. This week, B Lab is sharing how three different Best for Workers honorees are incorporating transparency into their workplaces—in radically different ways. Then, on Friday, we’ll share the lessons each company had to offer when it comes to starting new transparency initiatives in your own company. Yesterday we learned how Dharma's positive conflict resolutions helps to create peaceful working environments.

PV Squared, a Best for Workers B Corp, is an accredited solar energy design and installation company based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. PV Squared was founded in 2002 with a very particular mission—to create living wage careers as part of a business that would be committed to the local community. After a major manufacturing facility in the area had moved overseas, leaving many jobless. Since the goal was to create a company that served their community, PV Squared was founded as a worker coop.

Worker owned coops are, as you may have guessed, owned by their workers. PV Squared is entirely owned and directed by its employees, who also have a share of the profits. As a coop, PV Squared is driven by a mission to improve the lives of their workers, their community and the environment. We spoke to Andy Toomajian about how PV Squared’s democratic workplace has helped make his company Best for the World. He picked out four key benefits.

1. Workers are more committed and likely to stay long-term

PV Squared looks at every hire as a potential future owner of the business.  Keeping an eye on the long term vision brings a sense of shared commitment and accomplishment. It pays to know that the job you love not only invests in your future, but supports your dreams as well. One of the things workers like most about PV Squared is that they help their employees (and worker-owners) work towards long term goals as part of the cooperative. “Whether our workers’ goals are in building leadership skills, strengthening technical skills, or even pursuing professional licensure as an electrician, we see investing in our workers as an investment in our business,” Toomajian told us.

The goal is to have not only a successful business but also to make sure that the workers are creatively engaged in bringing all their skills and talents to the table. By taking interest in their long term goals, and pushing them to attain them, PV Squared not only makes their workers happy, but also builds loyalty throughout their team and strengthens their assets as a business.

2. Positive community relationship = automatic marketing

PV Squared was built with the goal of helping their community respond creatively to difficulty, and living up to that mission pays off. Building a committed and engaged workforce doubles down on that, and creates vocal ambassadors throughout their potential customer base. Between treating employees well and focusing on local interests, PV Squared doesn’t need to do much in the way of marketing—their new customers come to them.

Becoming a worker coop builds that positive community connection into the company DNA. It’s not just something you do, it’s a tangible relationship to the place you live and work. You have to feel it. When your workers feel it, your customers feel it too. They know it’s something different, and they want to tell that story. <

3. Developing a network of mission-driven businesses

“Cooperation among Cooperatives” is one of the 7 Cooperative Principles outlined by the International Cooperative Alliance.  Choosing a cooperative structure meant that PV Squared benefited from the support of other cooperative businesses like Equal Exchange, and from organizations like the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives as they built their company.  They have maintained this cooperative approach as they grew, and as a founding member of the Valley Alliance of Worker Coops they created a collaborative network for worker-owned businesses in their region that has not only shared resources and information but has also created a VAWC loan fund to support developing and emerging cooperative businesses acquire the tools needed to succeed.

The coop structure also gave PV Squared an advantage when applying for B Corp certification. “There’s a strong overlap between what B Lab looks at and the values you find in a worker-owned cooperative,” Toomaijian said. “So for us it was a natural fit to look at B Corp certification. Going through the B Impact Assessment both clarified places where we were already doing well, and brought ideas up that we normally would not have thought of, which ended up being beneficial to what we are trying to accomplish as a mission-driven business.”

4. Local ownership = automatic triple-bottom-line focus

The number one benefit Toomajian cited, however, didn’t have to do with saving on costs or improving networking opportunities. It had to do with the ease with which PV Squared, as a coop, is able to commit to a triple-bottom-line focus. “As a worker-owned coop, we naturally end up working to benefit our local community and the environment,” Toomajian told us, “Because the people who own the company live in that community and environment.”

He also brought up how their cooperative structure made it easier for the worker-owners to give back to the community. Recently, PV Squared partnered with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity to donate solar arrays that should provide 100% of the energy needs for two new homes being built. Not only was PV Squared’s design, labor and equipment provided without charge, the solar arrays will also mean that the low-income families moving into the houses aren’t saddled with high energy bills. Toomajian said he thought it was easier for a cooperative to make a donation like that to their community than it would have been for a single owner. “We all share the economic impact, but we also all enjoy the good feeling of doing something that’s in line with our values. It’s much different from one owner saying, ‘Hey, that’s my money!’” he pointed out.

By building a company from the ground up with the intention to prioritize the concerns of workers, their community, and the environment, and by giving those workers the ability to make decisions with their family, friends, and planet in mind, PV Squared has built a company whose mission is unlikely to drift any time soon. “In everything we do, we try to do things in a way that’s built to last.  Our mission as a business means that we plan to be an ongoing part of this community, and our hope is that, whether it’s to provide support or service for an existing system or to design a solar array for a new home, our clients know how to find us and know we’ll still be here for them, no matter how many decades down the line,” Toomajian said.

 

Ready to create a more transparent workplace for your staff, but not sure where to start? Check back tomorrow for advice from all three Best for Workers companies we profiled this week!

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