02 Oct Metis Construction
The seeds of Metis Construction were planted in 2007 with a core group of contractors, mostly working on residential projects. “In the beginning, we were all just independent contractors,” recalls Matthias Scheiblehner, co-founder of Metis, “but it was clear even then that we all felt tremendous ownership over the work we were doing.”
They adopted the name in 2008, inspired by the writings of Yale Professor James Scott. Professor Scott defines metis as “a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment.”
Once the housing crisis began, the group diversified to commercial projects. In 2012 they landed a contract to build out a new German beer hall, now called the Rhein Haus. “That felt like the moment,” says Matthias. “Through this project, we had met a group of people who were the right ones to draw in and help us grow.” Since the Rhein Haus, Metis has benefited from the booming Seattle restaurant industry, landing a number of restaurant and bar projects––ranging from small tenant improvements to full building rehabilitations. Through these projects, as well as diversification into work such as earthquake retrofitting, the company has continued to grow. “What has made us successful is this group of people. Everyone is so excited about what we’re doing. We all take pride in it.”
The Transition to Worker Ownership
Although the Metis team always envisioned becoming worker-owned, they started the process in earnest in 2013. A colleague of theirs was familiar with John Abram’s book, Companies We Keep: Employee Ownership and the Business of Community and Place. The entire team bought copies. They then called the ICA Group, the nonprofit consulting firm that worked with John Abrams to convert his business, South Mountain Company, to worker ownership back in the late 1980s.
At the same time, a few employees elected to go through the Worker Cooperative Initiative at Pinchot University’s Center for Inclusive Entrepreneurship to learn more about the conversion process and what it means to be a worker-owner.
The process hit a few snags along the way, including a moment in time when it was unclear whether the business could stay viable. Because of the tumultuous nature of the construction industry, it was important to the founders that the company reach a level of cushion and comfort that provided a safe investment for employees. As a relatively new company, it took a lot of work to build up the business while simultaneously transitioning it to worker ownership.
Despite the set-backs, the company successfully became worker-owned in February of this year. “I never wanted to own a business. I am a builder,” Matthias says. “I’m really excited about sharing responsibility and seeing the democracy in practice. The bigger picture decisions will be worker-controlled and very much democratic.”
The company is now held by an employee ownership trust (which is distinct from an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP). Chris Michael, general counsel at ICA Group, structured the transaction. “This structure allows the employee ownership plan to be perpetual, instead of any given generation of employees having the right to sell the company and cash out the profits,” explains Chris. “The trust also allows the company to ensure that a sufficient amount of money is reinvested in the company and that membership requirements cannot be changed to exclude future workers.”
The entire team has felt a shift since the transition. As Zach Wentzel, a new worker owner of Metis described, “I am an owner and get to make decisions on how our company grows. Once we became a coop, there was a reason for more of us to get involved. We now had an ownership stake and these decisions and discussion mattered more.” Under the new structure, worker-owners have the opportunity to participate in decision-making on key issues—finance, HR, operations, development, sales, and estimating. “I’m on the finance and HR working group,” Zach explained. “Forming a coop trust has meant a lot to all of us and has added value for me as a worker. We hope that Metis as a company, will last longer than any one individual. We are one piece of this larger business and we are laying ground for other carpenters to join the business.”
The Coming Wave of Worker Ownership Conversions
Metis Construction has joined a growing community of companies that have transitioned to worker ownership from a traditional firm. As baby boomer business owners retire, more and more are looking to their workers as possible buyers. According to Chris, “We are experiencing an unprecedented opportunity to build wealth for workers while keeping businesses local and thriving.” Other companies that recently transitioned to worker ownership include Build With Prospect, a construction company in New York; the New School, a private school for children with severe disabilities in Montpelier, Vermont; and the Island Employee Cooperative, a cluster of three retail companies in Deer Isle, Maine.