GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers aren’t the only local team to welcome newly-minted shareholders this year.
WG&R Furniture ended 75 years of family ownership this week by converting ownership from CEO Jim Greene to an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP. The company’s 280 employees now own WG&R, August Haven, WG&R Sleep Shop and WG&R bedding as well as the company’s other operations.
Greene, the third generation of his family to run WG&R, took over the company in 2000 and will remain as CEO. Like all other employees, he will be an equal owner through the ESOP.
Greene said every business eventually faces ownership transitions and his preferred option was to give employees ownership of the company. Alternatives like selling to private equity firms or a competitor would not have been fair to employees who work hard everyday to make the company successful, he said.
“I’m proud of the legacy the ESOP will leave. All good things come to an end in terms of ownership. I just believe the people who make the company run need to benefit from the company’s existence,” Greene said. “There’s less risk of dramatic culture change or employees losing their jobs.”
Greene said customers should not notice any difference in stores.
An ESOP functions as a trust fund that owns the company. All full-time employees who meet some basic work requirements will be granted shares in the ESOP as part of their deferred compensation. Each plan may have unique rules and regulations to it.
Employees at WG&R’s Ashwaubenon store on Friday said becoming owners fits with the company’s culture of shared responsibility for serving customers.
“There’s excitement for the future of the company,” said Tyler Nault, manager of the Ashwaubenon store, who said it’s great Greene is “willing to give back to the employees” with the change.
Greene said the key is that the ESOP’s trustee approves or rejects board actions based on what’s best for the employee-owners. He said keeping the company locally-owned and focused on serving customers were priorities.
“I’ve been involved in the evolution of the culture and it’s important for me that that culture does not change, that the company stays headquartered in Green Bay,” Greene said.
WG&R started with one location, in Green Bay, and has since expanded to Appleton, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, Manitowoc and Sheboygan.
Henry Wagnitz, Paul Greene, Carl Greene and Henry Rupp founded WG&R on Main Street in Green Bay in 1946, according to the company’s history. The Greene family bought out Rupp and Wagnitz in 1955.
WG&R’s second store opened in Oshkosh in 1963, and the Manitowoc store opened in 1972. More new stores followed: Appleton in 1980, Sheboygan in 2002 and Fond du Lac in 2007. The company also operates a mattress factory in Two Rivers. Its corporate headquarters remain on Green Bay’s east side.
Greene noted that the Green Bay area business community provided him with some “great local examples” of how companies can thrive under employee-ownership models.
KI CEO Dick Resch and other Resch family members sold their 71% stake in the furniture manufacturer to its 2,000 employees in spring 2018. The ESOP, originally started in 1991, already owned the other 29% of the company.
And Schreiber Foods’ 7,000 employees own 100% of the company via an ESOP established in 1998.
The National Center for Employee Ownership reported that five Wisconsin-based companies rank among the 100 largest employee-owned companies in the United States. Schreiber and KI ranked 14th and 48th, respectively.
To make the list, companies must have more than 50% ownership held by an ESOP or other qualified plan.