What employee ownership means to Trident Cafe and booksellers

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to rage in March 2020, Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boulder, Colorado faced a similar challenge for small businesses around the world: how to stay afloat.

Employees wanted a fair financial picture of what was happening to their employer. They also had a bunch of ideas on how to keep the business going and wanted a bigger voice as a group of people who communicated regularly with customers.

Employee ownership turned out to solve both problems, offering transparency and a newly discovered path to sustainability and growth.

Opened for more than 40 years and initially owned by four partners, one owner sold his shares to employees, increasing the total number of owners to 13 and wishing employees to buy the company’s shares after a year of employment.

In a situation that some people might condemn as an anti-capitalist nightmare, Trident Booksellers and Cafe (also known as “Trident”) have not only found new life, but have also discovered growth opportunities stemming from their newly employed owners.

Contains insights from Buffer Small business, big lessons the fourth episode of the podcast and the accompanying unpublished interview, multiple Trident employee owners shared why the bookstore became employee-owned and how the change had a positive impact on the business.

Partners at Trident Booksellers and Cafe

Sale of shares to employees

After decades of ownership, one of the four owners of Trident wanted to cash in his shares during the pandemic. He began the process of looking for a customer and saw one promising opportunity: his employees.

At first no one thought when a Trident partner wanted to sell their shares, the buyout of employees immediately made sense given Trident’s history and how employees showed up at the company.

The café has attracted a serious crowd of regular guests, some of whom have been coming for decades, citing strange culture, friendly staff and a historic building as key reasons why they always return. Employees and regulars have built strong friendships over the years. Sophia, the owner of a barista in Trident, even said that one regular man feels almost like her uncle, not just like a customer.

This environment made employee ownership attractive to the other three Trident owners. They realized that the strong connections employees have with clients can benefit the entire organization.

Employees regularly acted as owners within Trident, sharing ideas upwards and deeply caring for customers. So giving them the opportunity to truly become owners was a great next step because it not only rewarded employee loyalty, but also helped ensure Trident kept its unique culture under new ownership.

Cyanne Stonesmith, the owner of an employee who runs the Trident bookstore business, explained that “with all the uncertainty that was going on” with the pandemic, he “felt like the right time” for employees to get involved in the business. Nine employees then bought the shares, and Cyanne said the employees together own one-third of the business.

Anyone can talk to the manager

A marked positive change occurred for Trident after it became employee property. In the past, regular people who had questions or wanted to talk to the owner – customer feedback has always been part of the culture – demanded a great song and dance. Employees would either have to grab the owner if he was nearby or take notes upstairs and hope someone listened.

Now every customer can talk to the manager because chances are high that he just made you coffee. And with the cooperative’s new ownership structure, the original three owners also occasionally work shifts at Trident to be closer to their customers and co-owners.

Jake, assistant manager and co-owner who runs the beer and wine program at Trident, shared his feelings about this shift.

“We’re not just trying to get to the next quarter and grow and grow and grow,” Jake said. “It simply came to our notice then. It seems like the voice of the people is being respected. They feel heard. ”

Part of that newfound feeling that employees feel has been heard stems from Trident’s new consensus-oriented management style. In the previous ownership structure, four owners made decisions, and employees executed those decisions. Employee feedback was always welcome, but did not always reach the decision-making table. Now Cyanne said 13 owners are more focused on building consensus for decisions and using the majority vote structure to make decisions.

“It’s not about an individual,” Cyanne said. “It’s about community, and the ability to work with your colleagues and co-owners is one of the most rewarding things.”

The priority in the meetings is to ensure that everyone’s ideas are heard before the vote, and then the team works on the structure of the style of disagreement and commitment so that decisions are not lost in endless conversations. This means that people do not manage all the time, but the weekly (or sometimes fortnightly) structure of management meetings offers everyone time to have their say.

“Everyone’s opinion is respected, everyone has the right to vote, and then at the end of those discussions, if we need to make a decision yes or no, we vote and that’s by a majority vote,” Cyanne said. “And so, even if not everyone agrees, or not everyone gets the result they wanted, we all really respect our opinions and our thoughts.”

Ownership impacts

Trident has been a central figure in Boulder since its founding more than 40 years ago, nurturing a community that has a global reach. Baristas have even been recognized in different countries by travelers who have visited Trident, and regulars and holiday guests are delighted that their favorite barista is also a co-owner in the company.

An unexpected benefit for Trident is that employee ownership has become a kind of marketing campaign. Cyanne said the new customers – both from Boulder and from tourists to the area – decided to stop by Trident because they were fascinated by the café where the baristas own part of the business. This was not intentional nor was it actively marketed, but Trident’s closely related culture meant that regular people heard about the change, it became known, and people were fascinated.

Beneath global recognition and cool-factors, however, lies the real impact of employee ownership: not only do employees feel a renewed sense of pride for their company now that they own part of it, but owning part of the property gives employees real leverage in their lives. As home ownership for millennials and Gen-Z is increasingly unattainable in cities like Boulder, owning shares in the company is becoming an asset for which employees can borrow, exploit, and have a deeper personal impact.

Furthermore, since Trident is already set up for consensus-style management and new employees are welcome to join the company after a year of operation, there is even more opportunity for Trident to have an impact besides creating local jobs. And 13 current owners are excited to see who will be next.

“I’m really excited that more people will accept,” Cyanne said.

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Naveen Kumar

Friendly communicator. Music maven. Explorer. Pop culture trailblazer. Social media practitioner.

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