Employment and Jobs

Supercharging the Employee Ownership Movement: Questions for Chris Fredericks

May 31, 2023  • Economic Opportunities Program

Empowered Ventures is an Employee Stock Ownership Plan company with a twist. Its employees work at different individual businesses, but have ownership stakes in a holding company that manages those businesses and other investments. It’s not a typical corporate structure, but it shows one slice of the tremendous innovation happening in employee ownership. 

Chris Fredericks is the founder and CEO of Empowered Ventures, and will be a speaker at the Employee Ownership Ideas Forum hosted by the Economic Opportunities Program and the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University, to be held on June 14 and 15 in DC and online.

In anticipation of the event, Fredericks answered a few questions about the company he leads, and how he sees employee ownership growing. 

Empowered Ventures is unique on a few fronts. Not only is it employee-owned, but it is also a holding company of three different employee-owned companies. What inspired the transition to employee ownership and how did you settle on this holding company structure?

The initial ESOP transition at TVF—the business that founded Empowered Ventures—occurred in 2010 and was inspired by our accounting firm’s suggestion as we explored options for the founding owner, who needed to sell primarily for health reasons. I was also excited about it since I had recently become President and loved the idea of leading an employee-owned company; it fit well with my values and career aspirations. I had always wanted a meaningful career that could positively impact people’s lives, and employee ownership has provided me with that.

With TVF’s decade of success as an ESOP, we founded the holding company in 2020 to invest our resources on behalf of TVF’s employee owners while also growing our impact by bringing more companies and people into employee ownership. The holding company structure enables us to help companies join an already successful ESOP and to provide those companies with needed support and resources to achieve long-lasting growth and success after the ownership transition.

How does the ESOP structure work at Empowered Ventures?

It is a relatively typical ESOP structure, just with the holding company wrinkle. The ESOP owns 100% of the stock of the Empowered Ventures corporation, which owns all our other interests including multiple operating companies and some real estate. All the employees of all our companies join the same ESOP, which has a nine-month waiting period and four-year vesting. So rather than our employees participating in an ESOP that owns one company—which is the most common situation—our employees participate in an ESOP that owns multiple companies. As we add more companies and diversify, we believe this model will help us create a truly perpetual ESOP for the long-term. We won’t be depending on one company or industry, resulting in more secure ESOP value for all our employee owners.

Employee-owned companies often have different types of workplace cultures and value systems. What would you say is the culture and values of EV? And how do you think about upholding the culture and those values across the different companies that are part of the holding company?

At the holding company level, we are driven by a strong belief in the dignity of every human being and a belief that work should reflect that dignity. We also believe employee ownership is a great foundation for building exceptional places to work. With each of our companies operating independently, the EV approach is to enable each business to find its full expression of an “employee ownership” culture over time in a phased evolutionary process that we support and guide. Each company is able to maintain the key elements of its culture and its successful approach to business while adopting best practices and methods from the employee ownership community. This will help each business elevate its approach to people, which will strengthen the business.

How have you seen businesses, workers, and communities benefit from EV being employee owned?

The ESOP program has been in place almost 13 years, and it has been truly life changing for our employees and our businesses. As an example, employees who have been with us since the beginning have ESOP account values today that are worth roughly 5-6 times their annual compensation. Account balances of less tenured employees are also tracking extremely positively as they accumulate shares. Our businesses have seen clear positive impacts of higher levels of engagement, with lower turnover and better margins. Apart from finances, employee ownership has led to extremely high engagement and job satisfaction levels, with an enterprise-wide Net Promoter Score (NPS) over 30. We are also seeing increasing community engagement. During employee ownership month last year, our teams donated over 16,000 items to their local food banks, an average of around 100 items per person.

Why don’t we have more employee-owned companies in the US, and what do you think we could do to create more?

I think the US has done a pretty good job with ESOPs, co-ops, and EOTs. A small but passionate and growing community exists around employee ownership. To really supercharge things and truly create a movement, we need more legislative support that provides additional financial incentives for sellers and investors. I’m optimistic about the recently introduced Employee Equity Investment Act. It introduces some new and needed incentives that could really help level the playing field for new employee ownership formations and employee-owned acquirers versus traditional options like private equity. We also need to be better story tellers. Employee ownership is inspiring, but too often we describe it as either a charitable approach or emphasize technical descriptions of how it works. We need to highlight the impact it has on real individuals so everyone understands just how life changing it can be.

Is your model replicable on a larger scale? What does the future look like for Empowered Ventures?

Yes, we think so. Houchens Industries is an ESOP holding company based in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and in many ways has been a great under-the-radar ESOP success story. Houchens has over 19,000 ESOP participants and 13 operating companies. Empowered Ventures is small today, but we are building our approach to enable a much larger scale. We don’t have a certain goal in terms of number of companies or employee owners, but I think the sky’s the limit as long as we keep buying good businesses and developing strong employee ownership cultures.

photo of Chris FredericksChris Fredericks

Founder & CEO of Empowered Ventures

Chris founded Empowered Ventures, serves as president & CEO, and is a member of the board of directors. Chris has a diverse background in management, accounting and finance, business valuations, mergers and acquisitions, operations, people development, and strategy. In 2010, he proposed and led the acquisition of TVF on behalf of the employees using an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), which enabled a successful ownership transition for the founder. After overseeing a decade of success as an employee-owned company, Chris and TVF launched Empowered Ventures in 2020 to grow and diversify the ESOP through acquisition.

Inspired by TVF’s transformative employee ownership experience, Chris led Empowered Ventures to define its purpose which is to perpetually create life-changing financial and personal wellbeing outcomes for its employee owners. Chris resides near Burlington, Vermont, having relocated from his home state of Indiana in 2022. He is a graduate of Indiana University Bloomington’s Kelley School of Business with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. A former CPA, Chris started his career in public accounting in the nonprofit sector before joining TVF in 2005, where he served in various positions including chief financial officer, before serving as president from April 2010 through March 2021.