One person, one share, one vote. That’s the very simple logic behind the employee-owned cooperative structure, and it’s a model that’s helping employees of Denver, Colorado-based Namaste Solar find new skills and grow their careers, all while having a bit of fun at the office.
The solar-electric company provides commercial and residential solar installations, including everything from system design and engineering to installation. Solar is becoming increasingly attractive to both residential and commercial customers as solar panel prices have come down and energy costs have risen. But the best way for solar to gain traction in any community is word of mouth, and Namaste’s name is spreading like wildfire: more than 50 percent of its customers are referred directly by an existing customer. The secret to this success An employee-owned cooperative structure that helps everyone in the company, from the CEO to the rooftop teams, stay deeply committed to the company’s future.
“When we have an installer team out at a residential site doing a solar installation, having owners on that roof – not just $12/hour temp labor – means that they do it right the first time,” said Heather Leanne Nangle, Director of Marketing, Communications and Social Responsibility for Namaste. “They are financially invested in the company, and want it to succeed.”
In January 2011, B Corp Namaste Solar changed is organizational structure from employee ownership to a full cooperative structure. After one year, any employee in the company is eligible to apply for co- ownership. Once accepted by the existing members, employees invest $5,000 in the company and can begin participating in all voting meetings. That means a chance to get involved in everything from day-to-day operations to long-term strategic plans.
The cooperative model has helped individual employees accelerate their own career paths within the company. In a traditional solar company, it would bevery unlikely for an installer to join the board of directors, but Namaste says it’s seen a lot more movement and mobility. One of the current board members, Jeff Denivan, started with the company as an electrician on the installation team, worked his way up to commercial project management, and now sits on the board. His story isn’t unusual either. From installation teams to sales teams, co-owners are constantly suggesting new ideas and opportunities for the company.
The new structure has also required the company to operate with a radical degree of transparency – financial statements, including salaries, are shared across the company and reviewed monthly. Company policies cap the ratio of highest-to-lowest salaries at 3:1. The company’s offices reflect this egalitarian ethos, as well, with an open office layout that eschews closed doors and cubicles in favor of sharing the common space. That applies to everyone, including the company president. “We think that creates some cross-team learning,”¯ Nangle said.
The company’s focus on employees plays out in other, more fun ways, as well. Employees have formed a “Fun Committee”¯ and a “Canine Committee,” ¯tasked with bringing pranks and parties to the company and coordinating dog-related activities around the office. Other employees take advantage of the company’s flexible hours to participate in running groups or fitness activities.
This active, happy culture has earned Namaste several awards: WorldBlu’s Most Democratic Workplace in 2011 and 2010, the 2010 Boulder Chamber of Commerce Best Place to Work Award, as well as the 2009 Denver Business Journal’s Best Place to Work. But perhaps the clearest sign? Namaste’s employee retention rate is 94 percent, and when folks do leave the company, they sometimes give as much as a year’s notice.
Namaste’s egalitarian structure shows that not all solar companies are created equal.
This post originally appeared in the 2012 B Corp Annual Report.
Photo credit: PhotoMojoMike
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