Friday, January 7, 2011
Learning to Fly the Co-op

Take my word – you see a person’s true colors in a paintball war – specifically on the Old West course in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. An abandoned movie set of a saloon, bank, forge, and post office provided cover as we Greensaw folks selected our positions. The start gun went off and suddenly we had guys blazing away in the street, some seeking cover, others picking off opponents from the saloon porch, others creeping around the periphery looking for a pot-shot. Not an easy thing, paintball. Especially when your goggles get fogged and you can’t see shit.
Thank the Lord above for folks like John Abrams, Alex Moss, Tedd Benson, and Melissa Hoover. I’m not sure if any of these folks have ever actually picked up a paintball gun. I wonder if paintball is even legal on that exquisite bell-jar of an island, Martha’s Vineyard, where John works. But I have a very good sense of how these leaders might conduct themselves on that Old West course in Jim Thorpe.
We at Greensaw have made the decision to follow in the footsteps of these visionaries, and, with their help and advice, become an employee-owned co-op. At the suggestion of a few, and also to follow in the footsteps of Abrams and Benson, I have committed to recording this process. Let me be clear – I have no aim of writing a book on how co-ops will make the world a better place. For one thing, John has already done this. I simply want to document and honor our process as we embark on this fraught but exciting journey. As Mr. Moss mentioned in an email, it's going to be a "wild ride."

To call ourselves trailblazers would be an overstatement. Perhaps trailblazers in the city of Philadelphia, but hell, we in the 215 haven’t even grasped the concept that citizens don’t pay taxes in order to be harassed daily by a parking authority. Although, with folks like Karen Randall at the Department of Commerce in Philly these things might change (a quick shout-out to her and the remarkable and awesome work she does).
There is a way forward there, and it has been marked, but it’s no stroll on the Wissahickon bridal path. Snow fills footsteps, thread tied to branches is gathered by nesting birds, handwritten notes bleed in the rain. Well that’s not entirely true – Abrams left a long note in the form of his book “The Companies We Keep,” and it has been a hugely helpful signpost, if not an outright bible. So there is a way forward – our goggles are not fogged, just hazy.

We first considered flying the co-op in November 2010. The process began with a question: how in tarnation to recognize the blood Greensaw employees have bled for the company? I mean let’s call it like it is: folks working here could take their skills to South Jersey or California and be making close to twice as much building high-end developments. Or working in an architecture firm. With the skill, professional acumen, and background employees bring and have gained at the company, they could be better-compensated elsewhere.
So what’s holding them back? Or formulated positively, why does a graduate of architecture school in her thirties choose to stay late in the office working on scheduling labor for the months to come? The answer, I don’t think, is a) she’s wants to stay warm (we have one space heater in the office – soon to be corrected with a move to our new offices – so no) b) she doesn’t want to go home (she’s got a great husband who happens to be a project manager at Greensaw and makes a damn good pomegranate martini – so no) c) she takes pride, and believes in what she does.
C, I do believe.
It’s no secret that employees, when they first start, get thrown into the fire just to see what happens. We put ‘em on a bus to New York, give an address for a jobsite and watch it like a spectator sport. Set them to cleaning up the fire set after the Phillies won the pennant. It’s something I learned from Tedd Benson at Bensonwood when they put me in the sawdust room with the chip augur for three days with no lights or windows to fix the motor mount – and don’t come out until you do.
So we have this – commitment to the work at hand. People aren’t playing paintball for just the fun of it. They’re playing because they believe in the larger goal at hand – to win the Wild West.

Second goal of the new model – I wanted to share managerial duties, and allow myself more freedom. To take advantage, for example, of the opportunity to buy a tugboat in Alaska and have the company come west to spread the good word on building with what already exists.

On the one hand, I could have just sold the company. Have it valued independently and either hire a head-hunter, or continue talks with folks who had already expressed interest. We did over a million dollars in gross revenue in 2010. It wouldn’t have been the hardest sell. The problem with that being that anyone buying us would very quickly dilute what has grown to be at best a family, at worst a cult (although cults can get pretty fun in the wee hours of the morn, as any dilly-dallyers at our parties witness).
What about choosing a couple central players, and selling them a share of the company, in return for taking on management?
This model had legs, and we investigated it. Capitalization, internal tensions, separation of site-work from office-work, resentment of me holding on to a percentage of a company I wouldn’t run on a daily basis – these questions made the choice problematic.
Yet the idea of empowering a choice number of individuals revealed an extraordinary truth about the company: not one person who has darkened our doors and made it through the gauntlet of the Greensaw hiring process and three-month review and come out the other side would be ill-suited to making decisions on the future of the company. Meaning that each person we hire gives a damn. Not only about Greensaw, but about how they treat others, the clothes they wear, the food they eat – and the work they do. And the more we thought about it, the more it became clear that this – this is the yeast that makes a co-op rise. Giving a damn about your every move on the face of this fine earth – or stated less crudely, speaking, working, eating, moving, living with intention.

First we looked into ESOPs – Employee Stock Option Plans. An interesting model, where employees own stock in the company where they work. Great idea, members don’t have as much of a voice in government, although different ESOP models work differently (I’m thinking of Carris Reels, essentially an ESOP co-op, on one side of the scale, and Enron on the other - whoops).
Aside from all these concrete reasons why an ESOP might not be the best fit, it also came down to personality. Give me Maine or Alaska, I’ll take Alaska any day of the week. Give me setting up a Christmas tree with a stand for the holiday party, or stringing it up with a come-along across the entrance horizontally – and I’ll choose the come-along. It comes from a muttish family that went on the ill-fated Klondike gold rush, has roots in Oregon and Greenville, South Carolina, suffered the loss of three brothers on the Confederate side in one Civil War battle, fled the pogroms in the Ukraine – and combine that with a kid who grew up roaming up and down city alleys on a Big Wheel reading Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” At a very young age, “Trust in what is difficult” became an obsession. This mantra has screwed me many times, often in quick succession, but it has never proved a dull.
ESOPs are co-ops Lite. There are a good 12,000 ESOPS across the US – but less than a thousand co-ops. It’s been done before, and it’s cool and all, but not as cool as a co-op.
And I do believe the guys and gals who make up Greensaw have always been up for the challenge in trusting what is difficult, what hasn’t been done. Often to a fault. Don’t take my word for it – come out and play paintball with us, or check out Friday Night Green Fights, or Sunday football. But especially paintball. I started that thought and I’ll end with it – but first I want to record where we are now.

Before the holidays, we formed the Founders’ Committee, whose ordained mission was to investigate and devise a set of bylaws and operating procedures for the co-op (I had just finished the "John Adams" series and visited Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia. I advocated for us all wearing wigs and talcum powder but people said no – except for Dave, who took it to the next level with mascara).
As is usual with us, we were putting the cart before the horse in order to make the horse uncomfortable with the order of things and get him moving to where he should be.
At that first meeting we began to wrap our heads around the organizational structure of the co-op. Concerns were raised over how much power a management and personnel committee would have over the company. Also over how much individuals would be liable if the company went into debt. We resolved to look into these questions.
Christmas, the New Year. I bought five copies of “The Companies We Keep” and told folks that, like Eric Clapton who wouldn’t speak to anyone not familiar with the Blues of Robert Johnson, I wouldn’t talk to anyone about co-ops who was unfamiliar with the work of John Abrams. I should mention that John Abrams, in his friendly, clear manner, made it evident that he had no interest in discussing co-ops at length with me until I did my homework and read what he had already taken the time to express in his book. Point noted and taken.
We returned following our break and had our first meeting yesterday. Terence Buckley, our financial guru, attended. He made it clear that individuals, unless they committed fraud, would not be liable for company debt. We determined that the board of owners would vote in a management committee – and we would organize ourselves in such a way to guard against cabals.
Heath asked if he had any experience with co-ops. In true Terence fashion, he responded, “No, is that a problem for you motherf—r?” Undoubtedly, this is going to be a Philadelphia co-op, albeit the city’s first, and not a Martha’s Vineyard co-op.
What has been incredible about this process is the interest people have expressed in wrapping their heads around the process. I have come to realize, thanks to the inspired help and guidance of Alex Moss at Praxis Consulting in Chestnut Hill, that the process by which we choose owners should be a spiral one, and not a selective one. In other words, cast a wide net, see who expresses interest, and narrow things down from there. As always, everything depends on team. And a team has the ability to self-select.
I should mention that I spoke with Alex at his offices in Chestnut Hill, and shared lunch with him. He has been kind enough to do work pro-bono in order to help us get on our feet. His deep knowledge, cool head, and devotion to the co-op model is inspiring. To have someone alongside us, his Virgil to our Dante (except we’re not going down into the multiple circles of Hell), is invaluable and hugely appreciated.
And that’s essentially where we are now. We have a meeting scheduled with Jim Steiker on Wednesday to help us wrap our heads around what needs to happen legally for this all to take place. We will need to get the company valued, figure out the cost of membership shares, devise methods of payment both for dividends as well as for the buyout, and sign on to birth the new Greensaw Design & Build Co-op.

So there you are, huddled on the roof of the bank, green blue and pink paintballs whizzing around at 240 feet a second left, right and almost center. You’ve got Melissa, John, Tedd and Alex by your side – the kings and queens of the co-op. How would they play this game?
I’ll tell you how. They would come out blazing. I’m not talking about you cover me or I’ll cover you or let’s coordinate – I’m talking about stepping into the midway Clint Eastwood style and taking folks out. Which, paradoxically, is why the co-op model works so well. It allows these gunners - and that's what they are - the space to shoot from the hip, to be dreamers, to go blazing away and see what sticks.
Or not. The collective makes it clear, as a whole, when the time is for blazing, and when the time is for taking cover and waiting, playing defensively. I never last in paintball. As I wrote in a previous blog, I’ll take a teammates’ gun with the promise to give it back, then I won’t give it back. I’m awful. Abraham Lincoln says that every man can weather adversity, but give him power, and you know what sort of character you’ve got.
Here we are collectively, hunkered down, our hoppers brimming, our goggles clear, our hearts full. We can’t lose.

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posted by Brendan Jones @ 10:53 AM  

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A blog addressing the importance of re-using material, and building with existing structures. A strong emphasis on architectural salvage, as well as the people that make the difficult work possible.
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Name: Brendan Jones
Home: Philadelphia, PA, United States
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Greensaw is dedicated to using architectural salvage to enhance modern living spaces. We respect history, our environment, and the material with which we work. We recognize our clients as partners in the process of using old to build new.

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