OVS Passes to Workers

By Yvette Saarinen

With a few pen strokes on Feb. 5, Oregon Vineyard Supply’s 82 employees came into ownership of the business at 2700 St. Joseph Road, McMinnville.

Chief Executive Officer Kevin Chambers and Chief Operating Officer Dean Forseth signed the final papers for the transaction, which had been planned for eight years. They redeemed all of the company stock and then sold it all to their employees.

Forseth is retiring after 11 years as COO. Chambers is staying on as CEO. However, neither owns any shares under the new arrangement.

The two men financed the transaction themselves, at an undisclosed figure. They will be repaid by the company’s new owner, the Employee Stock Ownership Trust.

The ESOT plan is similar to a 401(k) retirement plan, Chambers said.

Associates need only work one hour a year in order to qualify for shares. They will be vested at 20 percent after two years.

The organizing committee used data from the National Center for Employee Ownership in crafting the plan. The structure is similar to that used by WinCo and Bi-Mart, both of which are also employee-owned.

Controller Tom Whitelaw said the committee made its offer in October, but it took several months to work out the details.

OVS was founded by the late Mark Benoit in Lafayette. Losing his battle with cancer, he recruited Chambers and Forseth to take over.

Under their direction, its annual sales grew from $3 million to $30 million in nine years and its customer base more than quadrupled.

They expanded the inventory to serve a broader agricultural community, started a vineyard management branch, acquired a retail store in Aurora, added a line of Kubota machinery and built their own custom fertilizer plant.

At the signing ceremony, Forseth said it was easy for him to get emotional.

“Clearly, the economic situation is not ideal,” he said. “I’m the oldest person in the room, and I’ve never seen anything like this. But we have a good model and it feels really, really good to do what we just did.”

The new ownership model has deep significance for Chambers.

“I’ve long thought that one of the world’s largest problems was the growing concentration of wealth in too few hands,” he said. “I’m no Communist. I’m a devout capitalist. But capitalistic excesses are punishing us today. The rich have been getting richer and the poor, poorer.

“The economic debacle we’re currently living through has highlighted this issue. I believe that employee ownership of businesses is one of the best ways to redistribute wealth.”

He went on to say, “There are no ridiculous senior management bonuses, fancy commodes or frivolous expenses at OVS.

“I’ve viewed OVS as a wonderful, living experiment in employee ownership. And now that ownership has reached its fulfillment.” ◊

Yvette Saarinen is the business editor at the News-Register in McMinnville.

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