Ward Lumber transitions ownership
Worker-owned cooperative is first of its kind in the region
JAY — The employees of Ward Lumber have made history by purchasing the 130-year-old business as a worker-owned cooperative. The transaction marks the first employee ownership transition of its kind in the North Country region of New York state.
The lumber products and hardware store, which has locations in Jay and Malone and employs more than 50 local people, has been in Jay Ward’s family for four generations. Ward, who will continue his leadership role as the company’s chief executive officer, completed a contract with his employee team that makes Ward Lumber the largest worker-owned cooperative in the region.
“Every business is going to go through a transition, whether that is by design or default,” said Ward. “Rather than choose liquidation or selling to some other business that would change the culture, I wanted to look at employee ownership.
“Employee ownership vests the control of the company in the hands of the people that work it every day, who live in the communities that we serve, and have that vested interest in ownership,” Ward said. “I really wanted to empower the employee team to make decisions on their behalf and for their benefit.”
Ward Lumber has been in business since 1890 in the AuSable River valley of the Adirondack Mountains.
Ward Pine Mill, the manufacturing division of the Ward Lumber family enterprise, is operated by Jay’s brother Jeff Ward. Ward Pine Mill became an independent business in 2017 and is not included in the employee ownership transaction.
“The main thing that’s changing is I’ll be reporting to a board of directors of our employee team,” Jay Ward said, noting they have been working on the transition process for more than three years. Ward will remain heavily involved operating the business for the foreseeable future.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place at both the Jay and Malone stores and virtually via Facebook Live in June, at a date and time to be determined.
Ward Lumber’s journey to employee ownership began in May 2018, when Jay Ward met with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., at an event hosted by the Adirondack North Country Association at its Saranac Lake offices. The senator met with local business owners and economic development leaders to promote the Main Street Employee Ownership Act, which proved to be instrumental in Ward Lumber’s ownership transition. The federal legislation, designed to improve access to capital and supply technical assistance to businesses interested in employee ownership, was championed by Gillibrand and passed with bipartisan support in 2018.
“Ward Lumber’s successful transition is a great example of how we envisioned the Main Street Employee Ownership Act would work for businesses across the nation,” Gillibrand said. “Cooperative ownership models improve business productivity, increase wages and boost employee retirement savings. All this while creating greater stability and resilience for businesses, workers and local communities. I applaud Jay Ward and the Ward Lumber team for securing their future through employee ownership, and ANCA for their good work supporting innovative economic development.”
“We believe that a diversity of business ownership models strengthens our regional economy and expands opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs — particularly as we face tens of thousands of business closures across the region due to retirement,” ANCA Executive Director Kate Fish said.
“In New York state alone, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 3,700 businesses closed each year due to owner retirement, leading to a loss of 13,260 jobs annually,” ANCA said in a press release. “Surveys indicate 79% of business owners want to retire in the next 10 years, 57% in less than five years and 33% in less than three years. Fewer than one in five owners have a credible succession plan, and most do not understand business transition options or processes.”
To help address this, ANCA started the North Country Center for Businesses in Transition in 2018. CBIT has representation from 12 economic development organizations in northern New York whose partnership connects businesses with resources and experts focused on cooperative ownership and other succession strategies.