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Lots of people probably wouldn't mind the kind of week that workers at Chobani have had. On Tuesday, they got some big news. They were told they could eventually own about 10 percent of the rapidly expanding Greek yogurt empire. If the company ever goes public or is sold, some workers could become millionaires. It's a grand gesture, and as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, employee ownership is increasing.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Chobani's meteoric rise began in the defunct, old Kraft yogurt manufacturing plant in upstate New York. Founder Hamdi Ulukaya's only experience in the dairy business was that his mother made delicious strained yogurt in his hometown in Turkey.
Now only a decade later, the company has reached a billion dollars in annual sales. It has two factories, 2,000 employees and is worth an estimated $3 billion. Ulukaya, still Chobani's majority owner, told employees on Monday to think of the grants as a pledge to expand the company even more.
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HAMDI ULUKAYA: We used to work together. Now we are partners.
NOGUCHI: Ulukaya is outspoken about corporate civic duty. Ten percent of Chobani's profits go to charity. A third of its workforce is made up of refugees, and an employee ownership grant was always part of Ulukaya's dream plan. Still, his announcement came as a surprise to almost all employees.
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ULUKAYA: We built something. Now we are sharing it.
NOGUCHI: Employee stock ownership is not all that unusual, especially among technology firms, food companies like Starbucks and Whole Foods offer stock grants.
Corey Rosen of the National Center for Employee Ownership says employee ownership takes many different forms. And in a growing number of companies, workers own the firms outright. Dairy company Schreiber Foods, for example, is larger than Chobani, and 100 percent employee-owned through an employee stock ownership plan or ESOP.
Rosen says such plans allow employees to own, control and share in the profits of a company through a trust. Their popularity is increasing, he says, in part because they enjoy large tax benefits and because retiring baby boomers who own companies see it as a good way to transfer ownership. He estimates nearly a tenth of American workers are part of an ESOP.
COREY ROSEN: This has kind of been an under-the-radar change in the American economy that's really very significant.
NOGUCHI: He says when employee ownership is distributed throughout the rank and file, whether through an ESOP or a stock grant program, it has powerful impact on worker culture. Rosen claims company performance improves after they start employee ownership programs, and workers build wealth much, much faster.
ROSEN: We hear all this discussion these days about economic inequality, and the wage system is really not going to solve that problem very well. Even if you raise the minimum wage, it's only going to affect a small minority of the workforce.
NOGUCHI: Michael Gonda is a Chobani spokesman and longtime employee. He says granting everyone a piece of Chobani was important to Hamdi Ulukaya.
MICHAEL GONDA: One of the hardest things to do for a program like this is when you have 2,000 employees that you want to participate in it, is figuring out that allocation. Obviously time and role at the company have a huge part to play, but this is a very personal part of the process for Hamdi. And he spent a lot of time going through that.
NOGUCHI: Gonda says there was a lot of hugging and crying at the announcement ceremony.
GONDA: There's a very emotional bond and an emotional connection that you don't typically associate with a manufacturing facility or a yogurt plant.
NOGUCHI: And now that bond includes a joint financial stake in the future performance of the company. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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