What began as an annual employee summit turned into an emotional gathering culminating with bottles of beers being cracked open. The latter was encouraged by the owners, and with good reason.

Great Lakes Brewing Co. owners Pat and Dan Conway and CEO Bill Boor saved the biggest news for the end of the off-site meeting Monday, when they told employees that the company would begin an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. The executive trio used a bit of theatrics to announce the deal. Each year at the summit – the private company’s internal annual meeting held since 2010 – several awards are given. The big one is The Conway Award. The founding brothers choose who receives it.

Workers waited to learn the award recipient and were given a surprise instead. “There’s not one winner; everyone’s a winner. So get in line to pick up your prize,” Dan Conway said. Workers were directed to a bar lined with bottles of Extra Special Opportunity Pils. At first, they said, employees were stunned. Then the fog lifted. “It was hugely emotional,” Pat Conway said. Tears and hugs followed, as details of the retirement plan sunk in. Most of the company’s 250 workers attended the meeting while the Ohio City brewpub closed for the day.

The ESOP announcement comes as the brewery is marking 30 years in business as the first craft brewery in Ohio. Dan Conway said it doesn’t matter what a person does at the brewery – brand ambassador, tour guides, dishwasher or brewer – everyone can benefit. “We’re not selling shares; we’re contributing,” he said. Boor added: “The effect of this is every employee is a shareholder.”

Eligibility is regardless of hours worked, wages earned or time spent at the company, they said. A percentage of income goes to the pension-like account. The company pays for the stock. And a sense of ownership keeps people focused on the overall goals, Boor said. “More than a sense,” Dan said. “Our advisor said ‘Don’t be surprised if it’s just silence,” Pat Conway about the reaction they would receive.

That adviser – Cathy Ivancic of Workplace Development Inc. – acted as a consultant to guide the company on the ESOP’s launch. The majority of companies that use ESOPs are – like Great Lakes – private, she said. “It’s meant to be wealth in retirement,” she said. “It’s a real wealth-building opportunity.”

The two types of ESOPs, she said, are leveraged and non-leveraged – the latter is better described as contribution-based and is what Great Lakes is using. With leveraged ESOPs, companies take a loan to fund the plan. That’s not what the brewery is doing.

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