Brett Jones plans to arrange at least sixteen acquisitions over the next five years. He just closed on the first one.
Since they became widespread among private equity firms in the 1980s, acquisition strategies, including leveraged buyouts, have become a key part of the playbook leading to the demise of many iconic U.S. companies — including Toys ‘R Us, Sears, and PayLess. Those deals led to the losses of tens of thousands of jobs, and the ripple effects from the loss of a large retailer left some cities’ main streets struggling.
As is common with strategic acquisitions, Jones created a new legal entity, then he arranged for that entity to take out a loan, which it used to acquire a controlling stake in the target company. In this case, the target was Berry Insulation, a decade-old energy auditing and weatherization company serving the Cleveland metropolitan area, with 15 employees. In other strategic acquisitions, the cash infusion from the loans allowed the private equity firms to charge huge “management fees” to target companies, or pay out huge bonuses to executives whom they hand-picked, saddling the target companies with debts that ultimately bled them dry.
But in this case, the legal entity that Jones created is actually a cooperative owned by the target company’s existing workers. The cooperative’s loan came from The Fund for Employee Ownership. The fund is a subsidiary of Evergreen Business Services, where Jones leads a two-and-a-half-person team devoted to expanding worker-owned cooperatives. In addition to starting new cooperatives, Jones’ team is using acquisitions to convert existing businesses into worker-owned cooperatives. As an entire generation of baby boomer business owners reach retirement age, Evergreen hopes this strategy can become commonplace as a way to keep those businesses and jobs around.
For Jones, a Cleveland native who grew up to work in global logistics and later founded and sold several businesses, it feels like redemption. “I get to be who I’ve always been but do it in a different frame and context,” he says. “I still get to be entrepreneurial, I still get to cut deals, I still get to stack capital, create partnerships and alliances, I still get to do all of that jazz. But I could actually go to heaven if I keep this up.”
For Berry Insulation founder and CEO Marty Berry, it feels like he’s secured a legacy not only for himself, but for the whole team of employees that have really built the company together.