Web Industries, a material-converting and manufacturing company, was started by Robert Fulton in 1969. In 1985 Fulton began offering stock to the employees, and in 2000 the company became 100 percent employee-owned. Josh Chernin, the Vice President of European Operations, says that Fulton felt that though he had started the company, the employees had built it. Consequently, he wanted them to have ownership in something they had contributed so much to. Chernin says that the company’s goal now is to be a good corporate citizen and carry on Fulton’s ownership philosophy. Its application is seen notably in Web Industries’ goal to educate its employees in financial literacy and in understanding their ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) and company financials.
The company provides several courses on personal financial management for all of its employees. There are ten classes available on topics ranging from personal budgeting to mutual funds. The theory behind promoting financial literacy to employees, both personally and on a company level, is that people ask better questions about the company’s financial decisions when they are well-educated about financial matters.. Employees understand why the company may or may not choose to invest in a new technology, for example, based on the return on investment. It helps employees understand why some of their ideas might be rejected even if they are fairly good ones. But more than that, Web Industries shares its financial information with its employees. For example, employees know when the company is over or under budget.
The push for financial literacy and gaining a better understanding of the ESOP and company finances began in the early 1990s. It didn’t begin as a grand plan, but Chernin says it’s become one now and Chernin actually presents financial literacy workshops himself. These workshops are specific to each plant and are given three to four times at one plant to accommodate different shifts.
Recently, he presented the workshop “What is Equity?” at Web Industries’ plant in Germany. He constructed two scenarios of starting a business and going to the bank for an auto loan on a company van. In one scenario, the business goes bust and the bank ends up with the van, but in the other scenario, the company makes millions of dollars so the bank only gets interest. Examples like this help employees to understand what it means to be an owner rather than a creditor, and the relationship between risk and reward. In turn, employees appreciate their own ownership in the company and are enabled to make better decisions.
While there are a few other employee financial literacy programs in the United States, they are almost unheard of in Europe. When the plant in Germany started four years ago, the new German employees were almost incredulous when told that Web Industries gave employees ownership; it was especially remarkable to some employees who had grown up in East Germany. But since the plant’s beginning, there has been an enormous amount of education, borrowing from the program for U.S. plants. A mirror plan was developed since German employees can’t participate in the ESOP, and overall, it has been a great experience for all involved.
Web Industries’ efforts to promote financial literacy among their employees have shown over many years to have distinct and measurable results. But, most important may be the attitude that it promotes. Employees are more empowered not only in their current work, but in their personal lives as well. If these types of programs became more widespread in the United States, there could be a marked difference in financial decision-making. And while the benefit may not be seen immediately, there could be a trickle-down effect that increases economic health for many employees. Web Industries’ greatest investment seems to be in their workers: the return on that investment seems to be apparent in their continued growth and success.
TO DO MORE to set up a financial wellness program at your company, contact the Personal Finance Employee Education Fund (PFEEF) for questions and guidance in the process:ACT NOW