Vermont-based Chelsea Green Publishing is now fully employee-owned, marking the completion of an eight-year transition initiated by founders Margo and Ian Baldwin. Through an employee stock-ownership plan (ESOP), the company purchased ownership shares from the Baldwins on behalf of the 25 employees who are now the owners of the independent publishing house.
“We have always believed that good publishing can really only operate on a human scale,” said CEO Margo Baldwin. “It is a publishing house, after all, that demands household values of mutual care and responsibility.”
The company began the transition to employee ownership in 2011. A year later, all pre-existing investors in the company were paid for their ownership stakes. Through the ESOP, the company was then purchased from the Baldwins on behalf of the employees. Employees who stay for six years are fully invested in the ESOP and when they retire, they receive payouts for their shares beginning five years after their retirement. Baldwin described the plan as, “a tax advantaged way of transferring ownership that has a lot of benefits for employees as a significant retirement benefit as well as for selling owners.”
Production director Patricia Stone has been with Chelsea Green for 10 years and said the program addressed a core concern about the longevity of the company. “What would have happened otherwise if Margo and Ian didn’t want to continue running the company and wanted to sell their stocks? The other option would have been to sell the company to someone else and that wouldn’t have been my first choice,” Stone said.
Instead, Stone said the ESOP supports employees’ efforts to invest in training one another in ways that can sustain the company over time. “I want to make sure that the people working in my department understand what’s going on and are learning the skills so that when I go to retire they can take over and run it as efficiently as it’s being run now,” Stone said.
Chelsea Green has long been a leader in books on the environment, local organic food production, and politics. The company has had success with an array of titles including George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, and Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation. While sales remained even in 2018 compared to 2017, Baldwin said the press has seen strong gains on its health and audiobook lines. The publisher also recently garnered critical acclaim for Ben Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, which received the 2019 PEN America E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.
Along with the ESOP program, the company has also pursued an ambitious set of public-facing and in-house initiatives over the last three years, including expanding operations in the U.K., launching a new website, partnering with a local university on publication-related education, and jettisoning in-house fulfillment and distribution for a partnership with Books International in Sterling, Va.
With all that is underway, Baldwin said she has no plans to step back anytime soon, but, she said she is “thrilled to take this last step of selling our stake in Chelsea Green … to the employees who work here and will work here in the future.”