Correction: Steve Maass's name was misspelled as "Maas." The correct spelling is "Maass."

Being employee-owned means closer ties to local communities

Groceries with a purpose

GROCERIES WITH PURPOSE — Steve Maass, original owner and founder (left) and Eric Meuse, general manager lead Oliver’s Market’s 1,100 employees through a diverse “social purpose” mission as a unique employee-owned corporation that rewards longtime employees, supports local farmers and producers, reduces environmental impacts and makes contributions to local community groups. A first annual Social Purpose Report was just released. 

Oliver’s Market came to Windsor in 2016 and has been making all kinds of contributions and changes to the community ever since. Now there is an official report about those impacts — and many of them go well beyond just food and groceries. As an independent and employee-owned company, Oliver’s Market is also incorporated as a Social Purpose Corporation (SPC). Its bylaws allow it to make business decisions about customers, employees, vendors and the community ahead of pure profit motives.

This month, Oliver’s released its first annual SPC report that lists its activities and achievements toward community support, environmental consciousness, promoting shopping locally with Sonoma County farmers and food producers and providing quality customer service and education. The report is 14 pages and is available online at Oliver’s website.

Founder Steve Maass summarized the focus of the report in a single sentence: “We want to provide a comfortable store for customers to shop for their food needs and we want to be a company where our employees are happy to work.”

That may sound like a simple goal, but nothing is really simple in the highly competitive and slim-margined grocery industry where independent stores like Oliver’s are being threatened by larger and larger corporate giants, led by Amazon’s Whole Foods.

Maass opened his first store in 1988 in Cotati and he is now 73. The Windsor store became the fourth location and soon after its debut, Maass began looking for a new business model to preserve the independence and local focus of his stores.

“I didn’t want to sell to the big boys, even though it would have been to my financial advantage. But I don’t need the money, really, so I looked to all our employees that had helped build Oliver’s over many years,” he said.

So in March 2017, Maass announced the formation of a Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) where he transferred 43% of his corporate stock to his longest serving employees. Today, all Oliver’s employees with three or more years of service become employee-owners and share in annual profits and dividends. The employees will gradually buy out Maass over coming years.

Eric Meuse has been with Oliver’s 30 years and is now the general manager of operations. He is also the chief trustee of the new ESOP and leads a large contingent of new owners. “It’s a change of mindset,” he said, referring to converting from an employee to part owner. “We have a communications committee and we are doing constant education to better serve our customers and improve the shopping environment and experience.”

At the Windsor Oliver’s there are large photos of many faces on the walls and displays. They depict proud employee-owners and also many local suppliers like Kozlowski Farms, Lagunitas Brewery, Clover Sonoma, Traditional Medicinals, Willie Bird Turkeys, Costeaux French Bakery and dozens more. Oliver’s definition of what is local is Sonoma County. “We all benefit from the additional employment and tax revenue supporting our city and county infrastructure that is generated by choosing to shop locally whenever possible,” the SPC report summarizes.

Beyond the walls of the store, Oliver’s seeks to benefit Windsor and other communities with direct action and financial support. Its e-scrip Community Card generated $60,000 in contributions last year to such nonprofits as the Humane Society, Redwood Empire Food Bank, Windsor Education Foundation, Cali Calmecac Language Academy and others. Oliver’s employees are encouraged to volunteer in the community for creek clean-ups, food bank distributions, and volunteering at the Humane Society animal shelters.

Annie Sherman serves as the on-staff Sustainability Coordinator. The stores routinely upgrade their equipment to be more energy efficient. Single-use plastic bags are being reduced to as limited use as possible with other packaging being as recyclable and reusable as possible.

“We keep trying different things,” said Meuse. “Annie really works us on this.” Oliver’s has devoted recycling programs for wine corks, packaging “peanuts,” ice packs, pallet wrapping, produce scraps, cooking grease and e-waste. The programs are open for customer participation as well.

While outlining the changing challenges in the global grocery industry, both Maass and Meuse say they are optimistic about the future of Oliver’s and other Sonoma County-based independent stores. 

“Obviously, we have a lot of foodies here and customers who appreciate quality and understand why it sometimes costs a little extra,” said Meuse. “We’re in wine country and we think we have a good future.”

The two men did remark on one current drawback for all local businesses. “It’s getting too expensive to live here,” said Maass who remembers building his first house for just over $30,000. “We have to work on that and it is something that is important to all of our employees — and future employees.”

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