A one-woman gardening business in upstate New York has blossomed into a major enterprise since 2001. Now, with the help of Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), that business is sharing its prosperity and becoming all the more successful through employee ownership. The Rosendale, New York, based Earth Designs Cooperative mapped out a unique process to convert from a traditional business to a worker cooperative earlier this year.
When traditional businesses decide to go co-op, it’s often during a time of transition for the company. Typically, a retiring owner, grateful for their employees’ years of service, wants to reward their workers and ensure that the business is looked after by those who know best how to run it. Aja Hudson, the sole proprietor of Earth Designs, however, wasn’t interested in retiring. Instead, she looked forward to caring for her flourishing business. The company’s growth had been so rapid—in the double digits every year—that she knew it was untenable to continue managing it alone.
“Earth Designs has been hugely successful, and they will continue to be,” comments Rob Brown, Cooperative Development Specialist and the Director of CDI’s Business Ownership Solutions program. Brown worked with Earth Designs for nearly a year to complete their conversion to a worker co-op. “Their success is what inspired the owner. Rather than transitioning out of the company, she knew that the best way to plan for growth was to share ownership.”
Earth Designs contacted CDI and decided to begin work on the conversion together early in 2015. The 10-month process began with a meeting with the prospective new owners to go over the process and what the transition would involve. Earth Designs and CDI formed a steering committee of current and new owners to shoulder the work of planning, writing new bylaws, analyzing the business, and learning how to operate as a cooperative. By early December, their findings were ready to present to the full company, and Earth Designs decided to move forward with the conversion. The group brought in Cooperative Fund of New England to fund the transition, and by April, 2016, the ink was dry on the deal.
Impressively, the deal had been managed mostly remotely, with CDI operating in Maine and Earth Designs in New York. The transition of ownership had been negotiated almost entirely by Skype. CDI continues to support Earth Designs by attending board meetings and offering input in the same manner.
Today, Hudson joins her fellow worker-owners on a management team where they share both duties and ownership. Earth Designs Cooperative employs over 15 people, many of whom are seasonal workers and do not yet have an ownership stake, but with ongoing support from CDI, Brown senses that is likely to change. Earth Designs is committed to promoting social change by offering financial equity and promoting social and environmental concerns among their employees. Between their commitment and growing success, shared prosperity seems increasingly likely.