Ward Lumber completes historic transition to employee ownership

April, 2021

JAY | In what could become a model for the North Country or even the nation, employees at Ward Lumber Co. in Jay and Malone have purchased the company, which had been family-owned since 1890.

The transition, which was facilitated under the federal 2018 Main Street Employee Ownership Act, comes as an increasing number of company owners seek to step back from daily operations, while simultaneously protecting their legacy. But the move is also seen as empowering workers and, perhaps, as a fundamental shift in the corporate power structure. It was something company owner Jay Ward had been thinking about for a long time, from a lot of different angles.

“I first thought about this 25 years ago, but was told it couldn’t be done,” said Ward, fourth-generation owner of the lumber and hardware company, which has about 50 employees. “I wanted to transition ownership and keep Ward Lumber operating into the future, but I didn’t have any idea how to make that happen.”

Ward will remain with the restructured company as chief executive officer.

The typical options for owners have been either liquidation or sale to a new owner who may not share the departing family’s values. “And when that business goes away, it’s probably not going to be replaced,” Ward said.

An alternative is for the employees to effectively buy out the owner — in this case with the help of a state grant — sharing in profits and responsibilities and keeping the store open for the benefit of the community. Ward said this is a satisfactory outcome, both financially and philosophically.

“It’s a lot of the 1% that runs the world,” he said. “This is my pushback for the democratization of business.”

The path forward began in May 2018, when Ward met with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) at an event hosted by the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) at its Saranac Lake offices. According to ANCA, the senator met with local business owners and economic development leaders to promote the Main Street Employee Ownership Act, which was designed to improve access to capital and supply technical assistance to businesses interested in employee ownership.

“Ward Lumber’s successful transition is a great example of how we envisioned the Main Street Employee Ownership Act would work for businesses across the nation," Gillibrand said in a statement. "Cooperative ownership models improve business productivity, increase wages and boost employee retirement savings. All this while creating greater stability and resilience for businesses, workers and local communities.”

Read the full article in the Sun Community News