Jay, N.Y and Malone, N.Y. — The employees of Ward Lumber have purchased the 130-year-old business as a worker-owned cooperative. The transaction marks the first employee ownership transition of its kind in the North Country region of New York State.
The lumber products and hardware store, which has locations in Jay and Malone, N.Y. and employs more than 50 local people, has been in Jay Ward’s family for four generations. Ward, who will continue his leadership role as the company’s chief executive officer, completed a contract with his employee team that makes Ward Lumber the largest worker-owned cooperative in the region.
“Every business is going to go through a transition, whether that is by design or default,” said Ward. “Rather than choose liquidation or selling to some other business that would change the culture, I wanted to look at employee ownership.
“Employee ownership vests the control of the company in the hands of the people that work it every day, who live in the communities that we serve, and have that vested interest in ownership,” Ward said. “I really wanted to empower the employee team to make decisions on their behalf and for their benefit.”
Ward Pine Mill, the manufacturing division of the Ward Lumber family enterprise, is operated by Jay’s brother Jeff Ward. Ward Pine Mill became an independent business in 2017 and is not included in the employee ownership transaction.
“The main thing that’s changing is I’ll be reporting to a board of directors of our employee team,” Ward said, noting they have been working on the transition process for over three years. Ward will remain heavily involved operating the business for the foreseeable future.
Alex Pond, a board member who has been employed with the company for over six years, said, “This co-op is more than a change in ownership. It’s an opportunity to shape a future for Ward Lumber that is best for the business, our staff and the community. It’s an amazing way for people like me to help carry Ward Lumber into the next generation.”
Ward Lumber’s journey to employee ownership began in May 2018, when Jay met with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) at an event hosted by the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) at its Saranac Lake offices. The senator met with local business owners and economic development leaders to promote the Main Street Employee Ownership Act, which Ward says proved to be instrumental in the company’s ownership transition.
“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. “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. I applaud Jay Ward and the Ward Lumber team for securing their future through employee ownership, and ANCA for their good work supporting innovative economic development.”