Sam's Italian Foods is now employee-owned

·3 min read

Jul. 20—AUBURN — All 13 locations of Sam's Italian Foods in Maine are now employee-owned.

Former owner Richard Michaud sold the company in November 2021 to Teamshares, a New York-based, venture capital-backed company that buys small businesses from retiring owners and transitions them to employee-owned.

About 10% of workers in this country own a stake in their company, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Customers are not likely to notice much difference in how Sam's operates in the short term. In the long term, employee owners have improved attitudes and care more about the business, ultimately improving the bottom line, according to research conducted by the Employee Ownership Foundation. That hopefully means better service and happy customers.

The model being used by Teamshares is new in the industry, not the traditional Employee Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP, which was established by the federal government and is essentially a trust fund employees can buy into.

For employees at Sam's, the bottom line is they own 15% of the company out of the gate, less than six months into the transition. That will grow to 80% over the next 20 years, on par with Publix, the largest employee-owned company in the U.S.

Unlike an ESOP, Sam's employees don't have to buy shares in their company, they are granted shares valued at between $3,000 and $5,000. As the company grows and becomes more profitable, additional shares may be released. After four years, employees become fully vested and can cash out the shares, or hold them. Teamshares will also start issuing dividends to employees as the cash flow increases. Company President John Boyan hopes that will start in 2023.

"I was very thankful that he was transitioning us to an employee-owned company," Stephanie Law said of Michaud. She's worked at Sam's for 12 years and knows her co-workers well. She started making sandwiches in high school and has seen the ups and downs of the restaurant industry. She's now the director of administration for Sam's.

Two months ago, Sam's raised its minimum wage from $12.15 an hour to $14 an hour. New hires are already asking about employee ownership during the interview process, something Boyan and Law agree will take time to educate people about the intricacies of employee ownership.

Another first for the company is the roll-out of a portal that allows employee owners to check the company's financials at any time to see where the company stands, part of a plan to be more transparent.

The Freeport location has reopened nearly a year after closing as the result of COVID-19-related staffing issues, and coming soon — a new Sam's Italian food truck.

"I think we're turning a page, that we're on the right track to creating a better environment," Law said.

For the 72 to 74 full-time employee owners, the hope is also that reinvesting in the company will make for a more profitable future for all.