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Authors Posts by Molly Oleson

Molly Oleson

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Photo courtesy of Natasha Kolenko.

This week in the Pacific Sun, our cover story, ‘Magical Arrangements,’ features the work of floral designer and stylist Natasha Kolenko. On top of that, we’ve got a story about the rise of the ESOP in the North Bay, a roundup of sweet & savory summer events, a review of Marin Theatre Company’s ‘The Legend of Georgia McBride’ and an interview with jam band The Rock Collection. All that and more on stands and online today!

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North Bay employee-owned companies on the rise

Armstrong Garden Centers, with locations in Marin, has been employee-owned since 1987.

By Tom Gogola and Kate Hoover

While the big news in the business pages of late is that Whole Foods Market is being purchased by independent-retailer-gobbling behemoth Amazon, another regional grocer, Oliver’s Market, is going in the opposite direction and focusing on local ownership—as in, employee ownership.

Oliver’s, Sonoma County’s largest independent grocer, just sold 43 percent of the company to its employees through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), granting a majority of its 1,000-plus employees the ability to collectively purchase this portion of the company.

With the move, the company joined the ranks of companies such as Armstrong Garden Centers, which has been employee-owned since 1987 and has also sided with workers over the monopoly racket undertaken by Amazon.

A 2015 report in the Mercury News noted that several companies in Marin, including the recently-expanded Armstrong Nurseries (which purchased Sunnyside Nursery that year), are employee-owned: Fairfax Hardware and Bank of Marin among them.

“The owners of the company decided not to have another corporate entity buy them out,” says San Anselmo Armstrong Garden Center manager Eugene Rougeau. “The concern in our industry is that knowledgeable gardeners and nurserymen are rare, and the fear is that in turning the company over to another entity would liquidate the employees.”

Armstrong Garden Centers has 30-plus outlets around the state, most of them in Southern California, and three in the Bay Area.

Corey Rosen is an Oakland-based expert on the ESOP phenomenon at the National Center for Employee Ownership, which he founded. He notes that there are good ESOPs and there are bad ESOPs, and highlights the failed employee-ownership attempt at United Airlines to empower its employees with buy-in on ownership of the company.

“There are companies that have done very poorly with it,” he says—and a key arbiter is whether a company, such as Oliver’s, can absorb the cost of creating an ESOP—which means that a company already has to be profitable going in, in order to make it work.

When the ESOP does work, Rosen says, it provides workers with additional layers of protections and security that non-ESOP employees simply don’t enjoy.

Rosen cites a recent data set that found millennials who are working for ESOP-participant companies have a median income 33 percent higher than those who aren’t. “Participating in ESOPs answers not just your retirement question, but your overall economic well-being,” Rosen says. “And they are much less—hugely less likely to get laid off.”

Rosen is among several people interviewed who gave Oliver’s high marks for its employee-focused move—especially in light of the Amazon purchase of Whole Foods, a move in the complete opposite direction of worker protection.

He notes that John Mackey (the Obamacare-hating owner of Whole Foods, aka “Whole Paychecks”) could have gone the ESOP route but chose not to.

Companies that do make this choice are not always motivated by the bottom line, says Rosen, and usually are already highly invested in workplace development and other pro-worker programs, including retirement plans.

“In companies where owners have a choice—and Oliver’s is a very good example of this—[company president Steve Maass] could have sold it to all kinds of people,” Rosen says. “Most of the time the ESOP will pay a competitive price, but he could have sold it for a lot more, and instead he said, ‘I have enough money and legacy matters to me.’”

Now Oliver’s has joined the regional club of ESOP businesses, and Maass says that he wanted to continue the legacy of the market and keep the stores independent.

“It’s a way of keeping a local business local,” Maass says. “It has created a lot of excitement with the employees and with the community.”

With the announcement of the stock ownership plan earlier this month, Oliver’s is now the largest employee-owned company in Sonoma County. More than 600 of its employees qualify to engage in the stock ownership plan.

The plan will provide employees with more than 10 years of service full vesting of their allocated shares immediately. All eligible employees that began working at the start of the year will be fully vested for three years.

Maass founded Oliver’s Market in Cotati in 1988 with a vision to create a store where customers truly enjoyed shopping for groceries. The store is now the largest supporter of products made and grown in Sonoma County, carrying products from more than 600 businesses in Sonoma County alone.

Maass credits the success of Oliver’s Market to the longtime managers, staff and employees who have played key roles in the company’s growth over the years.

“I certainly didn’t build the place myself,” Maass says. “Everybody here participated.”

Maass says his own future played a role in the decision to enact the stock ownership plan. “I’m 71 years old,” he says. “I was trying to figure out how to retire—sort of.”

Regional business and labor leaders praised the move by Maass.

Ben Stone, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, described the Oliver’s move as “very progressive and definitely a way to reach out to the employees and let them be involved in new ways as owners of the company,” as he cited a couple of other ESOP-inclusive businesses in the area, including the muffler movers at Flowmaster.

North Bay labor activist Marty Bennett echoed Stone’s enthusiasm—but with a caveat.

“It can only be good news from labor’s perspective,” Bennett says.

Yet Bennett says he has heard from younger employees at Oliver’s about some issues around uncertainty in scheduling—“they don’t know the schedule until a week before”—and the starting pay is $13 an hour. Bennett’s a huge champion of the Fight for $15 across the North Bay.

“They are better employers than many retailers,” he says, “but I do not want to say that they have the highest possible labor standards.”

Meanwhile, Armstrong Garden Centers recently expanded its ESOP community with a joint venture with a nursery in Georgia that’s also an ESOP, Pike Nurseries. The company’s growth, says Rougeau, is directly linked to its employee-first mandate.

“Like all the companies in 2008, we suffered,” he says, referencing the Bush-era Great Recession. “The management team that was here cut their personal wages to keep the company solvent. We all want to see the company build.”

P.S.: They’re hiring.

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This week in the Pacific Sun, our Eco-Living issue cover story, ‘High Standards,’ profiles Sausalito-based Safe Catch, a company that tests every fish for mercury. On top of that, we’ve got a piece on Kuhn Rikon, a kitchen supply store based in Novato, a story about where to find fellow seed-lovers online, a review of ‘The Roommate’ at the San Francisco Playhouse and an interview with the band Luvplanet. All that and more on stands and online today!

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This week in the Pacific Sun, our cover story, ‘United by Strength,’ explores a group of LGBTQ+ activists speaking out about the current presidential administration. On top of that, we’ve got a story on North Bay mascot Clo disappearing, an interview with Componere, a fine catering company that sources food from a Novato farm, a Spotlight on Novato that features homeware and clothing design company Norwegian Wood, a review of Berkeley Rep’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ and a story about the Mountain Play Association’s upcoming celebration of the Summer of Love’s 50th anniversary. All that and more on stands and online today!

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'Fractured Flag' painting by Patrick Gannon.

This week in the Pacific Sun, our cover story, ‘Positive Action,’ explores resistance art in the era of Trump. On top of that, we’ve got a piece on the beached whale in Bolinas, a story about Marin’s new Surf ‘n Turf Shack, a review of Ross Valley Players’ ‘Private Lives’ and an interview with new-wave band Merchandise. All that and more on stands and online today! 

An interview with post-punks Merchandise

Touring new-wave band Merchandise stops in the Bay Area this week for shows in Santa Rosa and San Francisco.

By Charlie Swanson

Florida’s premiere new-wave misanthropes Merchandise make the most of their post-punk sound on the band’s latest album, A Corpse Wired for Sound. Shimmering guitars, dour vocals, electronic drum beats and a psychedelic synthesizer all combine for a sound that melts expectations and swirls with seductive sonic intensity. Currently touring the U.S. with Brooklyn rockers B Boys, Merchandise’s Dave Vassalotti (guitar, electronics) talks about the band’s roots and style.

Charlie Swanson: You guys formed in Tampa. What’s the scene there like and how do you fit in?

Dave Vassalotti: Tampa has a strong history of what I guess could be called ‘extreme music’ (death metal, thrash, punk, hardcore). That’s the stuff we all grew up on and what got us into playing in bands. As time passes, I personally feel more disconnected from any sort of scene. I’m on the fringes these days. Most people think we’re a British band anyway.

C.S.: You’ve been through several lineup and style changes since forming in 2008—how did you approach the new album?

D.V.: We tried the ‘full band’ thing for the previous LP (After the End) and, while it did work well in some aspects, it wasn’t as natural for us as we had expected. The new LP was cut in a similar fashion to how we did the old records; just lots of work on building the songs in the studio with little regard for how to play them live. Less cooks in the kitchen.

C.S.: Do you guys feel locked in sonically now? Or does the band continue to experiment?

D.V.: We’ve always tried to fight being locked into any particular sound, but it can be hard. We still have a lot of the new-wave/“Y’all sound like the Smiths” thing going on even though we try actively to avoid it. We want to move away from ‘songs’ in the traditional sense, but not in a knee-jerk reactionary way. It should all come from a natural development and evolution. We’re taking things slow.

Merchandise, Monday, June 5, Arlene Francis Center (99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa; 7pm; $10-$12; 707/528-3009); Tuesday, June 6, Swedish American Hall, (2174 Market St., San Francisco; 7pm; $13-$15; 415/375-3370).

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Photo of Italian Street Painting Marin painter "Momo Cha" by Molly Oleson.

This week in the Pacific Sun, our cover story, ‘Season of Fun,’ is our 2017 Hot Summer Guide. It contains North Bay events from now until September, so start marking up your calendar! On top of that, we’ve got a roundup of summer food happenings, an interview with Ali Afshar on the film ‘American Wrestler: The Wizard,’ a review of Mountain Play’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ a piece on multi-instrumentalist David Lindley and a review of ‘Long Strange Trip,’ a film about the Grateful Dead, showing for one night only at the Rafael. All that and more on stands and online today!

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Photo of Michael Tusk by Aya Bracket.

This week in the Pacific Sun, our cover story, ‘Model Partnership’ takes a look at how chef Michael Tusk and Fresh Run Farm’s Peter Martinelli are working together to redefine the notion of farm-to-table dining. On top of that, we’ve got a piece on an ICE sweep that has a San Rafael resident detained, a lineup of foodie events at the annual BottleRock fest, an interview with Marin Outdoor Adventure, a review of ‘Guards at the Taj’ and a piece on singer/songwriter Leslie Mendelson. All that and more on stands and online today!

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Photo courtesy of Cristina Rose-Guizar.

This week in the Pacific Sun, our cover story, ‘Simple Pleasures,’ profiles San Rafael-based textile artist Cristina Rose-Guizar. On top of that, we’ve got news about Marin General Hospital being under fire, a story about what to make with spinach, a piece on Marin’s inaugural DocLands Documentary Film Festival, a review of A.C.T.’s ‘Battlefield’ and an interview with blues guitarist John Maxwell. All that and more on stands and online today!

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This week in the Pacific Sun, our Home & Garden cover story, ‘Natural World,’ profiles the Fairfax Backyard Farmer, where everyone is encouraged to return to their roots. On top of that, we’ve got news on cannabis and watersheds, a piece about Fisher’s Cheese and Wine coming to Larkspur, a review of the production ‘Temple’ and an interview with Andy Pohl about a Fugazi tribute album. And check it out: This week, beginning with San Rafael, we launch a new monthly Town Spotlight section, in which we’ll be highlighting different towns of Marin. All that and more on stands and online today!

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