Employees purchase Ward Lumber

Ward Lumber converted its Malone and Jay businesses to an employee-owned cooperative. Pictured is the store location on Route 11 in Malone. Vin Gallo/Malone Telegram

MALONE — After more than 100 years of services, Ward Lumber is changing up its style — while bringing in a first for business in the North Country.

The hardware and business supplier’s employees have purchased the 130-year-old business — ringing in its new status as a worker-owned cooperative operation.

The lumber products provider is located in both Jay and Malone, while employing more than 50 local residents. The hardware store has been in the Ward family for four generations.

Jay Ward was the previous owner, while serving as the president/CEO of the company. After the employees formed a workers cooperative cooperation, Ward sold it to the entity, Business Ownership Solutions Director Rob Brown said Friday.

Ward will continue work as the company’s chief executive officer “for several more years.” He will report to an employee board of directors of our employee team, according to a press release, and sees himself remaining “heavily involved (in) operating the business for the foreseeable future.” Company officials added, the transaction with employees has been over three years in the making.

“...instead of owning (the company) and working for himself, now the employees own it and he works for them,” Brown said of Ward.

The employees can now elect the company’s board of directors, while also approving the annual budget. Over the next couple of years, Ward Lumber will be developing a management transition plan, Brown added.

“Jay wants to retire ... at some point in the near future,” Brown said. “So, that is going to be ongoing ... nobody’s particular job is changing on a day-to-day basis, right this minute.”

The Wards’ recent contract agreement with their employees 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,” Ward said in a prepared statement. “Rather than choose liquidation or selling to some other business that would change the culture, I wanted to look at employee ownership.

“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 enterprise, is operated by Jeff Ward, Jay’s brother. The mill became an independent business in 2017. It is not a part of the employee ownership transaction.

Ward Lumber officials said they believe the step toward employee ownership is an opportunity to “shape a future for Ward Lumber that is best for the business, our staff and the community.”

The path toward employee ownership began for Ward Lumber in May 2018, officials said.

Company executives at the time, met with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., at the Adirondack North Country Association’s Saranac Lake offices. There, Gillibrand spoke with local business owners and economic development leaders, in order to promote the Main Street Employee Ownership Act.

The federal legislation is designed to improve accessibility to capital and supply technical assistance, for businesses looking toward giving employees ownership.

Ward Lumber officials said they see the transition into worker ownership a way to maintain above average retention rates of talent, navigate more easily through economic stressors and keep wealth in local communities, during a time altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As New York’s North Country contends with these odds, its rural communities face widespread business closures and job losses that would have detrimental impacts on the regional economy,” company officials said in a prepared statement. “Employee ownership models such as worker cooperatives offer a viable solution that can help sustain businesses and jobs”.

A ribbon cutting ceremony is planned to take place at the company’s Jay and Malone stores, which can be streamed virtually through Facebook Live. A time and date will be determined in June.

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