n-Link, Employee-Owned High Tech Firm Success Story­

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by RENEE PATRICK Cascade Business News Feature Writer

Local information technology and engineering services firm, n-Link, has successfully operated as an employee owned corporation for 12 years, becoming 100 percent employee owned within the last two years. Founded in 1995 by Sandra Green, n-Link has built a reputation based upon their decentralized structure which has enabled them to create a company of resourceful innovators empowered by a real stake in company performance.

Green started n-Link with employee ownership in mind. Having worked in several research firms in Washington D.C. prior to starting the company, trends became clear to her about what worked and what didn’t work within the different structures of
those businesses.

“Some of the dysfunctional management and leadership styles I observed were my catalysts to do things the right way,” Green explained. “That was when I realized if I ever had a company, I was going to do everything I could to dedicate the company to enhance the goals of the employees. The company would in turn benefit. I’d have the employees drive their desire and commitment. When the company I worked for decided to renege on a stock agreement after performance objectives were achieved, that was the defining moment when I realized the time had come to start my own company.”   

From the outset, Green wasn’t sure exactly what employee ownership entailed or how to go about it, but she knew it would be the foundation of the business. She felt that if n-Link could empower the employees to think like owners that the company would grow. Green was directed towards the annual employee ownership conference hosted by the Beyster Institute and the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO). Through attending the conferences annually with her management team, n-Link was able to take the first steps to creating the business which now employs about 150 people in 25 states.

NCEO, a nonprofit organization established in 1981, provides objective information on employee ownership. According to NCEO, “Employee ownership can transform a company, improving performance and accelerating growth. It can create a sustained competitive advantage, driving business success that builds wealth for founders, investors and employee-shareholders alike.”

The Beyster Institute is focused on education, research and consultation of employee ownership. Their years of research conclude, “Success with a strategy of employee ownership springs from three critical factors: an ownership program must provide a level of ownership with significant potential results for its employees; it must build a company culture in which employee-owners feel, think and behave like owners; and employee-owners must be well-informed of the company’s operations and their role in the company’s success.”

Green and her management team began pursuing the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) in 1999 with the help of NCEO and the Beyster Institute, but the transition wasn’t without a few glitches. Learning from the experience, she suggests creating a team where each ESOP advisor knows each other and can work together when problems arise as there can be quite a few people involved in the process over time.

Recently, Green decided to create a corporate advisory board in order to give the employees a representative voice as well as work with outside professionals knowledgeable with ESOPs. The advisory board is envisioned to become the n-Link board of directors which will consist of two employee-owner directors and four external directors. The hope is to bring professionals aboard that have extensive experience with employee ownership; Green believes that keeping the culture of the ESOP intact, especially in a board of directors, is essential to the health and integrity of the company.

For those interested in transitioning a company to employee-ownership, Green advises to get involved early with organizations like NCEO and the Beyster Institute. Talk to other businesses that have gone through the process. Do research. And most importantly, don’t be afraid of the process. “The only thing to fear is if you bring in people who don’t understand employee ownership at the board level. You are not giving up control. The ESOP is a trust that will take care of the considerations of the employees. Let go of the fear because the employees will rise to the occasion. The structure itself allows for a proper progression of letting the employees think like owners,” said Green.

What n-Link has been able to achieve with this management structure is seen in their flexibility and ability to adapt to their customer’s needs. The company continues to win bids for large technology engineering projects for clients such as the Army, USDA, Forest Service, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies. Their expertise involves enterprise architecture, cloud computing, program management, security solutions, software development and methodology and network systems engineering integration and assistance.

Franklin Crossing, Suite 308, 550 NW Franklin Ave, Bend OR 97701, 541-617-0011, www.nlink.net, hr@n-link.net.

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Renee is the Art Director for Cascade Publications, and Editor for Cascade A&E Magazine.

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