With everyone spending more time at home due to the novel coronavirus, the demand for baking ingredients is surging. People are looking to fill time, experiment with recipes, and provide nourishment for their families.
While the increased demand could put some workers at risk, one flour company is finding a way to balance production needs with worker safety. When businesses began shifting operations to adjust to social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders, King Arthur Flour engaged its employee-owners to make operational decisions. The company’s commitment to its employees is deeply embedded in its structure — King Arthur is 100% employee-owned and also a Certified B Corporation, having passed a rigorous assessment of its social and environmental performance verified by the independent nonprofit B Lab.
“At the core of all of this is that we have an employee-owner culture and employee ownership means a lot,” co-CEO Ralph Carlton said. “We hope it means a lot to everyone. We do believe that it means a lot to everyone, that people come to work thinking like an owner, asking questions like an owner, and behaving like an owner. And that’s an important part of being a B Corp. They overlap each other, but the ownership piece is just a very powerful motivator.”
King Arthur Flour’s, focus on employee engagement and collaboration is especially important now as the decisions made by the company affect workers’ financial and physical wellbeing in more apparent ways than ever.
As part of my research of B Corps for my upcoming book, Better Business, I recently interviewed Carlton and Karen Colberg, co-CEO, to discuss how the company has adapted, how employee-ownership was a factor, and how the leadership structure of the company affects decision making.
How has King Arthur Flour approached adapting to the coronavirus while keeping employees involved and safe?
Ralph Carlton: The virus has had a different impact on different parts of our business. Some parts of our business are actually way more active than usual. Consumers are baking, so there’s tremendous demand for flour. On the other extreme, we have our large retail operation, and while it continues to operate on a phone and carry-out basis, it’s down quite substantially. That’s the general overview.
We have put in place a variety of policies. First, we have allowed at risk employees not to come to work, following CDC guidelines. That’s been one of our highest priorities. Also, everyone who can work from home is working from home. For those who have to come to work, we’ve provided enhanced wages to acknowledge that they are taking on additional stress by coming into work as opposed to being able to work from home. We also spend a tremendous amount of time on safety, building in safety practices, distancing, sanitation and other procedures to make it a safe work environment.
Karen Colberg: I would say from just a general cultural standpoint, we do try, and I emphasize try, to engage our employees as much as we can in the process as we get to a decision. We have a group of leaders called the Roundtable. We have monthly town meetings. We’ve added weekly virtual town meetings and they’ve been one of my favorite new activities of this COVID experience because I think we might have more engagement on the virtual town meetings thanour regular town meetings.
King Arthur’s leadership structure is unique. Can you talk about how that affects decision making?
Colberg: The company operates under a co-CEO structure. I think when you bring multiple perspectives to anything, the decision is richer. [Carlton and I] both really get a lot out of a partner. You learn from one another, you challenge one another and ultimately get to a better place.
We try to have pretty distinct areas of functional expertise. We both have broad experience to some extent, and you might say general management ability and perspective, but if there’s something that’s operational or financial related, Ralph handles those decisions, and I cover the consumer facing pieces.
Carlton: It is everything Karen’s said. The way we divide things up, though, we keep each other informed of the respective areas we oversee. The vast majority of the time when we share our thoughts, it’s relatively easy to come to a point of view that we both share. It’s very rare that after talking something through there are strong disagreements. And even there, we need to keep the company moving forward, so we don’t have a choice of not reaching a decision. Reach a decision and you move forward.