When Ken Misiewicz took over as CEO of Pleune Service Co. in 2000 he wanted to mold the company in a way that reflected his personal and professional views. “My favorite part of this job is influencing outcomes, making a difference,” Misiewicz said. “When I was in the field, I worked for some really lousy bosses. It was just wrong. It’s not illegal, you can be a bad boss, but I decided you can either cry about it or do something about it, so when I had the opportunity, I made the switch and worked very, very hard. I fired every slacker and liar I could. I hated working with people who didn’t have integrity. For me, it’s about making things better. To do that, you have to take the bad stuff out so the good people can prosper. And that’s really been the foundation of my style since 2000.”
Now, 13 years later, Pleune, located in Grand Rapids, Mich., is rolling with a highly motivated 125-employee workforce, due in part to the company being 100 percent employee-owned under an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).
Employees must be with the company for six months to become eligible and are automatically enrolled. They don’t have to put in any money, as employees are given shares based on their compensation. Misiewicz said many employees roll their options over to their 401(k) plans when they retire or leave the company.
“The primary benefit is that people know they are influencing their future benefits,” Misiewicz said. “So, when the company hits a tough spot, instead of crying and whining, people will more than likely try to figure out how to make a difference. It’s everyone’s problem. People know long-term, it doesn’t matter where you are in the company, things that go well affect everyone well, and things that go bad affect everyone negatively.”
The ESOP at Pleune started in 1988 when then-owner John Pleune sold 30 percent of the company to the employees as payback for sticking with the company through rough times. In 2002, he sold the remaining 70 percent to the ESOP, making Pleune Service 100 percent employee-owned.
“We have numerous long-term employees, which speaks to their appreciation of the benefits of working for Pleune,” said Jill Malone, vice president of human resources and administration, and also the co-trustee of the company ESOP. “Participants in ESOPs do well. Studies show that employees of an ESOP company will have made 5-12 percent more in wages and have almost three times the retirement assets in comparison to non-ESOP companies. For our employees, not only does this provide future retirement security in conjunction with their 401(k) benefits, it creates a culture of ownership, teamwork, and pride. When recruiting new employees, the ESOP retirement plan is an offering not many companies can boast; this is often the edge that intrigues potential candidates.”
Each year, Pleune hires a third-party evaluator to come in and value the company in order to set the price of the company stock. Misiewicz said there are about 12,000 ESOP companies in the country at any given time. “At the end of the year, any shares freed up from retirements or terminations of any kind get reallocated. We call it recycling, as we’re perpetually buying the company,” Misiewicz said.
“ESOP companies tend to be very well run since they have so many committed employees, so they become attractive for purchase. A lot of them are sold and are no longer ESOPs. It happens all the time. There are more companies becoming ESOPs, but some are also selling to new owners.”
Because each employee is an owner, their work takes on added significance. Pleune touts its employee-owned status heavily on its website because of what it means to potential customers. That dedication to the company reflects what Misiewicz holds near and dear to his heart. Once a service technician, Misiewicz worked his way through the ranks to become CEO, but he’s made sure he hasn’t forgotten his roots, even though he’s the boss.
“A lot of guys I work with now, I hired a long time ago or worked with out in the field, and I think that added to the trust factor,” he said. “It validated that I knew what was going on, and I still do. I do think it made a difference. If I would’ve come in cold from the outside without the background, I would’ve been just another boss.”
Misiewicz said he stays in tune with what’s happening on the ground floor, as he makes regular visits to customer sites, project sites, and has one-on-one breakfast meetings with people in the field. This is all part of what he does to ensure Pleune stays successful and its employees remain in tune with what’s going on with the company.
With the company’s employee-owned status, Misiewicz has worked to make sure the company is filled with individuals devoted to extending the company’s future.
“If you’re going to spend the majority of your life working with people, you should work with quality people,” Misiewicz said. “The idea of being trapped in an organization with liars, cheats, slackers, or scoundrels is absolutely offensive to me. If you’re going to spend a few decades of your life working thousands of hours with people, it should be in a productive environment. The idea of putting up with a bunch of BS and compensating for other people is not attractive for me.”
Malone said Misiewicz does have high expectations for himself, but also of the employees. He walks the walk and talks the talk, she said.
“His decisions about people and the business are solely based on facts; feelings never play a part,” Malone said. “Ken is a huge proponent of personal accountability, integrity, and ethical behavior. You will always know where you stand with Ken. What some people may be surprised to know is that Ken has a very witty and dry sense of humor that most people would not expect from him. This side of him balances out the serious Ken. In a nutshell, he expects you to do your job to the best of your ability, take responsibility for your actions and decisions, and always do the right thing by the company and by the people you encounter.”
Frank Stanek, president, Owen-Ames-Kimball Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., a construction management firm that has worked with Pleune, said Misiewicz is a friendly, approachable straight shooter. “We enjoy doing business with Pleune because they are professional and have the experience and horsepower to get the job done,” Stanek said.
That professionalism is one of the factors that helped Pleune survive the tough times, the changeover to employee ownership, and every other challenge.
“I think surviving from a single owner to a fully, professionally managed employee-owned company is impressive,” Misiewicz said. “A lot of contractors don’t make it from generation to generation. … We kept to the good values that John Pleune instilled — even through the transition. Not only did we come out on the other side, we came out pretty strong.”
Publication date: 3/17/2014