We are all responsible for Retreat’s fortunes and well-being

BRATTLEBORO — I have worked in Brattleboro since 1970 and, for most of those years, I hardly noticed the Brattleboro Retreat. Then one day, I read that the Retreat had restored its name to honor its roots. This resonated.

I am an employee/member of the Trust Company of Vermont, an employee-owned company, founded 13 years ago when eight of us left the Vermont National Bank when it merged with the Chittenden Bank.

All of us spent many years in a corporation where senior management worked tirelessly to meet the needs of both the shareholders and the employees. None of the eight were in senior management and there were times when we thought of ourselves as “us” in the context of “them and us.”

Fortunately, senior management - decent folks - lived and worked in the neighborhood, so it was easier for them to see the impact of balancing the shareholder and employee interests.

As a result of changes in the banking laws, principally after 1997, banks focused on mergers and consolidations, which favored the shareholders at the expense of the employees. Our future as employees was threatened.

Our response was to form our own company to enable us to remain employed and stay in our communities. The transition to an employee-owned organization took time. Some, more than others, found it difficult to understand that we were now both “them” and “us.”

Our neighborhoods are vital to us, and we are sensitive to the signs of a downward trajectory of a company. Sometimes the name changes from local to regional, signaling the movement out of town. If a company has poor earnings, and management's first response is to reflexively cut staff rather than look for new sources of revenue, they might start to mirror their global cousins, which manage far from our neighborhoods. These signs often do not bode well for the community and the employees.

Ordinarily, nonprofits don't have to deal with shareholders focused on short-term profits. They can manage well and they can manage poorly, but their focus tends to be on the sustainability of the organization rather than, perhaps, the ultimate salability.

When I learned a while ago that the Retreat's board, all unpaid volunteers, suffered under the stress that the institution might not survive, I thought management might have reduced staff.

Instead, in my opinion, they have taken the direction of sustainability. Management showed agility. They added revenue and they added several hundred jobs over the past few years.

Unlike many of their for-profit cousins, the Retreat's goal is both sustainability and keeping jobs. This combination is a challenge in these economic times, and the recent layoffs were difficult for the hospital. Nonprofits tend to behave more like employee-owned companies. In many ways, the employees, managers, and boards act more like owners.

Unions were born of need and justice. In this, the corporate world, they built their system to speak for and empower the employees. I, for one, can resonate with those who favor “us,” rather than “them,” but I find the union's behavior unsettling.

This management and board were, and are, trying to maintain the health of the organization for the long term. It is your neighbors who are trying to make this organization vibrant for those it serves, for its employees, and for this community.

Management and board are “us,” not “them.”

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